Liberal Democrats on the Verge of Historic Takedown

With a giddy sequence of polls, the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom have risen from distant and small third party, to being in first or second in every major poll. Now it seems likely that after the best week in politics that almost any politician has had since John Major’s upset over Kinnock, and before that, perhaps Attlee in 1945, the Liberal Democrats are going to be pounded by both of the other parties, press, and even third parties who are losing share to the Liberal Democratic wave ”“ but it is worth taking a look at what a Liberal Democratic wave election would look like, and to underline how close they are to an historic break out. While down is where they are probably going to go in the short term, it is not beyond possibility that this sprint could happen in the next election, particularly since as the Liberal Democrats rise, the more likely the present election is to yield a weak and short lived government, with the LDs given a second bite at the apple with some time in the national spotlight and seasoning in the front ranks. In otherwords, Clegg is about to take a hit, but could weather it and rise even farther.

I am using the swingometer from UK polling report, but all of the others yield the same results, since all of them are using what the British call the “Uniform National Swing.” This gets farther and farther from accurate as the swing changes, but as a rule of thumb, it provides a window on what will happen. The way the British predict their elections is to assume that most people don’t move for political reasons, which is basically true in Britain, and that they will vote the same was as last time, and shift the same percentage in each district as the national polls. The somewhat more sophisticated measures include localizing swing in the main regions: Wales, Scotland, England, Cornwall, Ulster/Northern Ireland, and to focus on the ratio between national and marginal swing, since marginals tend to swing slightly less than the country as a whole. But these caveats aside, here is a window on a future election, which might still yet be this election, or later this year.

In England there are three major parties, and several minor parties that win seats. This is in contrast to the duopoly in the United States. The UK’s system is called “First Past the Post,” which means the highest number of votes, whatever the plurality is, wins the seat, no run offs. One vote, make it count. This favors the party with largest plurality across the country, and allows strong governments even when there is not even close to a majority of voters. Pros include a vibrant political culture with several parties actually in the British Parliament, cons mean that the will of the voters, as expressed in their ballots, is often deliberately thwarted, since districts are drawn the way Republicans here want them: compact and historical, rather than competitive.

To form a government, a party needs to secure enough votes for their policy speech, which is called “The Queen’s Speech.” Usually there is no question as to which party won the election, it has a straight majority of seats. However, many Parliaments have not, and are called “hung parliaments.” But even in these, there is often little question about who the government will be as the first choice. Failing this, the Monarch, with advice from “The Three Wise Men” selects someone to form a government, who will often then turn to minor parties, and sometimes even offer the “top of the greasy pole,” that is, the Prime Ministership, to a minor party leader. These events are rare, but not a constitutional crisis in general.

Today: The Shadowlands

This is the best poll for the Liberal Democrats, but in line with the others, and a good starting point for the discussion. In these three images, the slog upwards for the LDs is clear.

While LD wins the most votes, it is not merely third in seats, but a distant third. It shows the grossly anti-democratic nature of England’s historical and compact seats, and the effects of a plurality system. Even proportional representation does not heal these issues, but it does improve them. An apportioned legislature, where a fraction of the seats are assigned on geography, and then the rest of the votes are aggregated and given to party lists, would fix most of them, while keeping district accountability for some members.

As can be seen from this map, the Tories would dominate the English country-side, and Labor would hold it’s four core bands: the northern industrial belt, the midlands, the industrial belt in Wales, and London. These bands are important, because they are heavily weighted towards the two main parties staying in the majority of seats. Right now, Labor would be the largest party, with the Tories the second Party.

Clegg, in this case, would have two demands: Gordon Brown’s political head on the proverbial pike, and proportional representation. He might get one, but the other grows increasingly doubtful, as the next posts will see. Clegg has said he will support the party with the moral right to govern, but even in this election, that might well be his own. However, from 33, there are few options. Labor would never give the PM’s post in this case, since no one there is as canny as Baldwin was to do so. Cameron, holding a fractious Tory party in dire need of ministerial posts to pay back the vast donations that run his party, could not either. Clegg would be under pressure to enter government, else face another election, which, historically, has not been something that favored rising parties, who are often punished for causing a second election. Generally the public punishes them for not joining the government.

Politically, what is also important is which seats each of the main party’s starts losing: here, the edges and the super-marginals that brought Blair to power, start to ebb into LD hands. These Baby Blair voters are the people who made “Cool Britannia” happen, and who have two important break points with the party. First, Brown looks bad, and second, Blair’s wars are not popular with them. They poll even more in favor of an Out, Now. policy, and England as a whole already does.

