Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Being a Junior Partner in a Coalition

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 27th March, 2012

For half a century and more the Liberal Party and its successor, the Liberal Democrats, languished as the high-minded, principled oppositional alternative to both Conseratives and Labour, and I have to say that most of us found that situation pretty comfortable, although we spoke wistfully of one day having the chance of getting into power. But I think we realised that the only way that would happen in the post-modern age was as a junior partner in coalition with one of the two ‘major’ parties, which could well result in a shrinkage in our level of public support (as indeed Chris Rennard long ago warned). We looked at examples such as Germany’s FDP and saw that even on a small share of the vote one could nonetheless wield quite a lot of influence (admittedly under a system of proportional representation in Germany’s case), and even aspire to having a few Cabinet Ministers. I suppose most of us imagined that if that opportunity arose, it would almost certainly be in a Coalition with Labour; indeed, Paddy Ashdown and some of his closest colleagues imagined that could happen with a Blair-led government, before Britain’s warped electoral system gave Tony Blair a humungous majority and he veered away from social democracy to become seriously illiberal and a George W Bush groupie. So it was with some surprise that after the May 2010 election the arithmetic meant that only a Tory-led Coalition in Britain was possible. But did that inevitably mean that the LibDems as the junior partner would be screwed? This was the subject of a fascinating seminar put on at Westminster’s Portcullis House yesterday by the Centre for Reform, moderated by former LibDem Chief Executive Lord (Chris) Rennard. Ben Page, Chief Executive of Ipsos-MORI was somewhat disheartening in his analysis of the way that sacrificing full independence had inevitably led to the LibDems’ sharp decline in the opinion polls. But his pessimism was counter-balanced by the Deputy Leader of the party, Simon Hughes MP, who — despite getting into a bit of a muddle with his statistics — managed to reassure the audience that the LibDems, far from crashing to oblivion are still alive and kicking and actually doing better than at many times in their recent history, as well as winning real victories on policy within the Coalition government. Martin Kettle, the acceptable face of the Guardian’s political columns, was also fairly upbeat; unlike Polly Toynbee he does not feel we have sold our soul to the devil, and moreover he believes that even in the North — from which, like me, he hails — there is a future for the party. In the ensuing discussion I pointed out that being the junior partner in a Coalition government is rather like travelling down a road full of hidden sleeping poliemen. The tuition fees débacle was probably predictable; the NHS Bill less so. But I warned that the Tory rethink on the Heathrow third runway could be a third bump that could shake the Coalition and cause a fall in support for the LibDems unless the party came out firmly against once again. I didn’t get quite the ringing endorsement of this line that I’d hoped for from Simon Hughes (or indeed Lord Rennard), but I think the point was taken.

2 Responses to “Being a Junior Partner in a Coalition”

  1. Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks for the post. Interesting to hear about the seminar.

    As a Scot and a comparative political scientist, I never understood why the ‘federal’ Lib Dems seemed so thrown by being in government. After all, the Lib Dems have run councils up and down the land, and have also been junior coalition partners in Scotland and Wales. Particularly in their first term in government (1999-2003), the Scottish Lib Dems made quite a good fist of the tricky junior-coalition-partner spot. I remember their achievements being hailed by the Lib Dems in England as evidence of the positive impact of the Lib Dems in government.

    How the Scottish Lib Dems played it:
    – They made sure they got a couple of big ‘wins’ that they could talk up as their own achievements.
    – They didn’t let themselves get drawn into anything that could be seen as an abandonment of their fundamental principles.

    Granted, it’s harder in the current financial circumstances to get a big ‘win’ – ironically, for the Scottish Lib Dems, their big win was tuition fees – but I think that the Westmister Lib Dems could have been more consultative with the wider party. Instead, they seemed to take the view that they were in a brave new territory that only they could navigate. Being a junior coalition partner may be like travelling down a road full of hidden sleeping policemen, but the Lib Dems could have driven more carefully and avoided some of the most dangerous traps.

    It takes a lot to kill off a party with a long history, strong fundamental principles, a large membership base and roots tapped well into local communities via local government. Comparative politics shows that such parties usually bounce back after a period in opposition. So the most likely outcome is that the Lib Dems will survive and re-build under new leadership after this spell in government, provided (as you say) that they avoid further debacles.

    Alison Smith
    St Antony’s College, Oxford

  2. There is a belief that coalitions lead to weak government in England. The example of West Germany,whose political institutons were shaped by the British among others,shows that coalitions can bring economic success.

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