Why the Lib Dems choosing who to go into coalition with could be fraught with problems


October 7, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith


As the Lib Dems spend time claiming full responsibility for all coalition policies that they like and no responsibility for coalition policies that they don’t like (despite there having been two parties in the room when they were agreed) – some fascinating electoral scenarios are emerging which could make the days after May 7th 2015 rather fruity to say the least.

The strategy this week for the Lib Dems is to remind the public that they are a positive force on any coalition. As their election supremo Paddy Ashdown has pointed out – “Labour will screw the economy and the Tories will screw the weak. Well, here’s our message – we won’t let them do it.” This is an attempt to remind the public that it would be better if neither main party won a majority and the Lib Dems could remain in government as a moderating force – equidistant from both parties.

So far so obvious. But here lies the problem – who do they go into coalition with. The majority of Lib Dem activists are apparently left-wing, which might mean they would be more comfortable with Labour. But there is also a sense of “better the devil you know” about going into government with the Conservatives, who they know that they can at least work with.

The Lib Dems have answered that they will go into coalition with whoever is the “largest party” in the Commons. That though – is a key ambiguity. It is quite possible in May that Labour would have more seats in the Commons but the Conservatives will have more votes – because of the vagaries of the FPTP election system that means that with lower turnouts and smaller constituencies where Labour tend to win, they can win more seats with less votes. This happened in 1951 (Labour had more votes but less seats) and February 1974 (Conservatives had more votes but less seats), so it is possible.

In that case – who would the Lib Dems choose? Which would be the coalition with the greatest legitimacy? The coalition with the greatest likelihood of actually being able to govern, and get bills through Parliament would be the one with the highest number of seats – but do you think the Conservatives would sit back and not challenge the legitimacy of Labour in government if the Tories had more votes?

But it actually gets a bit more controversial when you realise that it is also possible that the Lib Dems would be “King-makers” – essentially choosing which major party will go into government, because they are the third largest party in terms of seats…without being the third largest party in terms of votes. It is possible, even likely according to the polls, that UKIP will win more votes than the Lib Dems at the next election, but nowhere near enough seats. This is because the Lib Dem core vote is geographically concentrated in the South West of England and parts of Scotland so they can still count on some seats falling into their hands even with less than 10% of the popular vote. UKIP may well win more votes than them but have no influence on who is in government. Do you think Nigel Farage would let that situation pass without comment? Neither do I.

The upcoming General Election is unpredictable enough. But it’s just got more unpredictable.

2 thoughts on “Why the Lib Dems choosing who to go into coalition with could be fraught with problems

  1. Oscar says:

    With the coalition overall, do you not think that it leads to a loss of democracy because in the end it is no longer the people who are choosing who will govern them, but actually the third most popular party?


    • Well this is the problem with coalitions. On the plus side, the government represents over 50% of the electorate. That seems good. But it means for instance that those who did vote for the parties are not getting the manifesto promises they voted for, but the result of an agreement behind closed doors. The fact that the liberal democrats are not even pretending this time they have a chance at government, but that their tactic is to say that they can moderate the behaviour of the Tories and Labour shows this problem. You now have to pay very close attention to the manifestos of UKIP, the SNP and even Plaid Cymru. You might be getting those policies practiced on you. Effective government, in terms of policies getting through, will be slowed down, and in the end few people get the actual government they voted for. But until someone comes up with a better solution for governing a country where the winning party doesn’t have a majority it’s what we’ve got


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