Once again, rattling around the wires is the idea that the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties should merge. The origins of these mutterings are largely Conservative, for example, Fraser Nelson in the Telegraph, or René Kinzett on ThinkPolitics. I’d like to put a Liberal Democrat view as to why this is utterly implausible.
A key motivating factor for this talk is the low performance of the LibDems in opinion polls at the moment. However, there are two issues here:
Firstly, members of both Labour and Conservative parties see polls in a different light to LibDems. In part because the other parties are programmed to believe in a steady pendulum swing which sees power passing to and fro between them with a period of years. Therefore for them regaining power is largely a matter of waiting for the pendulum to swing. The LibDems do not lie on the pendulum swing, they do not have this expectation. Aside from the national coalition during the Second World War, the Liberal forbearers to the current party have not been in office since 1918. You can see this in action in my immediate post-election blog post, which is characterised by gloomy resignation at another disappointing general election. Broadly the reaction of a long term LibDem to a general election is crashing disappointment. So facing so-called “electoral annihilation” at a future general election the LibDem response is “no change there then”.
Secondly, as my previous post alludes: the opinion polls are not a great predictor of electoral success for the LibDems. Just to give an example: in the 1983 election the SDP-Liberal Alliance got 25.4% of the vote and 23 seats, in the 2010 election the LibDems got 23% of the vote and got 57 seats. This is only a very small rise in the % of the vote since the 2005 election (just 1%) and a drop in the number of parliamentary seats (5 seats). If you want to see some more numbers, go have a look at the wikipedia list of UK elections.
At the heart of this believe that there should be a merger seems to be a problem with counting, one alluded to in the title of this blog; it seems to be in the UK that there is a serious problem with counting parties beyond two. It’s seems to go “Labour, Conservative,……… nope can’t cope!”. This is in no doubt partly driven by the first-past-the-past electoral system which encourages the merger of parties into two blocks (know as Duverger’s Law).
It’s also a mistake to see a major schism forming between a party leadership in government and the rank-and-file membership. A naive view is that the leadership have “gone Tory” at the head of what is essentially a left-leaning organisation. However, I understand this more in terms of the way I see the large company I work in operating. At some level within the company there are discussions about the way forward for the company should be, and at points in time a decision is made as to what the way forward actually will be. At this point everybody gets on and does it, at higher levels the company appears unified – the message from senior management is consistent, at my level I have the opportunity to gripe about stuff but ultimately I have to get on and help execute the plan. What we see in government is, I argue the same, LibDem ministers have argued for their beliefs in coming to a plan: where they have prevailed they support the agreed plan but where they don’t agree they still work to enact the agreed plan – sulking, griping and refusing to support where you did not prevail is not an option.
The other thing to consider is how the LibDem party works: even in the event of a proposed merger by the leadership of the party the likely response of the membership would be a resounding “no” and in the LibDems that means something. And just to be clear on my own position: if there was a successful proposal to merge with either the Labour or Tory parties I’d be off to form the Continuity Liberal Democrats – and I wouldn’t be alone! As Simon Cooke (Tory) accurately points out, any LibDem is free to leave the party and join either the Conservatives or Labour, or the Greens (or no party at all). In the deeply untribal view of this Liberal Democrat they should feel free to do so (and positively encouraged if that’s what they want). But don’t expect to see this happen in any great numbers, at the very least Nick Clegg and David Laws have had serious offers from the Tories to join them in the pre-2010 election past but chose to stay in the electoral unsuccessful LibDems. I’ve no doubt that similar applies to offers from Labour during the 1997-2010 governments.
Finally there is a question of political positioning, ideology if you like. It seems to me that the LibDems are precisely where they should be: on the centre ground and they shouldn’t be thinking of moving from there. Labour and Conservatives have come to power when they have decided to be more like us. You can still find our manifesto on the Liberal Democrat website, largely these are the things I still believe in and these are the things I will fight for, of the Labour manifesto I find no sign on their website.
Viva the Continuity Liberal Democrats!