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:
- Smaller parties can only distance themselves from larger coalition partners to a limited extent.
- Smaller parties need to be able to demonstrate their distinct contribution to government to avoid “the narrative of the lost moral compass”.
- Small parties’ success rests greatly upon the performance and profile of the party leader.
- Parties associated with premature coalition breakdowns are rarely rewarded by voters.
- 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:
- They were merged/subsumed into the larger coalition party, or
- 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.