The most logical partner? The one that will give the most on proportional. Tactically, Clegg has has been pounding labor harder than the Conservatives, betting that the Tories are weaker, but that Brown is the weak link in the Labor fence: Brown’s now enflamed egotism and sense of entitlement make him unable to bend. Cameron, has time, and might even be happier in a Liberal Democratic Party, than in his own Tory Party. But there is no chance to break away the “Blaire Tories” on these numbers. The worse still for the Tories, the one thing that, as several commentators have noted, the right of the Tories hate, is Europe. And the will, as has been bluntly stated by an old Conservative who served with Major, “have the government by the short by the curlies.”

All of these number are achievable, with the true anti-incumbency movement in England, and the very real sense that neither leadership has made the sale. Brown is loathed in ways that cannot be described, because while he does well in a crisis, he seems to be a magnet for them, and bears more responsibility for the policies that brought on the crisis, than for ending it.

LD in the Mid 30’s: A New Political Balance

In the mid 30’s, there is an abrupt change. While Labor is still easily the largest party, the Tories are slipping from second. In these ranges two sudden blocs of seats shift: the midlands sheds Labor seats, and the tendrils of Liberal Democratic seats reaches into England. As importantly, the LDs and the Tories are roughly equal size. The Liberal Democrats could form a relatively strong government, able to burn Tory backbenchers on a number of votes, but by giving generous ministerial portfolios, keep the moneyed core of the Tories in place. But would the Tories accept what would be a “co-Prime Ministership” arrangement?

The alternative, a solid Labor-LD government, with a broad progressive mandate would mean, without a doubt, a humbling of labor unions, which Clegg had made clear need to be more flexible, and a removal, not merely of Brown, but anything that reeks of him. It would amount to merger of the parties for the duration of the government, something that neither would really want.

Hence, the logical reasoning, that the young men come to an agreement, and decide how to toss the bitter ender Thatcherites and anti-Europe seats, and form a “liberal” party on more than one point. But would Cameron back leaving the special relationship with the US imperial project behind? It is unlikely, too much money rides on it.

Is this possible? Decidedly yes, it requires the sense of voters who want to vote for a government to realize, that the Liberal Democrats could be that government, particularly if Labor rejects Brown leaving, as they have so far. Labor thought of shrouding Brown months ago, they would deeply regret it with results like these.

Is it likely? Decidedly no, but not so unlikley as one might think. Labor lost 20% in by elections during the worst of the crisis, and Brown’s numbers continue to plummet as a leader, regularly placing second among labor voters and third with everyone else. The chance? Less than a quarter, but then, the chance of a 10 point LD jump was discounted only days ago.

It is also where the present political climate wants to get to, with the unbelievers in a third camp, one that will form a nearly equal part of government, smoothing the edges. It also means the combined government could dump the wings of its own party on a number of votes. This would almost invite defections to new minor parties, and perhaps leadership challenge, but right now, no one in England thinks that any of the three old points of view: Thatcherite, Brownite, Blairite, represents the answer. It would also mean that the two old parties would go through a more complete renewal, as the Conservatives already have, and as Labor would in these cases.

The other point is that the Labor attack on Clegg: that it would let the Thatcherites back, breaks down completely here. Clegg and Cameron would be able to dispense with the Thatcherites entirely. Cameron could cashier his homophobic hangers on, and form a “Red Tory” grouping, or conversely Clegg could offer the Blairite Conservatives a new home, with Cameron and his set as part of the ministerial inner core. This would leave the harpies of Labor apologist with nothing to hang on to, other than the reality that the marched in lock step with the most radical right wing leader of any Western Democracy since the Second World War, and they did it with their eyes wide open. The Poodle Party, would suffer a powerful hair cut.

But getting to this plane, requires a baptism of fire for Clegg.

The High 30’s: The Once and Future King

In this case, we see a decided turn: the Liberal Democrats would be asked to form the government, having both overwhelming votes, and the most seats. At this point, both other parties might try one last gasp at the old order: form a joint government, to hold First Past the Post, and hope this wave subsides, holding an election again in a year or so, with the old rules applying.

In these scenarios, Labor melts down in the margins of its midlands core. Seats that have been labor, virtually since there was Labor, leave the coalition. The legacy of Blairite feeding of the British economy to the financial industry becomes painful electoral reality: the forgotten voters, forget to vote Labor.

