November 27, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
It was, almost, apocalypse for the Liberal Democrats in Rochester and Strood. Geoff Juby, their candidate in the by-election, got a grand total of 349 votes (that’s three hundred and forty nine if you think it’s a typo). This was the worst performance EVER by the Lib Dems in any by-election, and the worst performance EVER by a party in government. Tim Farron, the Lib Dems’ President, suggested that those who might normally vote for the Lib Dems voted for Conservatives and Labour to stop UKIP. But only 198 votes back from Geoff Juby was Hairy Knorm Davidson of the Monster Raving Loony Party. Forget tactical voting to stop UKIP winning, can you imagine the tactical voting that might have taken place if people had realised how close the race for 6th would be?
Much as I would like to laugh at the situation the Liberal Democrats find themselves in, there is a serious political point to make. The Liberal Democrats grew in popularity because they were the “none of the above” party. They were the home your vote went to should you want to protest against “politics as usual”. Not having to deal with the compromises that have to be made when you are actually in power, they could make unsustainable promises that made them popular like a 50% income tax rate and abolishing tuition fees. Then they ended up almost accidentally in government in 2010 and suddenly they had to make compromises (like not abolishing tuition fees, but in fact tripling them) AND they no longer became the place to park your protest vote, because people were protesting against them.
I have, and others have, almost no idea what will happen to the Lib Dems at the 2015 General Election. Polls in Scotland suggest they could lose all but one seat. Polls in the UK put them below the Greens in the popular vote, although such is the geographical concentration of their vote that they could well still get between 20 and 30 seats whilst the Greens may not get one. What I DO know is that the end of the Liberal Democrats as an electoral force came when they achieved what you are supposed to be aiming for: Power. When Nick Clegg walked through the 10 Downing Street door, the Lib Dems lost at least half their seats.
This is why you will not find the SNP and UKIP doing the same. In fact, this is why you will be unlikely to find, after this particular election, UKIP and the SNP doing anything to be part of the Government – whether in coalition or in a “confidence and supply” situation – where they commit to vote with the government in any vote of confidence or any ‘supply’ bill (a bill giving the government money to enact its policies) – without which a government cannot form. Whatever both say in terms of their belief that they may hold the balance of power next May, there are two separate reasons why these two parties (who could both well have 20 to 30 seats as well, if not more in the SNP’s case) will be extremely reluctant to get involved.
The SNP is simpler. They want the Conservatives to be in government on this occasion. They need to increase their majority in the 2016 Scottish Assembly election and the only way they can do that is to position themselves as the alternative government for Scotland against the nasty Tories in Westminster. They can’t do that if Labour is in charge, particularly if that only happens with SNP support. Suddenly, people might see them as the party to protest against, and that is not what they need right now. The SNP need to keep up support for a new referendum on independence and that’s why they will be uninterested in risking that by being seen to support a government in Westminster. They will look at their situation and that of the Lib Dems and decide it is not worth the risk.
As for UKIP, their entire identity at the moment is about being “none of the above” and the protest party of choice. At the moment their policies on the economy, NHS, welfare and education are passing without scrutiny and that’s the way they like it. They need five more years of being the protest party to grow into one big enough to really make a difference in Westminster. All they have to do is look at the Liberal Democrats and they can see what might happen if they have to make compromises or have the responsibility of government. Nobody will thank them for it, and they could sink back to almost being overhauled by the Monster Raving Loony Party. Is being in power, making decisions, and having your policies enacted by a Government really worth that?