Tag Archives: Parliament

Lib Dems & Coalition: Final Thoughts

Approval ratings, image courtesy The Economist (http://www.economist.com/node/16700180)

By Nikita Lalwani

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.

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Filed under Coalition government, Europe, Lib Dems, Overseas Bureau, partisan politics

For Lib Dems, Tough Road Ahead

By Nikita Lalwani

LONDON – As I am nearing the end of my time here in Parliament, I thought it fitting to reflect on the state of the coalition thus far. In an astute article for The Economist – aptly titled ‘The Liberal Democrats dig in for three years of pain’ – the new Bagehot columnist pointed out that Britain’s third party has been the biggest target for coalition critics. In debates, I rarely hear Labour members criticizing Conservatives; instead, they insult and pressure Liberal Democrats, urging them to see the error of their ways. Labour has vilified the LibDems, portraying them as unprincipled and power-hungry politicians.

Paradoxically, however, Bagehot argues that Labour’s vilification of Liberal Democrats is neither productive nor strategic:

[One] Tory notes that his Lib Dem colleagues are “taking much more flak than we are” from the press and the Labour party, when it comes to cuts. The same Conservative argues that the coalition is strengthened not weakened by this asymmetric pounding. Labour were behaving as if the LibDems belonged to them, he suggested, and the LibDems have noticed this. Labour’s rage was rather inept, he felt: it would be more clever for Labour to criticise the LibDems more in sorrow than in anger.

He’s right. It is common sense: if you want someone to join forces with you, you should court – not snub – them. Labour’s strategy has united the coalition because it has unwittingly transformed Labour into the common enemy of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Working in a Liberal Democrat office and having heard countless Labour MPs attack Liberal Democrats, I feel much more sympathetic towards the Conservatives than I do Labour, and I suspect my colleagues feel the same.

Yet Labour may end up on top in the end. Liberal Democrats and Conservatives appear to agree that much hinges on the state of the economy over the next five years. Should cuts and austerity lead to a deeper recession, both parties will suffer hard losses in the next election. On the other hand, if austerity leads to growth and balances the budget, voters may yet forgive them. Concerns over the economy, Bagehot notes, may even strengthen the coalition, as both parties have a common stake in the next five years.

But again, Liberal Democrats – whose electorate will be among the hardest hit by public spending cuts – appear to have the most to lose. Disgruntled voters may not forget, as one letter to my office put it, that they “voted Lib Dem but got Tories instead.” Liberal Democrats must rely on forgiving voters to realize that coalition requires compromise, and no compromise comes without tough trade-offs.

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Filed under Europe, Overseas Bureau, partisan politics