Why a UK Lib-Lab Coalition is Less Likely than American Leftists May Think

Mark Kleiman is one of a number of smart American leftists who have asked me why the Liberal-Democratic Party and Labour Party don’t either merge or run in coalition, producing a majority left-wing government in the UK. A Lib-Lab coalition in the expected 2015 election is certainly possible and some experienced politicians want to lay the groundwork starting immediately. But now that I have worked extensively with the UK government and politicians in all three major parties, the “two left wing parties” of the UK look fairly different to me. I therefore don’t see a coalition as particularly likely, whereas even three years ago, I would have shared Mark’s perspective. As the London rain has driven me temporarily indoors, let me try to describe to my friend and other American leftists who share his puzzlement what I believe are the barriers to a Lib-Lab coalition.

Let’s me start with the Labour party. A party is certainly not reducible to who funds it, but neither can funders be ignored. The current Labour party is bankrolled almost entirely by trade unions. UK unions contribute a far higher portion of Labour funds than than U.S. unions do Democratic party funds, and they do so in a country with a much stronger union tradition. Labour has other supporters, for example middle to upper-middle class non-union college graduates with leftist sympathies tend to vote Labour. But there aren’t enough people who read the Guardian and own comfortable sandals to constitute a national political party, so Labour can’t move too far from its trade unionist base.

This unionist base brings Labour into immediate tension with certain constituencies within the LibDem party. “Liberal” is used more often in the UK to mean classically liberal than it is in the US, and the LibDems should be understood in that light. The John Stuart Mill/Adam Smith-types in the LibDem Party like their government small and non-interventionist when it comes to markets, the reverse of what unions typically want. Another, partially overlapping group of LibDems (Orange book types) are keen on promoting private sector concepts of competition and choice into the public sector; this too draws no smiles from unions. Finally, it has to be remembered that the “Democrat” component of the party label “Liberal Democrat” derives from the Social Democratic Party it absorbed when it was created. The SDP were centre-leftish Labour refugees who, broadly speaking, didn’t want to sign the longest suicide note in history. The left wing of the Labour Party and the descendants of the SDP are no more similar now than they were at the time of the original split.

A smaller but still important division between Labour and LibDems concerns environmentalism. Green sentiments are widespread among LibDems. Some Labour supporters are fine with that, but the “smoke and dust” unions that support Labour tend to view environmentalists with suspicion. PM Cameron thus has more running room for his green instincts that Ed Miliband has for his, and that would make some green-minded LibDems chary of an alliance.

Finally, whether for reasons of temperament or ideology, the left in Anglo-American politics has simply had much more trouble than the right in holding coalitions together. In the U.S., Will Rogers satirized this tendency by saying “I belong to no organized political party. I am a Democrat.” In the UK, the Monty Python troupe skewered the same leftist tendencies in their sidesplitting “People’s Front of Judea” sketch in Life of Brian. The only people the People’s Front of Judea hate more than the Romans are the f**king Judean People’s Front. They also hate the Popular Front. Question: “Where is the Popular Front, Reg?” Answer: “He’s over there. Splitter!”.

We laugh because it’s funny and we laugh because it’s true. Holding together myriad leftists in a Lib-Lab coalition would be a tremendously challenging task, and could easily result in splits and new political parties (especially by current LibDems — they are more purist in outlook because they were out of power for so long). That’s the biggest reason why I am expecting the three headed monster that is British politics to stay three headed for a long time to come.

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.

14 thoughts on “Why a UK Lib-Lab Coalition is Less Likely than American Leftists May Think”

  1. Your whole post is predicated on the notion that the Lib Dems have a future. Is that the case? They seem to be so thoroughly despised in what I see way out here in California, with the Tories treating them like somewhat dimwitted stepchildren and those opposed to the Tories viewing them as hapless, helpless, and utterly lacking in principle. What are the odds they will be an important part of any coalition in the future? Even if, as you suggest, there will be a new split on the left, and a new third party – will it really be the Lib Dems?

  2. Warren, regardless of that, there are plenty of people like me [1] who aren’t really happy with either Labour or the Tories; the Liberal Democrats may be imperfect, but at the moment it’s the only realistically electable social liberal party that exists over here. (See my comment from a few months ago.)

    [1] Except that in my specific case I can’t vote in UK general elections on account of not being a British citizen (though I can vote in the Scottish local elections and Scottish Parliament general elections).

  3. Katja,
    Could you explain the difference between social liberalism and democratic socialism? My political experience is only American, and this distinction is a bit beyond my ken.

