It may already be too late to save the Liberal Democrats


New research by the Institute of Government has produced a very welcome study, looking at the fate of junior coalition partners, in coalitions around the world – and the lessons which can be learned by the Liberal Democrats.

To summarise their findings:


  1. Smaller parties can only distance themselves from larger coalition partners to a limited extent.
  2. Smaller parties need to be able to demonstrate their distinct contribution to government to avoid “the narrative of the lost moral compass”.
  3. Small parties’ success rests greatly upon the performance and profile of the party leader.
  4. Parties associated with premature coalition breakdowns are rarely rewarded by voters.
  5. Smaller parties have a limited influence over whether they remain in government or not.

All five points makes grim reading for Liberal Democrats. It’s not the first time studies have looked at this question. G.R. Searle’s Country Before Party (1995) looked at every real or hypothetical British coalition between 1885 and 1987, and came to the conclusion that two things always happened to junior partners:


  1. They were merged/subsumed into the larger coalition party, or
  2. They faced near-annihilation in the subsequent general election.


Critics of Searle – and cheerleaders of the Coalition – have blithely said that these sorts of comparisons are unhelpful, because they hark back to examples from over 130 years ago, and so couldn’t possibly hold true of British politics today (notwithstanding an astonishing continuity of constitutional arrangements and electoral behaviour in that time).

What the IoG’s report does is to give us a valuable comparison, looking at much more recent examples, primarily from other countries. And in doing so, the study points to just two out of six cases where the junior coalition partner went on to do well at a post-coalition election – the German Greens, and the Scottish Liberal Democrats (although the report also concedes the decimation of the latter in 2011). In the remaining four out of six cases, junior coalition partners faced obliteration.

However, before we get too enthusiastic about the Scottish Lib Dems bucking the trend, it’s worth pointing out that the study is missing out on one important point: the effect of the first-past-the-post system.

The distortions caused by first-past the-post (FPTP) are, of course, widely acknowledged to under-represent third parties, and indeed, have made coalitions in Britain so rare in the first place. Incumbent governments are prone to face a backlash at the polls, and as Searle argues, junior coalition partners are particularly likely to suffer from such a backlash. That’s natural.

But both the German Bundestag and the Scottish Parliament use Proportional Representation systems, under which such drops in support are matched by proportionate drops in seats. FPTP would accentuate any swings against the junior partner, because of the way the votes are distributed nationally. So if the election results analysed by the IoG were all translated into FPTP, then every one of the six case studies would point to the junior coalition partners facing near-annihilation. It can thus be said that Coalition can only be considered ‘stable’ for the junior party if some form of PR is a prerequisite.

It is tempting at this point to mount a diatribe about the urgent need for any Liberal Democrats who want to save their bacon to immediately back a leadership coup, a change of policies, and possibly even withdrawal from the Coalition. However, that would be to ignore the conclusions of the IoG, and point (4) described above. The more uncomfortable truth may be that every available precedent shows the party headed for a drubbing in 2015 (something only the most deluded partisan loyalists will seek to deny); but more disturbingly still, that the mistakes which have led to this have already been made, and may be irreversible.

“If only we had won the AV referendum!” some Lib Dem activists will cry. Yet this ignores that AV is not a form of Proportional Representation (as is still widely believed!), and that it has a track record of often leading to bigger distortions at the expense of third parties than FPTP. Not only was the Lib Dem coalition negotiation team negligent in not making PR a deal-breaker for negotiations, but even if they had got their own way, their decision to settle on AV would have actually made the party’s prospects for 2015 even bleaker.

The IoG’s report offers some pointers for Liberal Democrats, but the portents are not auspicious. Liberal Democrat ministers have all too often been identified with defending Conservative policies, and the party’s leader has personal approval ratings which make Michael Foot look like William the Conqueror. For the last fifty years, historians have been debating the rise of the first Labour governments and the fall of the last Liberal ones, arguing over when the point of no return was reached. For Liberal Democrats, the uncomfortable truth may be that the point of no return has already passed.


Seth Alexander Thévoz is a Junior Research Fellow of the Rhodes Project, and has taught history at Warwick University. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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14 comments on “It may already be too late to save the Liberal Democrats
  1. The historical comparisons within the UK are pretty bogus as the last two coalitions of the LibDems were both during war times.. in WW2 there were no adverse consequences of note for the Liberals and in the First World War, the Liberals were the majority partner in the coalition in the first instance.

    Comparisons outside the UK are almost entirely on totally different political systems with totally different personalities, mindsets and cultural differences. Can one draw any conclusion from Italian coalitions and UK ones? Emphatically no…

    What might be the best comparison? Strangely enough Australia where the sometime partners of the Liberal Party and the National Party formerly the Country Party have held power at the Federal and State levels since the 1940s in shifting and now solidified coalition… and ended up running those levels of govt for the majority of the time since then.