The Liberal Democrats start having strange effects of their own: many of these races would be won by members how are generally not more than getting their deposit back, and have never been groomed for government carefully. It would bring in a wave of MPs who would be as unexpected as snow in June. The Liberal Democratic coalition would be fractious, unwieldy, and perhaps headed for disaster as candidates not carefully vetted have embarrassing trips. On the other hand, the opposite is also possible: the color of Parliament would be very, very, different, filled with the likes of progressive without “nanny state” people who have tired of cameras everywhere in their lives.

This government would also have another advantage: it would have to give little, and could take much, peeling off Tory and Labor members who can see that the older order has crumbled. It could have a strongly Liberal Democratic cabinet, and give the chance to show the UK that indeed, the Libs have the talent to be a permanent leading party.

The other reason to look at this scenario is that it resembles what a proportional representation UK would look like: all three parties gathering their voters, some gathering more marginals than others, and none with a full mandate. The pressure for two parties to form a permanent coalition, or even merge, would become intense. The pressure for one of the two old parties to dump its wing, and become a supposed “center-something” party, already present in this election, would create the chance for a right party to coalesce out of most acceptable far-right, and hard right Tories, or, conversely, a socialist party of devolution, to form out of minor socialist parties, and the core of Labor’s central vote, with an overtly socialist platform and program for the future.

LD in the low 40’s: Clegg’s Revolution

These results are most likely fiction, but it is worth looking at what a Liberal Democratic UK would look like. First, because it is not out of the range of possibility in a follow on election. Consider the following scenario: Tory and Labor cohabitate, not wanting to give up proportional representation, the Libs become the opposition. The cohabitating government falls apart, and there is another election. Voters decide to give one party, the new one, a true mandate.

In these scenarios, we are looking at carnage for the old parties: this situation would be unstable, as it would be the basis for a decade long stay in office, with a deeper conflict possible. Here the LDs would not merely be proposing their takes on a better progressive than Labor, better Liberals than the Tories, but would be expected to make more sweeping changes: to taxation systems, to regulations. Suddenly, there would be a completely new governing order, with portfolios filled that people can’t even name. Suddenly we are not wondering about the top of the LD team, but every member of the shadow cabinet.

In such a wipe out, the internal divisions of the LDs, between small “l” liberals, and the social democrats come to the fore. It would require a new governing ideology, not merely a collection of outs looking to rebalance the ins. Thus, it would start slowly, as these conflicts are worked out, quite possibly by Clegg setting different factions in tension with each other, giving each a chance to solve a problem, and crafting the best results into one form.

Could this happen? It is not impossible, after all 42% is 9% above today’s results, less than the ground from 18% to 33%. Will it? Not this election I think, because the questions about the bottom half of the party are strong. However, this map is not irrational: it does not require many strange results, there are a few on this map, but not that many compared to the size of the LD majority that it would deliver.

If even one poll showed this, the light would shine on the LD party, down to its potential peers and secondary policies. Thus, if Clegg wants to govern, his best move is to quietly, but strongly, push a simple message to every member of the party: clean up all loose ends, and be ready to be looked at. No one can afford to phone it in, because anyone could be the example of the Libs unready. Press every suit, ever tie in the best place, all pleats ironed, all questions answered, everyone on message every day?

That message? “The old parties are desperate for a chance to make all the old mistakes again. They want to give to the interests who own them. Vote for real chance, vote for a real change.” But this would have to do more than pick up disaffecteds, it would have to resonate with places that are deep in the Tory heartland, which would provide the last wave of seats for a majority.

For this to happen would more likely be a Labor collapse, a complete rejection by those who voted for a center-left party that the party of Bush’s war, and Wall Street’s finance, represents a British center-left at all. In this, it is a very possible future, even if not under the current rules of engagement.

As importantly, it shows how close the Liberal Democrats actually are: 3% more puts them virtually on par with the Tories, which is achievable in current conditions, even assuming a hit from the reaction. Clegg’s test is in front of him ”“ if he can weather the attacks, then he shows that he is, indeed, ready and able for power. A dip in the polls, and his response, could do more to persuade the next ring of voters, the ones who would take him to the status of being a logical Prime Minister, leader of the real opposition, and face of the future.

Blair betrayed the left, and even center-left and center, by taking England into the heart of darkness. He allowed, even encouraged, London to become the chop shop for Collateralized Debt Obligations, and other dodgy vehicles, doing what even Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers would not do. He also signed on board for an illegal war in Iraq, chasing weapons that he knew did not exist. He broke his pledge to Brown to leave, and left Brown holding the bag. This was predicted, as it was clear that the end of the Blair boom was funded on scammed money and a housing bubble that now drags down the smaller economy of the UK. It was fictional growth, that lead to fictional spending outside of the UK, as prices were artificially inflated, and people went to Ireland and Spain, creating inflation in those countries, for vacation houses and business services. Britain’s run of GDP growth without actual product, has led Labor here.

