Support for the Liberal Democrats has plummeted since joining the Conservatives in coalition government. Katharine Dommett identifies three explanations for this collapse: Over inflated expectations, an identity crisis and a failure to demonstrate (relative) influence. The cost-benefit analysis of the coalition does not stack up for the Liberal Democrats as they are sacrificing key principles and pledges in return for limited rewards.
The coalition which emerged after the 2010 general election marked a seismic change in the dynamics of British politics. After decades of one party rule the country saw the Liberal Democrats propelled into power alongside the Conservatives. Whilst the successes and failures of the coalition have been widely debated, less attention has been paid to explaining the negative impact of coalition on the Liberal Democrat party.
Unlike the Conservatives, since Election Day the Liberal Democrats have seen their support tumble. Whilst recording 26.5% support on 6th May 2010, since then the party’s polling has plummeted, dipping to just 7% on 11th February 2013 and rarely exceeding 12 or 13%. This negative polling has been reflected in the 11% of the vote the party recorded at the Rotherham by-election, and the fact that at the 2012 police and crime commissioner elections in Coventry the party recorded fewer votes than the number of spoilt ballots. In explaining why the Liberal Democrats have been so adversely affected by their decision to enter government three explanations can be identified.
Although both the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have been affected by the coalition it is the former party which has seen a startling decline in trust as measured in opinion polling. Prior to the general election, Nick Clegg gained approval ratings of 72%, but after joining the coalition his capital fell dramatically with a score of -8 recorded on the 18th of October 2010. More detailed polling has found that 58% of respondents describe Clegg as untrustworthy, whilst his party is seen as the least trusted of the main three (registering just 16% trust). Furthermore, a YouGov poll in January 2011 found that 63% of people agreed with the assertion that the Liberal Democrats had ‘broken their promises and betrayed their supporters’.
To explore why this may have occurred it is useful to examine the notion of an expectations gap and the Liberal Democrats’ management of expectations prior to and after the election. Ahead of the general election the party inflated expectations, pledging to do politics in a different way and keep their promises. They made high profile commitments not to raise VAT and not to increase tuition fees, rhetorically underlining the credibility of their pledges by asserting that on VAT the party had ‘done our homework’ and ‘identified where money can be generated and where money can be saved’. However, in the months following the election the party’s actions appeared in stark contrast to their previous rhetoric as in government they voted with the Conservatives to raise VAT from 17.5 to 20%, and to increase tuition fees to £9,000 (although a minority of their MPs did rebel or abstain on these votes). The reality of the Liberal Democrats’ behaviour therefore appeared in stark contrast to their pre-election rhetoric, giving rise to an expectations gap between what was promised and what was delivered that was likely to provoke distrust. This outcome was arguably reflected in one poll where 69% of respondents agreed that the party had ‘utterly betrayed [their] commitment by backing higher VAT and student fees’.
Secondly, the party appeared to mishandle the unity/distinctiveness dilemma experienced by all coalition parties. As Hazell and Yong detail, to ensure success in coalition parties need to work together and, at the same time, offer a clear account of their own aims, achievements and identity. Yet, in power Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat Party President, argued that the Liberal Democrats suffered ‘a loss of identity’, a point typified by changes in economic policy.
Prior to the election the Liberal Democrats differentiated themselves from the Tories by asserting on the issue of deficit reduction that ‘We must ensure the timing is right. If spending is cut too soon, it would undermine the much-needed recovery and cost jobs’. They accordingly outlined a distinctive timetable for cuts and presented an array of economic policies which collectively signalled a distinctive position and identity. However, once in coalition the Liberal Democrats agreed to very different policies, adopting Conservative ideas and rhetoric rather than maintaining their own distinctive position. Even Clegg himself asserted that the coalition’s ‘first priority is tackling our deficit’, a policy shift which made it hard to distinguish between the coalition parties and to identify a distinct Liberal Democrat identity.
The final area of interest is influence. Coalition government is contingent on the idea that whilst working in tandem on common aims, parties nevertheless gain individually from their participation. Yet amongst people who voted Liberal Democrat in 2010 but have since abandoned the party, 74% believe that the party has little or no influence on decisions made in government. Similarly, just 1/3 voters agree that by entering the coalition the Liberal Democrats have managed to get real liberal policies put into action. Even amongst Liberal Democrat party members polling found that just 49% felt they were achieving influence.
Whilst at the advent of coalition the Liberal Democrats appeared to exert considerable influence (gaining commitments for a voting system referendum, the pupil premium and raising the tax threshold), in government key pledges have often not been delivered (AV, Lords reform), have been qualified (e.g. the pupil premium which was implemented in phases), or have gained limited public attention. In contrast the Conservatives have delivered wide ranging reform programmes in Health, Education and Welfare, eclipsing the Liberal Democrats’ achievements. Such outcomes suggest that the cost-benefit analysis of the coalition does not stack up for the Liberal Democrats as they are sacrificing key principles and pledges in return for limited rewards.
Can this be overcome?
Over inflated expectations, an identity crisis and a failure to demonstrate (relative) influence therefore appear to have contributed to the Liberal Democrat’s current predicament. Whilst the party can attempt to reshape expectations, present a more distinctive identity, and aggressively pursue their own policy agenda their efforts are unlikely to fully address the negative consequences of coalition. As such it appears that the party will face a significant challenge at the 2015 elections and that the coalition itself may turn out to have been a ‘miserable little compromise’ for the Liberal Democrat Party.
An extended version of this article can be found in Political Quarterly, Volume 84(2): 218-227.
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Dr Katharine Dommett is a Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield. Her research looks at political parties, ideology and governance. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; @KateDommett