We now have the local election results and the votes for the assemblies in Wales and Scotland. This provokes a number of comments:
1. The SNP has won a landslide in Scotland. This has tended to obscure the fact that the Labour vote has held firm in Scotland. The runaway victory of the SNP in Scotland is a consequence of the collapse of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland. Whilst this is a bitterly disappointing result for Labour it is a totally predictable consequence of an overwhelmingly English Conservative led government in London. Scottish voters deserted the Liberal Democrats, the only one of the two coalition parties with a presence in Scotland, and went over to the SNP as voters in Scotland voted overwhelmingly for a strong Scottish government in Scotland to stand up to the English Conservative led government in London. This does not mean that independence beckons or that the SNP will score the same result in a General Election. Scottish voters in this election were voting for the parliament in Edinburgh not for the parliament in London. There is no possibility of the SNP forming a government in London so come elections to the Westminster parliament Scottish voters have far fewer incentives to vote for it. Just as Scottish voters have voted for an SNP government in Scotland to stand up for Scotland so come a General Election many of them are likely to switch their support to the party with a strong Scottish identity that is best capable of forming a government in Westminster, which is Labour. I can remember how in the 1960s and 1970s industrial workers routinely voted for Communist shop stewards in union elections to stand up for them against their bosses whilst voting for Labour in parliamentary elections. I suspect that something very similar will happen in Scotland.
I would just add that Labour’s only chance of winning the assembly elections in Scotland would have come from bringing forward their heavyweight Scottish politicians Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling. The extreme hostility to Gordon Brown within the London dominated political class and Ed Milliband’s fear of being branded “the son of Brown” made this impossible.
2. The Conservative vote has held firm in England and may even have slightly increased in Wales. The consistent lesson of twentieth century coalitions is that the bigger partner is given the credit for any success and the smaller partner the blame for any failure. Labour has on three occasions governed with the support of the Liberals (twice in the 1920s and once in the 1970s) and on every occasion its vote at the subsequent general election either held firm or increased (in 1979 by 50,000 votes). The only previous case of a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberals in peacetime was the Lloyd George/Austen Chamberlain coalition of 1918 to 1922. That coalition also strengthened the Conservatives and weakened the Liberals. The same pattern has repeated itself in this election. In saying this it is important to remember that the government is still only a year old. New governments should expect to keep or even increase their support in their first year. It would be astonishing and I believe actually unprecedented for a new government to lose support only a year after it had been elected. Some over excited commentary that sees in these results the dawn of a new era of semi permanent Conservative hegemony overlook this point.
3. The Liberal Democrat vote has collapsed. This seems to be the pattern in every region where there has been a vote with the beneficiaries in Scotland being the SNP and the beneficiaries in England being Labour. In addition the Alternative Vote referendum has been lost by an even bigger margin than I had expected. A year ago during the General Election campaign the liberal political commentator Martin Kettle was saying in the Guardian that Labour was about to face an existential crisis. That turned out not to be the case for Labour then but is the case for the Liberal Democrats now.
What these results expose is the scale of the miscalculation that Clegg and his supporters made last year. As I have said (and I was not the only person to say it, the journalist and commentator Simon Jenkins made the same point) coalitions have always damaged the Liberals in the past and there was no reason to think that this coalition would be different. Clegg should have been very careful about entering into any coalition arrangement at all. To enter into a coalition with a Conservative party committed to a political and economic agenda to which the majority of Liberal Democrat voters and activists is opposed was folly. I have already explained in a previous post why it all but guaranteed that any referendum for electoral reform would be lost. The damage to the Liberal Democrats as a party is now also becoming clear. Moreover I do not think that things are going to get better. All the evidence points to the economic picture getting darker not just in Britain but globally. If there is a deterioration in economic conditions in Britain it will be the Liberal Democrats who will be blamed for it. If on the contrary the economic situation improves it will be the Conservatives who will harvest the credit.
Some Liberal Democrats are saying that the Liberal Democrats must somehow distance themselves from the Conservatives by taking a more confrontational and assertive line inside the coalition. I cannot see how that will help. It will make the Liberal Democrats seem fractious and belligerent when a large part of their appeal has always been that they appear to be more reasonable and “nice” than the two big parties. It will also enable the Conservatives to shore up their support by blaming Liberal Democrat for being “obstructive”, which allegedly was preventing the government from doing the right things the Conservatives want it to do. It also risks making the Liberal Democrats seem weak and ineffective. Unless they are prepared to withdraw from or vote against the coalition, which would risk a General Election in which the Liberal Democrats might face a wipe out, any act of defiance would be a bluff and one which Cameron and the Conservatives would have a strong incentive to call.
Though no option is good in my opinion the least bad option in this situation is for the Liberal Democrats if they want to survive as a viable force in the foreseeable future to look for a way out of the coalition as soon as possible. Inevitably this would mean ditching Clegg as leader. If the Liberal Democrats were serious about reconnecting with the centre left voters who are deserting them it would also mean replacing Clegg not with Chris Huhne but with someone who still has credibility amongst such voters such as Vince Cable or even Charles Kennedy. Such a step would almost certainly provoke a General Election in which the Liberal Democrats would still be bound to suffer heavy losses. However it may be the only way of limiting the damage and of holding on to some of the gains that the Liberal Democrats have made since the original split of the SDP from Labour in 1981. As this is a high risk strategy I do not expect the Liberal Democrats to adopt it for the moment but as things get worse the pressure may increase. It goes without saying that the longer the Liberal Democrats put off doing it the greater the damage to them will be.
Lastly, I have noticed that some Liberal Democrats and liberal political commentators such as Paddy Ashdown and Polly Toynbee and Tom Clarke in the Guardian are already blaming Labour “conservatism” and “tribalism” for the failure of the Alternative Vote referendum and are criticising Ed Milliband for his supposed failure to “stamp his authority” on his party. In the case of Paddy Ashdown there is a certain political logic to such comments. In the case of commentators such as Polly Toynbee and Tom Clarke they betray the basic lack of political understanding of these commentators and their failure to grasp that the rejection of the Alternative Vote and of electoral reform is a direct consequence of the mistaken strategy upon which they embarked when they joined forces against Gordon Brown in the summer of 2009. I explained why this strategy was mistaken in an earlier post. It is perhaps too much to expect of these commentators that they should admit their mistake and accept responsibility for a debacle that they have played no small part in bringing about.