Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Party’s over - new alignments in British politics freeze out the Liberal Democrats

Political stream

Current Party choice

Socialist Left (Green)

Green Party. Left of Labour Party. Some LibDems.

Social Democrats

Mainstream Labour. Some LibDems (esp. Ex SDP)

One Nation Conservatives

Mainstream Tories (Esp. Europhiles). Orange Book LibDems

Independent Right

United Kingdom Independence Party. Eurosceptic and Libertarian Tories. Social conservatives.


In this article for the American website Blogger News Network I argued that there are four distinctive streams in English politics - to which can be added, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, local Nationalist (or National) streams. The four main streams present across most of the United Kingdom, and their current Party relationships, are shown in the above table.

As we can see this analysis shows up the fact that since its formation at the merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party the LibDems have been a curious construct spanning three of the four political streams I identify. Indeed virtually every type of political leaning has been accommodated – except hard-core Euroscepticism or social conservatism. As the Liberals, the SDP/Liberal Alliance and finally the LibDems gained votes and eventually seats it did seem that a third force in British politics had arrived in a significant way. Remember at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s years in 1983 this third force gained 7.8m votes (25.4% of the vote) but only 23 seats. By 2010 the (now) LibDem vote had fallen to 6.8m (23%) but the seat count had risen to 57 (a fall of 5 seats compared with the highpoint of 2015). This was a reflection of the LibDem success in working at a local level – although the seat count was still hugely short of what they would have had under a strictly proportional system.

In 2010 the three main parties gained 88% of the vote between them. The choice, except in the Celtic fringes of the Kingdom, was broadly between the Conservatives and Labour with the LibDems being the only serious “Neither of the above” choice. The latest (22nd January) opinion poll from YouGov shows how this has changed:












In 2010 the Conservatives and Labour secured 65.1% of the vote – this has risen, due to Labour’s recovery, to 67% - not a dramatic change. What is dramatic is how the “Neither of the above” vote is now split between three parties rather than residing just with the LibDems. Its composition is also different. Some Eurosceptics and social conservatives have moved to UKIP along with a strong element of the “plague on all their houses” population. Many of these will be previous Conservative voters, some previously voted Labour and many may not have voted at all. The Greens will have gained support from disaffected LibDems and more Left-leaning previous Labour voters. The remaining LibDem loyalists are perhaps residents mainly of constituencies where there is a LibDem MP who they like along with a residue of tactical “Stop the Tories” voters (always a good source of LibDem votes in Conservative/LibDem battlegrounds where Labour was a poor third.

So in the past to vote LibDem was strongly a protest vote and across England it was really the only one available. This is not to denigrate those for whom the LibDems’ wholehearted commitment to Europe, their opposition to the Iraq war and their convinced social liberalism was an attractive combination. But in truth in 2010 it wasn’t really distinctive policies which gave the Party nearly 7m votes but more an “I agree with Nick” feeling - and a rejection of the Conservative and Labour parties.

The Coalition has caused a fragmentation of public attitudes with the LibDems being clobbered. To fall from nearly 7m votes to 1.7m – as implied by the latest polls – would be a change unprecedented in British politics, at least over the course of one Parliament. (My own view is that the LibDems will probably do better than this and that the “incumbency factor” will see around 30, possibly more, MPs hold their seats. But even that would be a 50% fall in seats.)

As the LibDems have declined so UKIP and the Greens have grown. In both cases the choice is more than “None of the above”, though it is certainly also that. The LibDem protest vote was for a Party which was a very broad church indeed embracing shades of opinion from the neo-liberal economics of the Orange Book (Clegg, Laws, Alexander) to the broadly Social Democratic (Cable, Ashcroft, Campbell, Williams). For many LibDem voters these differences were largely unknown and the fact that the LibDems were not the Conservatives (or Labour), were pro Europe and were socially liberal was enough. Hence the shock that in the Coalition Clegg, Laws, Alexander and other LibDem Ministers have been obviously comfortable with the Conservatives economic neo-liberalism. The support for the rise in Tuition Fees was perhaps the eye-opener for many that said not only could LibDem promises not be believed but that the LibDems in the Coalition bought the Conservatives “Austerity” case one hundred per cent.

But whilst the LibDems were the only credible “None of the above” choice, confused though the nature of that choice in truth was that is no longer the case. If the choice to vote LibDem was not really mainly a policy choice the reverse applies to UKIP and the Greens (and to the SNP in Scotland). These parties have grown in significance precisely because of the clarity and simplicity of their offer. UKIP is anti-Europe, anti-immigration, anti-multiculturalism and deeply conservative. The Greens are pro-environment, pro the return of some privatised utilities into public ownership and take broadly strong Left/liberal position on most issues. They are also pro EU. Both parties, but especially UKIP, see the three main parties as being too similar. The idea of “LibLabCon” frequently referred to by UKIP gets to the heart of this. The public, from Left and Right, seems to be responding to this by favouring two parties (three in Scotland) who are distinctively not part of this consensual mainstream.

So where do these changes leave the LibDems? If we look again at the table at the head of this article you will see that these four distinctive political streams do not include a “LibDem” one at all. This is because there is no distinctive and coherent and different LibDem message any more – and certainly not a united one. Take away the “Neither of the two above” imperative, factor in the fact that three of the new main streams are both overtly socially liberal and pro Europe and the LibDem message is not unique any more. Add the fact that the LibDem leadership is itself split between opposing economic models and you see a Party which is unlikely to avoid a split and a decline. Nick Clegg and David Laws are neo-liberal One Nation Conservatives in all but name. Vince Cable is unlikely to be uncomfortable with a return to his Social Democratic roots in a mainstream Labour Party. And for the voters it is the same, along with those previous LibDems strongly driven by Environmental issues who will no doubt be more than happy with a resurgent Green Party. For the LibDems the Party’s over.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home