The reality is, as Martin Wolf points out, that both Labor and the Conservatives were Thatcherite Parties, merely they argued about how to split the gains. Instead, the UK is turning over in its mind the possibility of going beyond the oil economy as its own status as a petro-economy slips.

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Stirling Newberry


17 CommentsLeave a comment

  • As you said, they danced off the cliff without being forced with their faculties in tact. This a fascinating article at a point that may indicate the crumbling of the binary fallacy, either us or them. If Clegg forms a government now or in the near future and attends to business rather than imperial fantasies, it will be a good example for us. If he’s yet another ‘face man’ for those who profit on sketchy financial dealings and war, then there will be another vehicle for change, more like a buzz cut than a hair cut.

  • robbed Petro to pay St. Paul’s. That is over.

    Clegg will get his chance to make a case that he is more than a mix of Labor-lite and Tory-lite, particularly if he climbs even a bit more, one outlier poll could have him on 38 – 3% margin of error on a 35% base of support – and the map would say that the LD would be the largest party in the new Parliament, and have an overwhelming lead in votes.

    Put that on the front page of the press in England, and all political hell breaks loose. For better or for worse for Clegg, will be up to him.

  • As I consider the Midlands a second home, this is such exciting news. What becomes possible in England with this new wind in the sails of Liberal Dems is quite breathtaking. Everyone I know over there is Giddy, they call Clegg the British Obama.

    It is really breathtaking.

  • Yes, welcome back! You were missed. I’d google periodically to see if you’d surfaced somewhere else. It’s nice to see you back at the Agonist.

  • Theoretically the queen could summon almost anyone to be Prime Minister. However there are a few practical hurdles.

    The Prime Minister must assemble enough votes in the House of Commons to win a “Vote of Confidence.” Then voila, the Prime Minister has both a request from the Crown, and a working government. The government can fall at any time by losing a “Vote of Confidence”. The Queen than may summon another person to form a Government, and this person would have to pass the “Vote of Confidence”.

    The tradition is that the leader of he largest part in the Common is summoned buy the Queen and asked to form a government. There have been mufti-party Government recently in the past, I believe the last one was called “The Lib-Lab Pact” in 1977.

  • Each parliament opens with the Speech from the Throne, which is the new government’s manifesto. In most cases it is clear which party has a majority, and who is the leader of that party. However, not always. In the last 100 years there have been several odd moments, including:

    Chamberlain resigning, and the crown wrestling with who to summon to form a new majority. Churchill was the third choice of the King, but eventually his majesty was persuaded that his first two choices “would not do.”

    It also included Ramsey MacDonald in 1929 getting the invitation, before securing the Liberal’s backing, and then turning to the Conservatives in 1931 to prevent his government from falling – leading to his explusion from his own party.

    In 1951, the Labour party called an election hoping to increase their majority of 5 from the 1950 election, they polled more votes… in their own seats. Churchill’s Conservatives, plus the “National Liberals” polled 300,000 votes less, but formed the government anyway, which held until 1955. Labour next won an election in 1964, and did not have a working majority on key issues until the general election of 1966.

    In 1974, the Liberals polled 6 million votes, and got 14 MPs. Labor and the Conservatives had almost 12 million each, and secured 20 times that number each. The SNP got 7 seats, on 600,000 votes. Heath, the Conservative, did not resign as PM, only to do so after the Unionist Parties would not take the Tory whip, leading to a Labour government. Wilson would call an election that October, and secured a majority government. The government required support of the liberals and several minor parties, and this meant it was doomed from the beginning, since all parties thought they could do better in a fresh election.

    We also have the election of 1983, Thatcher’s most impressive victory. Labor won 203 seats on less than 8,500,000 votes. The Social/Liberal alliance won almost 7,800,000 votes, only 700,000 less and 23 seats. Oddities of first past the post.

  • Right now the left is in the grip of a neo-technocratic incrementalism moment.

    It will work, until the public gets all tired of the austerity shit, and votes in President Tea Bagger for a war with a side of tax cuts, or tax cuts with a side of war.

    The libertarians will mostly vote for it.

  • I suggest you read a little of Fallows and come to your own conclusions.

    “I despise ideologues masquerading as objective journalists.” – Bill O’Reilly, March 30, 2007

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