Author: William Anderson, Johns Hopkins University _______________________________________________________________________________________
When asked to describe British politics, the learned observer will usually recount lively sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions, boisterous Members of Parliament, and the humorous use of respectful, sarcastic language when debating. Parliament watchers see Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband of the Labour Party and Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, square off on opposite sides of the House of Commons, screaming insults, hurling accusations, and using disparaging remarks against each other.
However, there is another traditional force in the political world of the United Kingdom, the Liberal Democrats, the centrist historical brokers of the balance of power in Parliament. Previously the main opposition of the Conservatives, Britain’s center-right party and current leaders of Her Majesty’s Government, the Liberal Democrats have become the third largest party in British politics. Their influence reached its peak in the aftermath of the 2010 Parliamentary elections, where no party achieved a majority in the House of Commons, and David Cameron had to compromise with the Liberal Democrats and now Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the centrist party. This compromise formed an arguably more centrist and moderated coalition government that has successfully led the United Kingdom through the Great Recession. One would therefore think that the popularity of the Liberal Democrats would be on the rise again after a relatively successful government with the Conservatives. However, the Liberal Democrats are polling at their lowest levels in years, showing a decrease from 21.0% of the vote in 2010 to 7% , according to the October 23-24 YouGov/Sunday Times poll. What is causing the decline of the most successful political moderation forces in the world?
Voters are not flocking to Labour, with polls showing that Labour’s share of the vote has only increased a little from 29% at the 2010 elections to 33% now, according to YouGov/Sunday Times, a relatively poor showing for the Official Opposition historically. Support for the Conservatives, while down marginally, has remained relatively steady at 33% today compared to 36.1% in the 2010 elections. One would be completely justified in asking what has caused the overall decline at the Liberal Democrats’ expense. The answer is the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a far-right, Eurosceptic, and anti-immigrant group that advocates for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, quotas on immigrants, and British nationalism. Their level of support in opinion polls has increased from around 3% after the 2010 election to 16% according to YouGov/Sunday Times. Ironically, UKIP has had most of its success in the European Parliamentary Elections, but after the defection of one Conservative MP, Douglas Carswell, and his subsequent reelection to the House of Commons as a member of UKIP, there has been a threat of UKIP becoming the new holder of the balance of power. That is dangerous.
The Liberal Democrats have long been seen as the least offensive and least radical political party in the United Kingdom, which is precisely why their vote support has declined since the last general election. After struggling through a horrible recession and having to help bail out the nations who mishandled their banking and finance sectors (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, etc.), the British people are tired of the European project. They feel more detached from the continent than any other time since before the Second World War and have less confidence in the traditional political parties in the UK.
Voters are flocking to UKIP precisely because there are looking for change, and they know that the most radical party has the best chance to make those aspirations come true. While David Cameron himself is no fan of Europe and wants to hold a referendum on British EU membership, something he claims only the Conservatives can supply, voters think that he won’t be radical enough when push comes to shove. Eurosceptic voters and MPs are flocking to UKIP’s charismatic leader Nigel Farage and his bewitching populism and promises. The gradual shift of the political spectrum to Euroscepticism has severely damaged the position of the Liberal Democrats and their pro-European standing. Voters on the left of the party are scared of a prolonged Conservative government or a UKIP-influenced one. Voters on the right of the party are shifting to the Conservatives in an effort to plug the hole that the voters who are moving to UKIP have left. The coalition with the Conservatives has led many supporters of the Liberal Democrats to savor the status quo, causing them to switch their support to the Conservatives to prevent a possible UKIP-led government. The pragmatism of its voters has led to the Liberal Democrat party’s decline, probably into at least the medium term.
The scariest aspect of this political shift is that the holder of the balance of power in the UK is shifting from the malleable center to the far-right, a dangerous possibility that has occurred in France with the rise of the Front National and in Sweden with the recent rise of the Sweden Democrats. These new nationalist, anti-immigration, anti-compromise, reactionist political parties unite voters on social principles that manipulate and distract voters from the real problems that a government needs to deal with. In a society as ethnically diverse, economically advanced, and reliant on good relations with regional and global powers as the UK is, there needs to be a power always willing to cooperate and compromise to benefit society as a whole. In their most recent compromise and effort to moderate by joining the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats may have sealed their own political fate.