A YouGov poll today reveals that 48% of people think the Lib Dems “will fade away”. 27% have no opinion which leaves just 1 in 4 who think “they are here to stay”. Whatever the predictions, it is possible that the Lib Dems could be one of the two main parties in British politics by the end of the next decade.
No, seriously. Hear me out.
First, some history. Throughout the last century, significant shifts in the alignment of political parties in the UK have followed periods of non-majority government. The minority governments of Ramsay Macdonald in the 1920s and the National Governments of the 1930s preceded the decline of the Liberal Party and the rise of Labour. Churchill’s wartime coalition paved the way for the post-war consensus. This, in turn, was shattered by Margaret Thatcher who came to power after the hung parliament of 1974.
Now correlation is not causation and all that but let’s assume there’s something in this pattern. What might the 2010-15 Coalition herald?
There are two options in the immediate aftermath of the General Election next year: a Tory-led government or a Labour-led government. The bias built in to our electoral system and outdated boundaries make the latter more likely – either in coalition, or alone.
If this is the case, the Tory party stands a high chance of veering off to The Right. The Cameroon modernisation project will be seen to have failed and the rise of Ukip blamed for the defeat. Cameron will go and the new leader will be considerably more right-wing. The party will then proceed to fight it out on the fringes with Ukip.
This will leave a political space on the centre-right – which is exactly where Nick Clegg and much of the Lib Dem leadership naturally reside. They are Liberals. So are most of those who lean to the right among ‘the next generation’. Twenty-something Conservatives are Blairites and Cameroons. They are (mostly) deeply uncomfortable with the Little England, social conservatism which is all too prevalent on the Tory benches. They would rather vote for a European-style Liberal party. This is what Nick Clegg wants his party to become. This would a centre-right party fit for a post-Thatcher world.
But will he have the chance? If Labour gain a majority, it is admittedly unlikely. The Tories might pull together in the belief that an Ed Miliband government could be easily toppled, thus avoiding the irrelevance of a fight on the fringes with Ukip. More certainly, Nick Clegg will be ousted in favour of a centre-left Social Democrat. There will neither be the space nor the appetite for the Lib Dems to dominate the centre-right.
How about if it’s a Lab-Lib coalition? Here is where the thought experiment gets interesting. Nick Clegg has made it clear that in this situation, the role of the Lib Dems will be to ensure a “stronger economy” as they don’t trust Labour to deliver on this alone. This is classic centre-right territory and part of the reason that Clegg and Co have fitted so neatly into a Cameron-led government. This would be their raison d’etre as a coalition partner in a Miliband-led government.
If you’re unclear as to how the Lib Dems, polling in single figures, could be in a position to hold the balance of power next year, it’s important to recognise that whilst the Lib Dem vote is likely to collapse in 2015, the Lib Dem parliamentary party is not. If the Tories cannot take Eastleigh in a by-election caused by a sitting Lib Dem MP being sent to jail, the prospect of the Lib Dems losing more than a couple of dozen seats is slim. They’re likely to end up somewhere in the 30s.
Equally important is the fact that the composition of the Lib Dem parliamentary party could change significantly. More Lib Dem seats will have been lost to Labour. These are, typically, held by centre-left Lib Dem MPs. The political orientation of the Lib Dem parliamentary party will move to the right.
Simultaneously, Nick Clegg’s position will be secured. He will be able to rebuild the party in his own image. The candidates selected for 2020 will be of that ilk. Clegg would do his best to ensure a succession to a leader of a similar persuasion. Moderate Tories alienated by their party’s rightward stampede would start to defect to a Lib Dem party that has started to look like a serious party of government. By 2020, the Lib Dems will be winning seats again and filling the sensible, centre-right, Liberal void left by a divided Tory party. By 2025, the Tories and Lib Dems have a similar number of seats – somewhere between 100 and 150. By 2030, the Liberal (Democrats) are the second party of British politics.
Hold the champagne. There’s no guarantee that Labour will win and that it will be the Tories that the Lib Dems will seek to replace. If Labour loses and lurches to The Left, it is hard to see the Tories winning a majority (we’re back to the rigged electoral system mentioned above and the fact that no post-war governing party has increased its share of the vote after a full term in power). So Clegg remains in coalition with Cameron but now exists to emphasise the “fairer society” Lib Dem pitch. When the inevitable handover comes, it is to a centre-left Social Democrat. If Labour make themselves an irrelevance on the fringes of the political spectrum, they are likely to leave just as much of a gap in the market for the Lib Dems as a right-wing Tory party.
Now I’m not putting money on any of this – yet. But the conditions are there – with plenty of ifs and buts – for the next decade to see a seismic shift in British politics. Of course there is plenty of water to pass under plenty of bridges but I wouldn’t predict that the Lib Dems “will fade away” with anything approaching 48% certainty.
“All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.” Spike Milligan
“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” Thomas Jefferson
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