Between 2010 and 2015 the UK experienced political life under the Coalition. It was an unusual coalition, though, with the smaller party – the Liberal Democrats – promising from the start to toe the line no matter what.
They and the Tories seemed never to have shared much common ground in the past. The prospect of those two parties joining up even making it onto the agenda was a jaw-dropper. But the Lib-Dems argued they had actual moral duties to support:
- the party that gained the most votes or seats (the Tories)
- policies to prioritise reducing the deficit in the national interest (in the wake of the financial crisis)
In a way they seemed to be thinking more about queen and country than their own electoral supporters and party members. In their moral fervour the Lib-Dems even committed themselves to a guaranteed five-year term for the Coalition! In other words, no matter how the Tories behaved, the Coalition would stay intact.
Not all that surprisingly, about two years before the 2015 election, one of the authors of 5.5.5 & Counting had written this:
“(in 2015) …voters will look back and rightly they will decide whether the party they supported delivered for them or not. Opinion polls at December 2012 showed Lib-Dem support at around 9%. It’s going to be hard for spurned Lib-Dem voters to forgive and forget. I wonder if they (the parliamentary party) still feel their nationalistic conscience should have taken priority over staying as true as possible to their former grass roots principles and their progressive alternative policies.”
It is now 2015 and we know what happened at the election. The Liberal Democrats were wiped out. They were reduced from 57 seats to 8. Even most of their biggest names were voted out, including the once widely respected Vince Cable. They are now a very minor, minor party again. Their relevance in the short-medium terms is now very hard to see.
We think 5.5.5 syndrome got to the Lib-Dems when back in 2010 they had to make that decision about going into government with the Tories. Was the lure of power so great that they had to go against their instincts and follow some misguided pseudo-patriotic political path…to where? You can imagine the Tories whispering in their ear: ‘if you do the right thing, for the country and the economy, you can’t go wrong with the voters in the future.’ Perhaps there was a hint they’d be putting themselves in line for some kind of favour and reward from the Establishment. And they must have sucked it all up. Well, good luck to any of them who end up with a seat in the Lords or whose name gets put forward for some trans-national posting.
When the Coalition got under way, it seemed that the bigger party had a game plan to beat up the smaller one and found it relatively easy to play them along on virtually every issue. That’s probably what happens when you make a synthetic coalition all for the wrong reasons – any of the parties thoroughly deserve whatever blowback they get from it later.
Our much bigger concern is that the voters will look back on this Coalition and see it in a negative light. The Tories never made a secret of the fact that they felt hampered by the presence of Lib-Dems in the Cabinet, even Lib-Dems who from day one had promised not to rock the boat. The Lib-Dems had then been the smallest of the three biggest parties and the only one with a policy for electoral reform. For them, this coalition was a flagship opportunity to make PR work in practice. It ended in absolute disaster. It was the showcase project that went as wrong as it possibly could have.
The performance of the Coalition itself will not have advanced the cause of electoral reform in the eyes of the public. It is all too easy to see the UK ploughing on with unfair elections. The Tories are now in outright control and if anyone’s keen to keep kicking the can down the road, it’s them. On second thoughts, they probably don’t acknowledge the existence of any can to be kicked.
Small parties have to regroup and learn from the Lib-Dem’s mistakes. There are two main ways for a minor coalition party to achieve stagnation or even wipe-out. The first is to display the weakness and disregard for your own supporters’ policies that this Liberal Democrat party did. Second, as small parties usually want to grow by capturing votes from larger ones next time round, the last thing they should try and do in a coalition is punch too much above their weight. If they overly disrupt or delay implementation of policies for which a larger party’s supporters voted they won’t increase support.
This second no-no did not really feature in the 2010-15 Coalition. But it is important to recognise how it is at the root of the strong counterargument to the claim that small parties are always motivated to create obstructions and problems. Or that their demands will always cause weak or indecisive government.
The other point to make is that if the biggest party doesn’t have the fibre or skills to resist and manage the undue demands or influence of smaller ones in a coalition, the last thing that could be good for our country is to operate a system that gives it access to the power to govern by itself unhindered.