  4. Ebenezer, you could probably write a book or two on the topic. The Wikipedia pages for both give a decent overview of both political philosophies, but they can’t possibly capture all the nuances. And I can give you only an even more abbreviated overview myself. 🙂

    Social liberalism is, very basically, a variant on classical liberalism. “Liberal” here, as Keith notes, is not a synonym for “politically left”, but for “free” (etymologically, it is derived from the Latin “liberalis”, meaning “of freedom”). This is a reference to personal freedoms (and responsibilities). Both classical and social liberals value personal freedoms and responsibilities highly. Unlike classical liberals, social liberals consider social justice integral to a free society — freedoms that you cannot afford are not worth the paper they’re written on (Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread”) and tend to treat things such as universal healthcare and education as fundamental rights. Similarly, while social liberals tend to be strong free market advocates, they also understand the need to regulate the market (as much as is needed, not more).

    Social democracy is, somewhat simplified, socialism through democratic means. That goes back to the original Marx/Lassalle split where Marx believed in the necessity (and inevitability) of revolution, while Lassalle fervently believed in the democratic process (see his letter “Macht und Recht”/”Might and Right”). But, basically, social democracy is still about socialism. Nowadays, this is not anymore about controlling the “means of production”, of course, but about general notions of economic equality and workers’ rights.

    While both political philosophies subscribe to ideas of social justice and fundamental human rights (though, in practice, so do most European conservatives nowadays), their emphasis is different and so are their views on the role of government (very simplified, small vs. big government [1]). The social liberal will agree with Montesquieu more often than the social democrat that “if it is not necessary to make a law, it is necessary to not make a law” (though that’s hardly an absolute). Obviously, both agree on basics such as the importance of the democratic process, the rule of law, etc.

    [1] On a personal note, I don’t really like the terms “small government” and “big government”, if only because they’ve become political fighting words, but they are commonly used terms in this context, and I’m not myself using them as some form of value judgement.

  5. I have to ask, as well – what’s the future for the LibDems?
    From what I can gather, they’ve served only to help the Tories trash the UK, and given the pain, I can’t see them getting away with ‘but for us, it’d be worse’.

    My guess is that the leadership was bought and paid for, and will support the Tory government as long as possible, in order to collect as much money.

  6. It’s an interesting analysis. Seems like the Dems in the US have the same problem as the LibLab idea: they have the union lunch bucket people and the people Michael Barone calls the ‘gentry liberals’ – NY Times-ers, brie, not particularly enamored of unions. Barone has predicted that the Dems would have a hard time keeping the coalition stuck together. Maybe the Rahm Emanuel confrontation with Chicago Teachers Union is sort of an opening salvo?

  7. It’s also empirically true that in the U.S. political system (strong executive with legislature) three party solutions seem inherently unstable. It appears that in our system, we are going to get two parties whether we want them or not. Sometimes a third party subsumes an existing party (the GOP replaced the Whigs) and sometimes a third party just evaporates (T. Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party dispersed after Wilson’s election in 1912, the Green Party insurgency of 1994-96 here in New Mexico was absorbed back into the Democratic Party). I suspect our reliance on first-past-the-post voting systems exacerbates things. Third parties might be more stable under an alternative voting system, like single transferable vote (STV).

    But in parliamentary systems three-party solutions appear to be stable over longer terms. I’m going to speculate that this is because there are benefits to being in ruling coalition when belonging to the coalition gives a share of executive power. This is especially true when the voting system awards guaranteed minority seats with proportional allocation systems. I don’t believe the UK uses this sort of system.

    So, it appears to me that the future of the LibDems (for the time being) is to play the role of PM-maker in coalition governments with Tories and Labor.

  8. The Lib Dems will disappear if and when the two bigger parties institute primaries. That’s what keeps US politics a stable two-party system.

  9. Following up on what Dennis said, it should also be noted that America’s two parties are really two coalitions. Third party bids (like Wallace, Anderson, and Nader) for the presidency are usually either disgruntled members of the coalition seeking a new home (Wallace’s supporters were primarily southern democrats who later became republicans, and most of Anderson’s moderate republicans are now democrats)or smaller groups who feel unappreciated (like the lefties who voted for Nader). It’s interesting how much of Wall Street is reconsidering it’s relationship with the Republican Party, now that the tea-party movement is threatening their dominance.

  10. @ James,

    I’m not going to argue that you’re wrong, not least because I suspect you may be right. But it isn’t clear to me that primary elections are sufficient to make a three-party system unstable. Would you elaborate, please?

    NM election law gave the Greens major party status (state-run primaries, etc) after Roberto Mondragon pulled 15% or so of the gubernatorial ballots as a Democrat cum Green candidate in 1994. The Greens have never again approached that level of votes in a state-wide election. The lost the major party status in 1998, and now they hold a city council seat in Santa Fe and perhaps one or two other local offices.

