The Future (?) of the Liberal-Democrats and Some Notes on the “Bathtub Ring” Phenomenon

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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

5 thoughts on “The Future (?) of the Liberal-Democrats and Some Notes on the “Bathtub Ring” Phenomenon”

  1. Tuition hatred on this side of the ocean is one of the reasons I think Rick Perry, he of the $10000 bachelor’s degree, could win the Presidency.

  2. I suspect, as usual, that it’s more complicated than that. Clegg personally is probably toast. His seat was solidly Tory for generations, and was won by the Libdems because of a strong “Anybody but the Tory” sentiment in Northern England after Thatcher, which led a lot of Labour people to vote for the most plausible alternative. Now Labour supporters have no reason to vote tactically, many LibDems will stay home, and the Tories must have a strong chance of getting it back.

    But it’s also the case that the LibDems are the most individualised of the three main parties, and their candidates are more likely to attract personal support rather than simple party line voting. This was what just kept them alive during the 50s and 60, when their parliamentary representation went down to single figures. The people who turned to them under Blair in a search for a left alternative (just at the moment when their Euro-liberal wing was taking control) are gone, but in some constituencies where individual MPs have built up a core of loyalty on the basis of good local representation, it’s quite possible that their votes will hold up better than expected. This is what they do, and have always done. So, predict a wipe-out nationally, but expect a few seats to run against the tide. I’m not a betting man, but I’d look to see 15-20 LibDems in the next Parliament, by no means all or mostly from the current leadership. Whether that’s enough to give them any leverage in government of course depends on how close the other two parties are. The Tories are embarking on a national gerrymander at the moment, so I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  3. Why would anyone trust a liberal? Over here we’ve had 30 years of ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ making common cause to destroy the U.S.’s (and the worlds) economy. Denmark just ousted their government of 10 years that was a ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ coalition. I’m glad to see so many Brits are already disgusted with their ‘liberals’,I hope you don’t make the mistake of voting for any Lib/Lab combination.

  4. It is incredible how many people either forget or did not learn what actually happened to Al Gore. The “they” who “picked the poor guy who was second-in-charge and punished him come the next election” was not the public, it was the press. That is a demonstrable fact, as documented in excruciating detail by the inimitable Bob Somersby at http://www.howhegotthere.blogspot.com/.

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