Is a vote for the Lib Dems a waste?
The nature of the ‘First past the post’ electoral system in UK General elections means there are always wasted votes that do not contribute to the outcome of a constituency contest. While the electoral system that the Liberal Democrats so weakly campaigned to reform will always hamper them, another very real threat exists: Perceptions of the party as a wasted vote in an ever-fragmenting political landscape.
As they linger around 8-9% in the latest polls (YouGov/Sunday Times- 04/07/2014), the halcyon days of 2010’s 23% vote-share are a distant memory for the junior coalition partners. Given the party’s tumultuous period in government, there is no one factor that can account for this arguably predictable slide. It appears Vince Cable’s legacy in the eyes of the left will be defined by his apparent naivety in dealing with Royal Mail’s privatisation as Business Secretary. Royal Mail aside, no matter how hard one tries to discuss individual cases of Lib Dem calamity, they return to the debate over Nick Clegg’s leadership.
Lord Rennard’s sexual harassment scandal served to show that Clegg is not as powerful within his own party as his title, ‘Party Leader’, suggests. Rennard’s refusal to resign and Vince Cable’s mooted leadership challenge have portrayed nothing, if not volatility, within the party. Rumours that party President Tim Farron only backed Clegg against calls for his resignation due to his own leadership aspirations post-2015 appear to add up.
Such was the pressure on Clegg to resign at one point; it appeared every political commentator was biting their tongue in expectation that an announcement was imminent. The tonation, pauses and youthful appearance that had won so much acclaim in the television debates of 2010 were either completely absent or poison for the case against leaving the European Union when he debated UKIP’s Nigel Farage. Critics called it a win/win occasion for both parties, as they rarely get such platforms without Labour and the Conservatives dwarfing them. Yet somehow, Clegg’s strengths morphed into weaknesses and only contributed to the apparency of his impending demise. Acting as the ‘Party of In’ has not paid off, despite public opinion being in favour of staying in the EU. As calls for Clegg to resign reached their zenith several weeks ago, he appeared dishevelled yet quietly defiant. The physically evident ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ had come and gone and he was still standing. Whether it is foolishness, selfishness, resilience or pragmatism for Clegg to have remained as leader will be defined by the next ten months.
Whichever reveals itself to be the case, the Lib Dems must now embrace the irony of denouncing the cult of the leader which put them in power. The presidentialisation of politics in the UK is overstated, but the advent of the television debate and the tide which carried Clegg and co. to the left side of the House of Commons have shown it as a significant factor in public perception and political planning. Ed Miliband could yet become an unfortunate casualty of this phenomenon. So, the Lib Dems will focus on policies rather than personalities over the next ten months. Traditional party voters argue that they have always had a solid policy background. They would argue their record in government has been one of tempering the Tories and implementing tax reform. They could also point to the precedence of the junior coalition partner suffering the wrath of public frustration elsewhere. This may be a new occurrence in the UK, given the 65 year gap between formal coalition governments. However, neighbours in the Republic of Ireland have seen successive coalition governments since 1977, and in the age of mass media the three coalitions of the twenty-first century saw two junior partners smashed to pieces in the proceeding general elections. The Progressive Democrats folded completely and the Green party lost every one of their six seats in the following election. Polls suggest something similar will happen to junior partner Labour in the next election.
These arguments may hold weight with traditional Lib Dem voters and they may not falter entirely in 2015, holding onto their core voter. Indeed, the quiet gains the party have made from the embarrassingly low 6% of early June to 9% in the most recent YouGov/Sun poll appear to show a discreet strengthening of their position. In reality, however, merely holding their core vote would see the party return to being a backseat driver after a brief joyride behind the wheel. After the last four years, to merely be appealing to the liberal, well-educated voter must be a depressingly retrograde outlook for party activists. So, Lib Dem voters: Is a vote for your party a wasted vote? Is there any point in voting for the party when public opinion is so strongly against Clegg and so many others see the party as doormats for Cameron and Osborne? Should one not just submit again to the boring old two-party dominance and vote against someone, instead of for someone?
A frightening proposition to liberals and left-leaning voters is a Conservative-UKIP coalition. Both parties timidly reject this as a possibility for public consumption, but the reality may be different. Whether UKIP are losing their momentum or not is another discussion, but the same polls quoted above still suggest they are well ahead of the Lib Dems for the bronze medal in 2015. It is extremely unlikely that the Lib Dems will lose any votes to UKIP, or gain any from them. It would be more likely that they will skim votes from Labour, but opposition to Con-UKIP in government may actually damage the Lib Dems through the consolidation of the left and centre-left vote behind Labour.
A majority government already seems like a relic, but the odds of seeing yellow back in government appear unlikely. Clinging to the centre-ground no longer wins votes, with increasingly disparate narratives being crafted by all parties. The only electable centrist party risks losing their voters because they fear the party can neither represent them nor guard against what they oppose. This is not a new phenomenon in democracy, it is not a new threat to the Lib Dems, but it is a depressing reversion that could lead the party to new depths of irrelevance.