Nick Clegg and his party are on the ropes just a few months after a relatively successful general election in which they won 6.8 million votes and fifty-seven seats in the Commons. The Lib Dems are in government for the first time in generations, but their poll ratings have dropped off precipitously and they have realized the cold realities of coalition with the Conservatives. If there was a new election today, Clegg and his party would likely see one of the most precipitous drops in support of any major party in modern British political history – as much as a 50% decrease in total votes.
The severe beating that the Liberals have taken over the past five months is directly linked to the party leadership’s choice to join the Conservatives in government. Many of their erstwhile supporters feel that the party and manifesto they voted for has been bought off with cabinet posts for senior party members. Certainly, they do have some cause in terms of government policy – while the coalition agreement is more progressive than the Tory manifesto, it is much further from the radical changes of the Lib Dem programme.
However, it is important to remember that this was a choice based on trade-offs; rejecting a coalition certainly would have had consequences as well. The Conservatives would have formed a minority government (it speaks volumes about party relations in British politics that there was never any serious talk of a grand coalition) and proceeded with the course set out in their manifesto, rather than the more moderate policies of the coalition agreement. If they had managed to pass their proposed legislation without significant changes (an unlikely prospect), the Lib Dems would have seen the implementation of a wide array of plans that they strongly oppose.
Had the Conservatives found governing as a minority impossible, they could have called a new election in which a rallying cry of “put us over the top” plus the first-past-the-post electoral system would likely have hurt the Liberals and given the Conservatives an outright majority. At the very least, the Liberals would have seen drops in their poll numbers if they failed to work with the Tories; they would have shown themselves to be part of the old politics of bickering and polarization that they had campaigned against.
It is only through this context of tradeoffs that the decision of the Liberals can be properly viewed. While there were clear costs to joining in the coalition, the opportunity to moderate Conservative policies, give Lib Dem spokesmen government experience, and, most important of all, to have a referendum on the alternative vote attracted the Liberals to join with Cameron and the Tories. The Liberals are particularly disadvantaged by the existing first-past-the-post system; their 23% of the popular vote earned just 8.8% of the seats in the Commons. Meanwhile, the Tories’ 36.1% of the popular vote gave them 47.1%, and Labour’s 29% translated into 39.7% of the seats. While this is not a discussion of the merits of a first-past-the-post system, it is clear from these data that the Liberals are significantly worse off under the present electoral structure.
Of course, a referendum on AV is not a guarantee of electoral reform – and therein lies the gamble. Even a Lib-Lab coalition would’ve been forced to hold a referendum, because making such a fundamental change requires broad public support, and because only a referendum was promised by the Labour manifesto. Whatever the Liberals may say about the other elements of the coalition agreement that were taken from or resemble parts of their manifesto, the AV referendum is by far the most important piece for their party and its future. The debates briefly cracked the party’s glass ceiling of support (around 25%), but until they receive a much larger portion of seats relative to their share of the popular vote, the Liberals will remain very much a third party, and Britain will continue as a two-and-a-half party system.
Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrat leadership are betting the party’s future on the passage of the AV referendum; if it does, even their current poll numbers should give them a greater share of seats in the Commons. From there, they will have a stronger hand in future coalition negotiations and should be able to grow their base of core support. On the other hand, should the referendum fail, the Liberals will continue to be shortchanged by the electoral system and their long-term strategy will have to change. For now, though, the Liberals have committed to their course, their chips are down. We shall see over the course of the next seven months if it will pay off.