    With the current coalition in the UK being on its first go around, any dispassionate observer (i.e. someone not form the UK) would have to admit that this has been a low-tension coalition. Indeed maybe it could do with more tension and we are starting to witness some of that…

    A swing to Labour of size may be the best outcome for the LD party as it takes pressure off more LD seats from the right with very few seats being threatened to the Left..

    • Seth Alexander Thévoz says:

      Thanks for your comment. Just a quick fact check:

      “the last two coalitions of the LibDems were both during war times”: You seem to have overlooked the National Liberal/Conservative coalition of 1918-22, the all-party coalition of 1931-2, and the Conservative/National Liberal/National Labour coalition of 1932-40; none of which was built as a wartime coalition (although the last one stretched into the first 9 months of WWII).

      “in WW2 there were no adverse consequences of note for the Liberals”: I think most people would describe a fall from 21 seats to 12, including the the loss of the party leader’s previously-ultra-safe seat, as “adverse consequences”.

      “in the First World War, the Liberals were the majority partner in the coalition in the first instance.” They weren’t. The previous December 1910 election had seen the Liberals win only 2 seats more than the Conservatives, and it was a hung Parliament, with the Liberals propped up by Irish Nationalist support. Successive by-election defeats in 1911-14 meant that by the formation of the coalition in 1915, the Liberals actually had fewer seats than the Conservatives.

  2. David Allen says:

    So to summarise – The national Lib Dems were dealt a poor hand, which they proceeded to play badly. The Scottish Lib Dems, who had played it much better, were still losers in the long term because of the natural adverse consequences of coalition. The national Lib Dems, whose popularity is at a record low, have lost so badly that it is probably irredeemable.

    It follows that the best way forward is to write off the Lib Dems, form a new party untainted by the misdeeds of the coalition and the personalities of most of its players, and fight.

    The best way for the Lib Dem Party to help in ensuring any representation at all for liberal principles in politics is to pack it in, give up, and stop fighting.

    Of course they won’t all do that. But if enough Lib Dems go “on strike” like myself, then the Right of the party will recognise their best course of action, which is to join the Tories. When and only when this happens, we might have a revival.

  3. Liberal neil says:

    “FPTP would accentuate any swings against the junior partner, because of the way the votes are distributed nationally.”

    What is your evidence for this.

    All the evidence I’m aware of (polling of marginal seats, local election results, membership figures etc.) points to FPTP helping us to do better in the seats that matter, not worse.

    • Seth Alexander Thévoz says:

      Thanks for commenting. I didn’t think this was a particularly contentious point, but the dismal aggregate figures for Lib Dem parliamentary by-election performances since 2010 would seem to bear this out; and if you want to look at individual contests, for every Eastleigh there’s an Oldham East & Saddleworth.

      I don’t accept that local council by-election results are a valuable yardstick when the turnout falls below a certain point, when that really just measures the success of a “get out the vote” effort on a tiny core vote in one ward, rather than a representative sample. I do groan whenever I see tweets/emails celebrating a triumphant council seat gain with less than 200 votes polled. That’s just not credible as representing a revival. Nor do I see how membership figures really reflect wider polling, although judging by the accounts filed with the Electoral Commission, those seems to have plummeted too – there seemed to be an average membership of 250-300 in most “held” LD seats large enough to file accounts, which is certainly at odds with the Campaigns Department’s received wisdom that winnable seats need a bare minimum membership of at least 500 (and preferably 700) to make campaign activity sustainable.

      But to return to your point, FPTP encourages tactical voting, often for negative reasons. Until 2010, it hadn’t really occurred to many Lib Dems that they might be on the receiving end of this, and that rather than being one of several parties vying for a tactical vote in a seat, there might be tactical voting against them. The UKIP campaign in Eastleigh seemed particularly attuned to this, (rightly or wrongly) presenting UKIP as the best way to oust the Lib Dems.

  4. Liberal neil says:

    Thanks for responding.

    I don’t see how parliamentary by-election results in seats we are not targeting affect the point. The result in Eastleigh is further evidence that results may be more positive in our held seats.

    As for local by-elections – I was referring to the main local elections where we generally did very well in our held and target seats, very different to how we did elsewhere. And while you may not ‘accept’ that local council by-election results are a valuable yardstick, the question is surely whether local election results have, in the past, been a good predictor of general election performance. I think that if you go back over the last few elections you will see quite a correlation between local election and general election success.

