Liberal Democrats in a ConDemNation

4432788423_187ca72566_nLast week I took a trip up to Sheffield for the Political Studies Association Annual Conference. I presented a paper in a panel organised by the British Liberals and Liberalism Specialist Group. The paper looks at the Liberal Democrats’ strategy in coalition government and how it interacts with the party’s unstable identity to pose challenges for the party’s future survival.

I’m not particularly planning to do anything further with the paper. So rather than leave it languishing on my hard drive, I thought I’d make a version of the paper available on Scribd in case anyone was interest. Below the fold you’ll find a revised version of the paper I presented in Sheffield.

Lib Dems in a Condem Nation

Image: via Flickr.com under Creative Commons.

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9 replies »

  1. I’ve said this before, but I think you are too willing to accept the idea that certain outcomes were not foreseeable (and hence don’t represent bad strategic decisions.) Further, while it’s true that the British voting public don’t have the experience with coalition that voters in other countries do, that was known at the time as well.

    It seems clear in particular that the LibDems did not adequately ask “What happens in 3,4,5 years time?” It appears that the never tried to game out scenarios to win the next election, rather than rush into government at this one. Effectively they either believed they would never get a better chance, or certain figures were so eager for status, they were happy to give up too much power to get it. There was no meaningful plan for how they would prove worth voting for the second time around.

    So many things that didn’t work for the LibDems were predicted by more sceptical supporters to be danger points. When a couple of things go bad, that is bad luck, when things go persistently bad, you have to start looking at bad strategy as an issue.

    • I don’t think I would necessarily disagree with you. While the Lib Dems may have been reasonably well prepared for the coalition negotiation itself, you don’t get the sense that they were hugely well prepared for coalition government itself.

      I certainly agree that some of what has come to pass could have been better anticipated.

      I didn’t start blogging until after the coalition government came to power (indeed, I started blogging because the coalition government came to power!) but I wrote this in October 2010 (Originally at Lib Dem Voice):


      Which argued that the strategy of going for unity at all costs could quite easily backfire, in the context of the AV referendum and more broadly. I wasn’t entirely right, but I think that I offered as good (if not better!) a reading of where things were likely to be heading than any that appeared from the party leadership. And I claim no special insight, just an inclination to think through the options and scenarios.

      • It’s a good post.
        I guess my curiosity is stirred – is it just me, or does it seem that much of the post didn’t make it into the paper?

        • Well, there’s lots of things that didn’t make it into the paper! I didn’t particularly have that blogpost in mind when I was writing the paper. I guess in its own small way it indicates that some of the problems/risks were pretty obvious in advance.

          There is an interesting (from my point of view at least) challenge in writing about the Liberal Democrats. The argument for an academic audience has to have a different quality to it (and stronger evidence base) compared to blogging to a (Liberal Democrat) political audience as (a relatively insignificant) participant in the ongoing debate itself. I don’t think the PSA paper quite manages that. Some of it is appropriately detached, some of it is a bit too engaged.

          • Well, I’m just a troublemaker, so probably not someone you should listen to regarding academic work overall. (Even though in my own field of health management/organisation I publish enough to not be a complete novice at the difference between academia and real life.)

            Still, I’m just not very comfortable (having lived and worked in NL and DE during elections and being a political junkie) with the way that Political Studies as a discipline in Britain seems much keener to blame the electorate rather than ask questions of the party.

            It’s all “British voters don’t understand the sophisticated compromises required in coalition” and not enough exploration of “LibDems failed to draw hard lines with their coalition partners.” Coalition parties in countries like the Netherlands and Germany know that it’s necessary to have principles that are held sacred even in coalition, that’s what keeps you going as a party. The LibDems have been very weak in this area, but so much analysis seems to prefer to focus on blaming the voter for “not understanding…”

          • To be fair, it’s wrong to accuse you of this, it’s just the odd turn of phrase, largely when you engage with the extant literature, that triggered my buttons over this issue

  2. Metatone – I think that is a fair point. I don’t think it is unfair to say that the political science literature starts from the assumption that coalition government – particularly the sort of compromises it entails – is not something voters have got their head around. You could, I guess, qualify that by saying that for those in the devolved administrations there is likely to be more familiarity with coalition – so maybe it applies most strongly in England.

    Your point about the need to adhere to principles to keep going as a party is well made. I agree. It is something that I wrote quite a lot about in my Lib Dem-oriented blogposts during the first half of the coalition period (many brought together in the “Travels through Coalitionland” collection). I’ve not said so much about it more recently. Not quite sure why.

    • I think the hard thing for the LibDems is that they have historically been a loose tribe – a constellation of principles that kind of fit together in theory, but in practice tend to raise hard choices between different parts of the party. Going into government forced some of those choices to the fore – the issue being that some LibDems preference aligned very well with the Tories. Naturally, those voices were given extra fuel by the fact of the coalition. But it brings us to a point where a lot of the points of difference between the LDs and the Conservatives were resolved in favour of the Tory-friendly view. Which maybe explains why the coalition lasted, in ways many of us did not predict. But I think it causes a problem come election time and trying to revive difference.

  3. As a party member, including time as a councillor and Parliamentary candidate, for 30 years, may I say that much of this paper accords with my own view of what has occurred in the Liberal Democrats. Your point about liberal tolerance of the Cleggite position is particularly well made, though I do wonder sometimes how many of the ardent Cleggites of today were always market fundamentalists, but didn’t like to say so in say, 2001…