Being right on a few things will be little solace to the Lib Dems

22 April 2015 -


Frequently lambasted and rarely commended, being the smaller party in the coalition government proved to be a thankless task

Jon Bennett

Is anyone feeling a bit sorry for the Liberal Democrats? Yes, it’s easy to chuckle at their poor showing in the polls; to snigger at the potential electoral fate of Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander, who could lose their seats; and to smile at the way in which they attracted so much blame and so little credit over the last five years. But, by choosing coalition in 2010, they were a catalyst to huge political change that seems unlikely to bring them much reward.

Lib Dems can claim an important role in curbing Conservative excess in government. They can point to policies of their own that have been misappropriated, such as increases to the threshold for basic rate tax. And they achieved a long standing ambition with their referendum on ending the first past the post electoral system. It’s their failure to win this last argument, a technical distraction for some but a totemic demonstration of fairness to others, which may be the most frustrating; not just because the Lib Dems, polling at around 10%, could be left with less than 3% of Westminster seats.


Take a look at the arguments levelled against proportional representation (PR) when a form of it was put to the country:

First, PR is accused of producing 'weak' coalition governments rather than 'strong' majority governments. The Lib Dems can argue convincingly to have shown coalition can work, with their commitment to a five year term that saw the most radical cost cutting programme of recent history. On top of that track record, Electoral Calculus suggests a 55% chance of coalition this time around under the first past the post system, which shows it is hardly a banker for delivering a majority.

The numbers suggested by Electoral Calculus in their poll of polls also question a second argument against PR; that it provides a route for extremists into the political mainstream. Yes and no. Clearly it depends on your definition of extremist, but just for the sake of argument take two parties to the left and right of the spectrum. First past the post doesn’t look to favour UKIP, who are predicted to gain 13.3% of the vote and just 1 seat! But the SNP could be set to reap the rewards. On just 3.9% of the vote, they could win 48 seats, or 7.4% of the total, and seize the role of power brokers in Westminster.

A third argument against PR is that it puts voters off voting, by requiring them to have a deeper understanding of the wider range of parties on offer. But with the election looking more uncertain and complicated than ever before, nearly half a million registered to vote on the last day before the registration deadline. That’s hardly the behaviour of people who won’t go out and exercise their democratic right.

So, to recap: coalition can provide a stable government; first past the post is no defence against the undue influence of smaller parties with small shares of the vote; and a wider sense of choice may be re-energising the electorate. Unfortunately for the Lib Dems, it looks like being right about a few things is no guarantee that anyone will listen to you.

Jon Bennett is managing director of corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications.

Image of Nick Clegg courtesy of Russell Watkins, via Wikimedia Commons.

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