The Liberal Democrats Gunning for Labour

>> Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Which given the current polling context, is not news that Labour need. While in the early summer I speculated that Labour still had a chance for a hung parliament, especially with the replacement of Gordon Brown with Alan Johnson, now that looks highly unlikely.

The Lib Dems and Labour present the UK with the most likely coalition partnership in an electoral system that rarely produces the need for such talk. Indeed, they did serve in a coalition government of Scotland, but then the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament facilitates coalition government.

This says more about the chances of the Liberal Democrats, and they appear to believe that they can replace Labour into second place. This I doubt; while early polling indicated that the Liberal-SDLP Alliance erm, Liberal, SDP Alliance had a chance at supplanting Labour as the official opposition, by election day their support had attenuated. Now, the Lib Dems don't even have this level of support in the polls.

An election, of course, is around seven months off, so a lot can change; it remains to be seen whether the sustained support for the Tories and David Cameron result from their innovative policies, or simply exhaustion with 12 years of a Labour government. As Cameron et al. are understandably coy about what, if anything, they stand for, I suspect the latter.

What makes this interesting to watch is that if the Liberal Democrat strategy comes close to success, it might suggest the chance of a realignment in British politics on the left. In 2005, considerably more of Labour's 5% loss in vote share from 2001 went to the Lib Dems (3.7%) than the Tories (0.6%). If this did not result from only contextual elements specific to the 2005 campaign (e.g. the unpopularity of Michael Howard and the lack of cosmetic innovation in the Tories) this could perhaps bring about conditions that may allow a realignment on the left.

I've argued in class for the past couple of years that Brown's best move, short and long term, is to introduce a form of PR into Westminster elections. With Tory support topping out around 44% in my lifetime, and only currently polling at 43%, it would appear that there is a natural ceiling for the Conservatives. A form of PR, while eliminating the current electoral system's ability to deliver crushing parliamentary majorities from slim popular vote results (witness the 35% Labour secured in 2005), would ensure a coalition government so long as the relative strength of the three main national parties remained stable. So long as the Lib Dems worked with Labour, it would shut the Tories out of government for the forseeable future. Since neither Blair nor Brown maintained their enthusiasm for electoral system reform following the 1997 results, that was never in the cards.

And of course, the Liberal Democrats can't seem to agree on much, anyway.


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