The death of the coalition experiment

Angela Merkel and David Cameron
Angela Merkel is alleged to have advised David Cameron that in coalitions “the little party gets smashed”. Picture from number10gov via creative commons.

One of the many disappointments about the 2015 General Election is that it seems to demonstrate fairly comprehensively that the British electorate is not keen on coalitions. It also suggests that the strength of LibDem local activism has been overstated.

Up until the exit poll, I would have gone along with @timwig‘s 2013 view that the Libdems wouldn’t collapse. I thought the tribalist anti-Libdem sentiments from many of my lefty friends was typical of a metropolitan bubble, and that it underestimated the strength and importance of local activism. I was expecting them to lose seats and vote share in London and other metropolitan areas where they had perhaps picked up opportunistic votes from Labour in 2010. I was not expecting the complete wipeout in their southwest heartlands.

While there is further geeky number crunching analysis to do, it’s clear that in many former LibDem strongholds, their vote has collapsed and spread to the four winds, rather than go to a specific party; in some of their former constituencies, the Conservatives won despite polling around the same or indeed fewer votes than in 2010.

While I’m not instinctively a LibDem supporter, up until Thursday 8th May 2015 I genuinely believed that they had support because of local activism and connections (A Good Thing IMHO), and also because they were successfully able to present themselves as above party politics and tribalism, one that was able to exert a moderating influence and ensure there was more debate on a number of issues (Also A Good Thing IMHO). I wanted them to be a thoughtful alternative to two-party politics and felt our political system was stronger because of them, and naively thought that a significant part of the electorate might also share that view.

So hence the personal disappointment. But here’s the thing; even if you have nothing but hatred and contempt for the Liberal Democrats, if you believe in greater democracy and accountability, their collapse is bad news for you. Firstly, there is no way proportional representation is going to work without coalition politics. You can’t rally against the idiocy of the first past the post system without accepting that greater representation of smaller parties will lead to coalitions, negotiations and compromises. Secondly, it has completely destroyed the illusion that local activism (in its current form) is important. I think this is the biggest shame of all.


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