    On your final point, you are correct in so far as we can’t yet know what the impact on tactical voting will be in our held and target seats next time. The available evidence suggests that after some tactical ‘unwind’ in the 2011 local elections the trend was a return to local tactical voting for the Lib Dems by 2013. In Eastleigh the UKIP campaign didn’t hurt the lib Dems any more than it hurt the Tories, and the Lib Dems did seem to keep the squeeze on Labour.

    • Lib Dem Ben says:

      @ Neil

      The result in Eastleigh was a giant loss of support for us. Our bacon being saved by the UKIP affect. In the general election the UKIP effect will be smaller as their resources and skills will be more thinly spread. This will help the Conservatives against the Lib Dems. Against Labour we are already playing a sticky wicket as my understanding is that 2/3 of defecting Lib Dem voters are moving to Labour – which correlates with my experience of the party over the last 20 years and highlights the problem with the Clegg right wingers – they are a minority who are more active within the party than on the doorstep. Having taken over they are now destroying the party’s activist base. This may not be apparent in Oxford in a Lib Dem stronghold, but is very clear in the more usual distant second to Conservatives type of seat.

  5. Neil Craig says:

    The Scottish LibDems were correctly seen as more innovative than their partners – not difficult when that was Scottish Labour.

    This, incidentally, is the “secret” for the rise of UKIP – we have sensible, economically liberal policies, you want windmills, recession, blackouts and the most totalitarian state control of any party.

  6. Robin McGhee says:

    A very good post which I mostly agree with. Though it is foolish to base political predictions on dimly similar historical situations, this is still the most obvious and likely scenario.

    But I do not see what your evidence is behind the FPTP point. FPTP protects the Lib Dems against a national swing. Your reply in the comments doesn’t really address this. As for the idea that seats require 500 members to be viable, I can think of several seats I know where the Lib Dems held seats easily with vastly fewer members. Or have I been missing something?

    On the other hand, one might add that in a proportional system the Lib Dem vote would halve under current trends compared to 2010. It seems justified to suggest that our seat total will halve as well. But given there are already only about half as many Lib Dem seats as there would be under a proportional system, the Lib Dems would be left with about 5% of parliamentary seats- a pitifully weak contingent and one which would justifiably be ignored even more than it already is by the media and political elites.

    • Frank Booth says:

      Robin – it’s not just the reduction in seats. It’s the fact that in so many areas where the Lib Dems are quite competitive, they will be wiped out as a meaningful force. They’ll be reduced to a few outposts whereas in 2005/10 they seemed close to a major breakthrough. Clegg’s legacy could well be a return to 2 party politics. Though who knows what will happen to UKIP.

  7. Andrew Toye says:

    A depressing conclusion, but what can we as social liberals do? Participation in a centre-left coalition will lose us credibility as we would spend most of the time helping to undo the Tory policies that we helped implement (academy schools, NHS fragmentation, bedroom tax, etc. etc.) and continuation with the Tories would be unpalatable as we have lost hope of dragging them in a progressive direction, or even anywhere near the “centre” as Nick Clegg imagines (just watch this year’s Tory conference). Only with a complete overhaul and a new leader do we have any chance.

  8. Graeme says:

    An observation from abroad. The Australian example of the ‘Lib’/'Nat’ coalition is inapt. It’s a Tory/Agrarian alliance, long standing and long formalised. It keeps the agrarian party involved in power, but doomed to slow decline: cannibalised by its bigger brother, its identity obscured by neo-liberal policies unpopular with its rural base, and always vulnerable to rural independents. The Lib/Dems are not a sectional party, not in thrall to Tory policy and hardly want to lose their identity in a merger.

    The Australian example that counts is the Greens, a slowly growing progressive 3rd party. It entered a loose alliance with Labor nationally and Tasmania. It suffered electorally because of power sharing. It still has a core base which PR in upper houses (nationally) and lower house (Tasmania) keeps it relevant both as a party of alternatives and of influence. Lib Dems need PR for a reformed Lords.

  9. Roger Roberts says:

    I have judt decided after not bothering to attach myself to this wing of the party.
    Much of what has been said is correct I can remember and i suspect others can when we had so few MP.s that a taxi would do.
    The thing that saved us was our willingness in all weathers to get out on the doorstep and talk to people.
    The activists then dragged the party along with it.
    It worries me and I know some will dissaprove that people who have joined the party in recent times and now seem to be calling the shots are moving us in a direction that i find disturbing to say the least. I suppose that I might be drummed out of the party for saying it but if we did get thrashed in the next election then those of us who might decide to stay could try and fashion the party in a way which reflects our long held beliefs and not the orange book brigade

  10. Well, I’ve been out talking to voters. On New Year’s Eve and the day before my wife and I signed up 6 new members out of 7 people approached. They were all very positive and keen.

    You people ought to get out more!

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