Argument

Kingmakers and Comeuppance in the U.K. Election

How the Liberal Democrats went from power brokers to pushovers, and other lessons for Westminster’s small parties and sellouts.

Nick Clegg and David Cameron will speak together to stress their commitment to their coalition government.
epa03210527 British Prime Minister David Cameron (L) and British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg depart 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, 08 May 2012. Reports state that Nick Clegg and David Cameron are to speak to the press together on 08 May to stress their commitment to their coalition government. Both leaders suffered heavy losses in last week's local elections. EPA/ANDY RAIN

For the second straight time, the United Kingdom is headed for a coalition government. After decades of domination by Labour and the Conservatives, smaller parties will once again have their say. But coalitions aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, as the Liberal Democrats can attest.

May 12, 2010, should have been the greatest day in the history of the Liberal Democrats, a party formed by the merger of the Liberals and the Social Democrats in 1998. The perennial also-rans finally got a chance to govern, in the form of a coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives. With 57 seats in the House of Commons, the Lib Dems were a party on the up — and then it all went wrong.

As the junior party in the coalition, the Lib Dems duly received a few token places in the cabinet, but they could never have expected to set the agenda in Parliament. Several tenets of their election manifesto were at odds with those of the Conservatives. The Lib Dems wanted tax exemptions for low earners and a new tax on properties worth more than £2 million; the Conservatives wanted to raise the exemption for inheritance tax to £1 million. They wanted stricter European Union regulation of financial institutions; the Conservatives wanted “protection against European Union encroachment.” Nevertheless, the degree to which the Lib Dems knuckled under to the Conservative program surprised even some of their most powerful and promising politicians.

Sarah Teather, a Cambridge graduate who was initially the minister for children and families, lost her position in 2012. Her crime? Failing to support the Conservatives’ welfare reforms, which she later denounced as “immoral,” “traumatic,” and part of an ongoing effort to demonize the poor. A year later, she decided not to defend her seat at the coming election. Among the reasons was her party’s backing for the Conservatives’ new restrictions on immigration.

Indeed, squeezing the poor and curtailing immigration were unusual policies for what was supposed to be a modern, progressive party of social and economic liberalism. Back in 2010, the Lib Dems may have had more in common with Labour — another possible coalition partner — than with the Conservatives. Labour wanted British leadership within the European Union, state pensions linked to incomes, and tax credits for working families, just like the Lib Dems.

But perhaps that congruity was exactly the problem. In a coalition with a party of fairly similar views on many issues, it might have seemed harder to maintain the Lib Dems’ identity and individuality. This wouldn’t necessarily have been a problem for the process of governing — on the contrary, it probably would have helped — but it would have been a huge challenge for the politicians who wanted to burnish their legacies. And naturally, these same politicians preferred to be in government rather than out, regardless of the long-term consequences for their parties.

Those consequences are starting to become apparent now. Forecasts based on current polls suggest the Lib Dems will come away with just 27 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons after the voting ends on May 7, fewer than half the number they held after the last election. Projections suggest this total — the party’s lowest since 1992, just four years after its founding — won’t be enough to form a two-party coalition with either Labour or the Conservatives.

The forecast is so dark that the ambitious politicians who sold out their own party’s platform will likely pay a heavy price. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems’ leader and also deputy prime minister since 2010, probably won’t see the inside of the Cabinet Room for a while. He might even lose his own seat in Westminster as part of the cull.

So Nick, was it worth it? The leaders of other small parties might want to look ahead to this question once the wrangling for a new coalition begins. The biggest among them, the Scottish National Party, looks set to garner twice as many seats as the Lib Dems. A coalition with Labour and perhaps Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalists, would be large enough to govern. But Labour has been the Scottish nationalists’ main electoral opponent for years — and Labour worked hard (and successfully) to defeat the referendum on Scottish independence, the nationalists’ signal achievement.

Of course, as the American essayist Charles Dudley Warner wrote, politics makes strange bedfellows. Any smaller party entering a coalition with Labour or the Conservatives will have to compromise, and compromise will always make a smaller party less independent and distinct. Yet there is one way to maintain a party’s identity as a junior partner in a coalition: by seeking policy wins rather than just power. This way, the party reinforces its platform rather than kowtowing for the sake of a few ministerial sinecures.

If the Scottish National Party hadn’t already staged its referendum on independence, Labour might have offered one in return for loyalty in a coalition. Now it’s hard to tell what policy wins the nationalists could reasonably demand. Most likely, they’ll end up going the way of the Lib Dems, grasping for a few scraps of power that ultimately produce nothing but their own comeuppance.

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