NEW YORK—Although Parliament was officially in recess, my last week working in Westminster was one of the most exciting for my office. On Friday, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he wanted to introduce term limits for those who live in council homes. Liberal Democrat voters – many of whom live in council homes – were furious, and everyone wondered how Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader Simon Hughes (the MP for whom I work) would react. Would he go along with Cameron’s proposal and risk alienating thousands of voters? Or would he criticize the prime minister and risk creating a rift in the coalition? Eventually, he made a statement that was calm and firm. While he said he would support further discussion on council home terms in government, he made it clear that fixed term housing was neither a Liberal Democrat policy nor one he favored.
From Twitter feeds and media headlines, it quickly became clear that Simon Hughes’s statement resonated with Liberal Democrat voters, who were happy to see one of their politicians standing up to Conservative policy. This support came at the right time.
As the above graph indicates, Liberal Democrats are the only party to have suffered a loss in popularity after this year’s general election. This trend is likely the result of two factors. First, as is the case with any opposition party who has become part of government, the Liberal Democrats have had to make some tough policy compromises. This is especially tough for a third party such as the Liberal Democrats, who have been in opposition for the better part of a century and whose constituents therefore are far less willing to tolerate even slight policy adjustments. Second, the nature of the coalition alliance has also alienated Liberal Democrat voters, who do not understand why their party has had to ally with long-time opponent Conservatives. Additionally, Labour and the media have successfully portrayed Liberal Democrats as the weaker half of government. It is no surprise, then, that many Lib Dem voters wonder what their party is doing for them, particularly in light of harsh governmental public spending cuts that – as I have said previously – affect Lib Dem and Labour constituencies the most.
What, then, can still save the Liberal Democrats?
First, as Simon Hughes did last week, Liberal Democrats should not be afraid to stand up for core values whilst in the coalition. Of course, compromise – especially in a coalition – is necessary and often preferable. But Liberal Democrat politicians must take care to highlight their role in shaping policy. Otherwise, they risk losing more voters than they already have.
Second – and perhaps more importantly – Liberal Democrats are hoping that next year’s referendum on voting reforms will be successful. Liberal Democrats hope to implement the Alternative Vote system, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference and the candidate with a majority of first-preference votes wins. If no candidate secures a majority of first-preference votes, second-preference votes – and later, if necessary, third-preference votes – are taken into account until someone obtains a majority. The proposed reform will not only make elections more democratic by taking into account everyone’s preferences, but it will also give Liberal Democrats a larger share of the vote. Under the current system, Liberal Democrats are severely disadvantaged. As the New York Times reported after the general election, Liberal Democrats received nearly 25% of the popular vote but less than 10% of the seats in the Commons. A successful referendum on AV could very well make up for the pains Liberal Democrats have felt thus far.
In the end, although Liberal Democrats walk a difficult road in the years ahead, they also have a chance to effect real change. For although being in government invites criticism and blame, it offers something else opposition does not: real power. And while I am now back home in New York, I know I will follow the next five years of British politics with great interest.