First of all this is not a party political article, nor should it be construed as a recommendation of the Lib-Dems in the coming election, vote where your convictions lie. What this article intends to demonstrate is that the Lib-Dem’s are a crucial function of our political system, and their apparent flaws are in fact vital to the operation of that function.
So, what are the problems with the Lib-Dems that make them so objectionable? Well, this boils down to two core problems; the first of which is that in a First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) electoral system a vote for them is essentially a waste, the second is that their policies are rarely conform to coherent platform that is recognisably guided by core principles.
These non-qualities are in fact vital to the healthy operation of British representative democracy because we operate a type of plurality electoral system (FPTP), rather than a system of Proportional Representation (PR), which gives tremendous power to induce change by the sitting government, and for that to sit satisfactorily with the electorate they must have a guarantee that the government is absolutely committed to acting as a servant of the people. The Lib-Dem’s are that guarantee.
It is not by design that Britain now has a two-point-five party system, it results from the collapse of the Liberals at the start of the twentieth century and the rise of Labour, leaving the Conservatives to fuse with the rump of the old Liberal party and emerge with a more libertarian streak than was previously the case, ready to take on the powerful new ideology of socialism in the form of the British Labour party. In essence the old Liberal Party ceased to be relevant to the aims and expectations of the people. That the Liberals no longer represented the will of the people would not normally be a bar to power given the oppositional nature of politics, but it happened at a time when this new political ideology arose and was captivating the masses, and so Britain got lucky and managed to overthrow the dominance of a political party that that had ceased to perform a useful function. Of course the remainder of the old Liberals survive to this day in the form of the modern Lib-Dems, a party with a long and honourable tradition, a truly national mandate, and a platform for political governance that spans the whole range of governments responsibilities.
Of course this “platform for political governance that spans the whole range of governments responsibilities” is riddled with inconsistencies, is frequently incoherent and even schizophrenic, and often accused of being opportunistic, but that is the lot given to the point-five party in a two-point-five party system. The Lib-Dem’s must harry the edges of mainstream politics looking for weakness in its larger foes, continually looking for the party that is making itself irrelevant to the people by allowing ideology to ossify its outlook in an ever changing world. This combination of weakness and irrelevance must then be exploited mercilessly, hounding its larger victim in front of a new-world electorate that no longer responds to those outdated ideas. It is precisely this thrusting opportunism that forces the major parties to continually react to the will of the people, because if they slip for even a second they know that there is a credible alternative waiting in the wings to take their place in the sun.
This two-point-five party system is an accidental answer to the problem with plurality systems described above, which is best seen in the United States where the lack of a credible alternative party leads to the entrenchment of the incumbent parties regardless of their lack of responsiveness to the need of the electorate, thus creating a highly polarised and fractious political system. That point-five party is not something that can be concocted at will, but seeing as history has dealt us this hand let us then make the most of it.
The FPTP electoral system has fantastic advantages over PR because by giving a government so much power to make change you allow it to react to a changing world more readily than can ever be achieved in the viscous morass of coalition politics as typified by the continent. For a people that are happy to accept that challenge; to compete with the rest of the world with ideas and commerce there is no better system of governance, however its major problem is the need for a cohesive society. As said elsewhere; it is no coincidence that many european states have a political system based on proportional representation, and why would they not when repeated trauma and dislocation prevent the electorate from trusting the politician not to become a tyrant, and the politician from trusting the electorate not to install a demagogue, But in Britain we have that cohesive society, and when you hear people whine about the “tyranny of the majority” they are really only transplanting a problem from the continent in an effort to hide the growing obsolescence of the view they represent. The most important benefit of the FPTP system over PR is that it allows the electorate to punish failure, by kicking them out of office.
The importance of the point-five is also the reason why the Lib-Dem’s are fundamentally different from other small parties such as UKIP, the Greens or the BNP. All of the above are legitimate parties that service a legitimate need from among the electorate, but they exist precisely because the tectonic scale of the major parties causes them to occasionally fail to represent a minor but important view-point, and their birth signals the build up of political pressure around that unserviced view. This pressure will be vented by a political earthquake in the form of temporary electoral success, but that very success causes the tectonic plates of British politics to resettle in a position of reduced electoral tension as they steal the electoral ‘clothes’ of the upstarts.
Seen in this light a vote for the Lib-Dem’s is an investment in the future health of your political system, even if there is no payback in the short or medium term, whereas a vote for a minor party is merely an act of political leverage with short term cost, designed to shift the position of an incumbent for medium term benefit. Both however have a useful role to play in Britain’s FPTP electoral system which is why you should always be wary of politicos from the big parties telling you to vote for them in order to keep the other guy out regardless of your principles, even when they are such estimable individuals as Daniel Hannan.
This blogger very often disapproves of Lib-Dem policy, but to paraphrase a great man, I will defend to the death the importance of the position they occupy in Britain’s representative democracy.
I still think Mr Clegg has a problem, which can be summarised like this: he is British, not Dutch. If Mr Clegg were a Dutch politician, he would be operating in a system of proportional representation and permanent coalition government. In such a system, it is perfectly possible to prosper by offering a set of liberal beliefs held by between 15% and 20% of voters (in a good year). At election time in countries such as the Netherlands, liberal voters turn out in order to inject a dose of their minority ideology in the final coalition mix.
In the British system, we do not just have first-past-the-post electoral rules, we also have first-past-the-post politics. Instead of seeking 15% of the vote everywhere, Lib Dems have to come first in a series of target seats, and—given their views—can often only achieve this through a mixture of hyper-local campaigning and appeals to tactical voting. That has left the party wedded to all-things-to-all-voters opportunism.