Sunday, June 27, 2010

Was the coalition a good idea for the Lib Dems?

In the UK, the landmark coalition government which came out of the 2010 election results is starting to hit its first snags. Coalition ministers are fighting against their own budgets. Poll numbers are dismal. Parties are contradicting their own policies. Leaders are being grilled in their own constituencies. It's not a good situation - for the Liberal Democratic Party, that is.

The junior coalition partner is getting the bad end of what should be a very good stick. The budget is generally well received, and the coalition is still in the positive. But the Lib Dems keep dropping further and further in the minds of the electorate, while the senior partner Conservatives and the Opposition Labour are gaining in support with every poll. What's gone wrong?

The Lib Dems are facing several problems, but the biggest is stemming from a lack of real power within the Coalition to influence policy, meaning that in the end, they'll have to accede to the demands of the Conservative Party. The Lib Dems aren't without power, simply because of parliamentary mathematics, but they seem to be content with trying to run their electoral reform ideals (which they had to compromise on anyways) while letting things like the budget and immigration be run by the Conservatives.

It's an interesting interplay of power and influence, but it isn't doing the Lib Dems any favours. Most of their support comes from people who oppose Tory policies, noted by the fact that whenever they rise, it's usually Labour who falls, as well as second-preference polling, yet now all they seem to be doing is Tory apologetics. Vince Cable, a legislator I admire, really disappoints me when he starts defending the immigration cap that he opposed not too long ago.

This isn't new, though. I've always had doubts about the Coalition being a good idea for the Lib Dems. They simply aren't strong enough to wave the stick at the Conservatives, and their support base would melt away once they went over to the dark side. The party of Churchill doesn't mix well with the party of Gladstone, not as they currently stand. And while the Lib Dems may turn themselves around if they end up with substantial reforms, the Conservatives still have the bigger stick to thwack them with, and could end up obstructing the process.

Had the Lib Dems decided to sit in Opposition, and the Conservatives were in a minority, then I think the situation would be different. They would thrive as a king-maker Opposition, much like the Bloc and the NDP have here in Canada. They would get a bigger stick to hit the Tories, and Labour, with. The nature of minorities means that the life of the government is on support each and every confidence vote. A coalition gives the government a lot more breathing room and security. Placate your partners with one thing, and ram through your ideals the next.

So while the Lib Dems could turn this entire thing around with their electoral reform push, at the current moment, the coalition deal has been a big loser for them. They aren't gaining traction and they really aren't pushing for their own ideas - and that is going to cost them some support next time around.

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