  11. What keeps U.S. politics a stable two-party system is the combination of the Presidential contest and state politics.

    Third-parties crash and burn in American politics, because they tend to elect the ‘other’ guy as President. The Bull Moose Party elected Woodrow Wilson; Nader elected George W. Bush — that kind of dynamic. This is widely recognized and acknowledged.

    Less well-recognized is the strategic flexibility of the Parties in State politics. Americans invented the gerrymander and we talk about it all the time — especially when State legislatures are redistricting after the decennial census, but the strategic flexibility of State Parties with regard to ideology and local issues means that the Parties largely overcome the effects of gerrymanders, on a macro level, at least as regards partisan division. Every national Party is composed of independent State party organizations, actively contesting legislative office at the state level. In some States, one Party dominates; in some States, the two Parties are more evenly matched, and rotation in office is maintained. Within large States, there may be regionalism. My point, though, is that the Parties adapt, strategically, to local norms, without much pull from the national Party’s ideological or interest group commitments. For example, the Democratic Party is quite competitive at the state level in Mississippi, the most reactionary conservative State in the Union — weird but true. One important outcome of this institutional system is that the gerrymander is largely ineffective, at least insofar as partisan divisions are concerned. The distribution of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives will closely mirror the overall partisan vote division across the country; if the Republicans get ~55% of the vote, they will end up with pretty close to 55% of the seats in the House. And, this without formal party lists and the like.

    UK politics has single-member districts for the national legislature and, first-past-the-post determination of the winner. This is similar to the U.S. (although the U.S. has many local exceptions to first-past-the-post, where run-offs are required, particularly in the absence of primaries). But, the U.K. does not have a Presidential election. And, the U.K. is mostly a metropolitan state, with one dominating city, and only Scotland and Northern Ireland and Wales as irregularly constituted, constituent states, on the periphery. The partisan divisions in the peripheral states are significantly affected by entirely local “nationalist” parties.

    In U.S. politics, 50% +1 on election day is normally an absolute imperative of coalition-building. While it is theoretically possible for the Presidential candidate with a plurality to lose, but it requires a very close contest, and is unusual. In 1824, 1876, and 2000, it required extraordinary institutional interventions to pull off, the legitimacy of which were questioned. Just the theoretical possibility has led to calls to reform the electoral college system used in Presidential elections.

    In UK politics, it has become quite normal for a Party with substantially less than 50% electoral support at the ballot box to win a substantial majority in Parliament. Thatcher won three times, with never more than 44% of the popular vote, and Blair won three times, with even less electoral support — the Labour vote in 2005 was barely 35%! The current coalition has a Parliamentary majority only a few seats larger than the last Labour government, despite combined electoral support nearing 60% of the vote.

    Britain rejected a proposal to introduce an alternative vote system in a referendum in May, I believe.

  12. In U.S. politics, 50% +1 on election day is normally an absolute imperative of coalition-building. While it is theoretically possible for the Presidential candidate with a plurality to lose, but it requires a very close contest, and is unusual.

    What happens if there are three evenly-matched candidates in the POTUS contest, and none receive a majority of the EC votes. Does the plurality win?

  13. @ daksya:

    If no candidate gets a majority in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives decides, under voting rules which give each state equal weight.

    In 1968, George Wallace attempted to win enough delegates to the Electoral College to prevent either of the major party candidates from getting a majority, but if he had succeeded, his announced intention was to have his delegates vote for one of the major party candidates (depending on which candidate offered him the better deal), so one or the other of the major party candidates would have still gotten a majority of the Electoral College votes. The popular vote was:

    43.4% Nixon
    42.7% Humphrey
    13.5% Wallace

    But because most states have a winner take all system for assigning Electoral College delegates, the Electoral College breakdown was:

    55.9% Nixon
    35.5% Humprhey
    8.5% Wallace

    The only reason Wallace did as well as he did in the Electoral College is that his supporters were all in the Southeast, so he was able to win a number of states there. Another election where there was a strong showing by a third party candidate was 1992, where the popular vote results were:

    43.0% Clinton
    37.5% Bush
    18.9% Perot

    Ross Perot did better in the popular vote than Wallace, but since his supporters were spread across the country, he didn’t have a majority anywhere and got zero electoral votes.

  14. All: Thanks for the comments above. Both the polls and the recent election (AV + local councils) show that the Tories are as popular or even slightly moreso than they were on the day of the election. The LibDems in contrast have taken a beating. They sharply changed their private and public posture within the coalition after the by-election, but whether this will sell with voters is unclear. I do not think they will vanish — despite their small number of seats in parliament they do have a significant popular following that I expect to lessen but not disappear by 2015.

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