Friday 28 December 2012

The transformation of the LibDems

As the end of 2012 is approaching fast, it may also be a good time to look ahead to the next general election which is only 2 years away.

The most interesting issue since the start of the coalition government has certainly been the steady decline of the LibDems. In a way, this was predictable. Having been in opposition for more than 80s years, the party had become used to play all the cards at the same time. Life in opposition was not just comfortable, it also shielded them from difficult truths and some of the LibDems were masters in avoiding difficult decisions.

The peculiar political constellation in the UK with two dominant parties and practically no fourth political party worthy of the name, afforded the LibDems a dual role, straddling parts of the political spectrum that had little in common. On one side, LibDems served as the repository of disenchanted Labour voters with strong left leaning tendencies. On the other hand, the party also accommodated more libertarian views and an economic liberalism usually only found amongst (liberal) Conservatives.

This dual role was never going to be sustainable once the LibDems entered government and it was the (more centrist) convictions of Clegg and the LibDem leadership which carried the day. The left leaning wing of the party was horrified by the decision to enter a coalition government with the Conservatives and most of those voters (and some activists) moved back into the Labour fold. But what does that mean for the future?

Given that the LibDems share some of the responsibility for the welfare reforms and the austerity budgets in the last two years, it is hard to see how Clegg and his wing of the party can perform another u-turn and enter a coalition with Labour in 2015. In a sense then, the transformation of the LibDems into a centre party with strong preferences for economic liberalism is complete. The reflects a fundamental shift in the leadership of the party as well. Market-orientated economic liberalism is probably were Clegg's heart is.

It leaves the political spectrum in a fascinating bind. Although there is the theoretical possibility of a Lib-Lab coalition, chances are this is not going to happen. If neither of the two large parties achieve a majority in 2015, the only option is a minority government of Labour or Tories (whoever has the largest number of seats in the House of Commons) or another version of the Con-Lib government.

Currently the decline of the LibDems leaves Labour in the fortunate position to enjoy a boost in the opinion polls. Yet their glee at the demise of the LibDems is premature. Their own increased popularity is  only because those LibDem voters who were quite close to Labour have now migrated back to it. To continue to attract them, Labour however needs to keep articulating a left-leaning agenda which in turn will repel those voters in the centre of the spectrum without whom Labour cannot win the next election.

Of course, politics is never just a strategic game, but rather a question of tactics. Much of what shapes the political debate today, is probably forgotten when voters will finally make their way to the polling booths in 2015. Yet the political constellation poses a challenge not just to LibDems but to Labour as well.

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