Graeme Archer escapes the Westminster bubble and is surprised to observe the level of contempt among the Liberal Democratic base for its party leaders. As they watched the party conference on television:
I eventually put a name to the murmuring that greeted Nick Clegg’s every reappearance: it’s the sound you get when you mix the memory of anger with mocking derision. The reason for the sound became clear in conversation: my generation of university-educated professionals will never forgive Clegg for tuition fees…It doesn’t matter what newspaper columnists, Westminster insiders or the Lib Dems themselves plan for the party’s future: there isn’t one. This generation of voters will never forgive them for tuition fees; neither those who attended university themselves, nor those who have children they hope to send there.
Some of the commenters on my post about the possibility of a Lib-Lab coalition in 2015 said I was as out of touch as Archer, as if I were speculating where the Harold Stassen vote would go now that the man himself has passed away. Has the commentariat, from heavy hitters like Archer to pipsqueaks such as myself, missed the obvious pending demise of one of Britain’s three major political parties?
“Bath tub ring” is a political term made famous by television commentator Chris Matthews, who used it to describe Al Gore. President Clinton sailed along smooth as Teflon despite a number of political and personal scandals. Matthews thought the voters wanted to hold someone responsible, so they picked the poor guy who was second-in-charge and punished him come the next election. Although they didn’t use that American term, many people I talked to in the UK last week saw a “bathtub ring” future for the LibDems, post-coalition.
At a surface level, there is a parallel to what happened to Gore. In the UK, the Tories’ popularity is fine. Indeed, if anything they have gained a bit since election day. The LibDems in contrast received a gold plated bollocking from by-election voters. Despite all the “It wasn’t our fault — it would have been worse if we weren’t here” statements by the LibDem leadership, the electorate seem to be holding them uniquely responsible for unpopular coalition policies, especially increased tuition fees.
But the bathtub ring analysis falls apart when you dig beneath the surface. Al Gore was in Clinton’s party and the same people voted for him as voted for Clinton. The divergent fates of the Tories and the LibDems since the election has a different source in the UK’s parliamentary political system, namely that the governing partnership is made up of politicians with non-overlapping support. Tory voters are fairly happy: They are getting pretty much what they were promised during the election from their party’s leaders. LibDem voters feel lied to by their leaders. They don’t feel any need to punish the Tories because after all, they already voted against them. They want the blood of their own.
Is Graeme Archer correct that this hostility within the base will translate into the end of the LibDem Party? They are certainly paying a price now and could easily wind up with a sharp drop in electoral support in 2015 (which in the UK system, translates to an even more painful result in held seats in Parliament). But a countervailing force works in the LibDems’ favour, namely the increasing unwillingness of UK voters to give any party too much authority.
In the stunning, crushing defeat of the Tories and Churchill in 1945, the party captured a slightly greater share of votes than they did when they won under Cameron last year. UK voters are becoming more like American ones, distrustful of all parties and prone to setting up situations in which all players are somewhat hamstrung. The current distaste of UK LibDem voters for their party may therefore not outweigh their resistance to giving the Labour or Tory Party a clear majority and the power that comes with it. Some LibDem voters will of course flee, but more will I think grumble a bit but ultimately stay at home.