Saturday, 2 March 2013

Eastleigh And Government Formation

One other aspect of the Eastleigh by-election is that, although the Liberal Democrats lost support, they were not significantly punished for entering a coalition with the Conservatives. Yes, they lost their historic role as the protest vote party to the UK Independence Party, but still held the seat.

After the May 2010 general election, and when the coalition was formed, there would sometimes be the argument that people voted Liberal Democrat on the understanding that in a hung Parliament they would back Labour. We saw this with Eastleigh, with letters in the local paper from disgruntled Labour supporters who had voted tactically for the then-MP, Chris Huhne, on the understanding that they were preventing a Conservative government, and then they get the slap in the face when he becomes Energy & Climate Change Secretary.

However, they did prevent a Conservative government. Their tactical voting created the conditions for a Conservative/Liberal Democrat government.

There is an arrogance in such an assumption, which I will return to.

If we look at the seats which the Liberal Democrats gained (up to the May 2005 general election), then yes, it is fair to say that at the May 1997 general election, with massive tactical voting ensuring the Liberal Democrats gained 30 seats from the Conservatives (and a further 7 at the June 2001 general election), then it would have been a very strange decision if there had been a hung Parliament and the Liberal Democrats had entered a coalition with the Conservatives, when it is clear that much of the Liberal Democrat gains was from wanting to oust a Conservative government.

By the time we get to the 2005 election, then the Liberal Democrats are gaining 12 seats from Labour and only 3 from the Conservatives.

At the 2010 election, the Liberal Democrats gained 5 seats - Bradford East, Brent Central, Burnley, Norwich South and Redcar - from Labour, but only 3 - Eastbourne, Solihull and Wells - from the Conservatives, so it wasn't really a case of winning excessively more from one of the main parties than the other.

With that out the way, I mentioned an arrogance. And that is the attitude that in Great Britain there are only two types of seats - a Conservative seat or a Labour seat. Sure, from time-to-time a Conservative seat might elect a Liberal Democrat MP due to tactical voting from Labour supporters, but it is still, deep down, a Conservative seat.

And, indeed, the history of the Liberals after the Second World War has some support for that. It seemed that Liberal MPs were simply keeping a seat warm for a major party, and that seat's representation by a Liberal was no more than a flash-in-the-pan.

There were exceptions. In March 1962, Clement Davies, the Liberal MP for Montgomeryshire (who had been Liberal leader from August 1945 to November 1956) died, leading to a by-election in May 1962, which was held by the Liberals' Emlyn Hooson (who lost it to Labour at the June 1970 general election), But a Liberal MP succeeding a Liberal MP was unusual.

The only other pre-1997 examples that spring to mind are Jim Wallace (now the Advocate-General) succeeding Joseph Grimond as MP for Orkney & Shetland at the June 1983 general election (a seat that is still Liberal Democrat, with Alistair Carmichael - now the Deputy Chief Whip - succeeding Wallace at the 2001 general election) and Liz Lynne succeeding Cyril Smith as MP for Rochdale at the April 1992 general election (but losing to Labour in 1997).

But in the 21st century we have something new - Liberal Democrat seats. To be a Liberal Democrat seat involves more than having a Liberal Democrat MP. It means the Liberal Democrats being entrenched there. I note that Eastleigh and Orkney & Shetland are now both on their third consecutive Liberal Democrat MP.

To suggest that the Liberal Democrats won Eastleigh in 2010 as voters didn't want a Conservative government is to view 21st century politics through a Conservative/Labour dichotomy that belongs in the mid-20th century.

My opinion is that the Liberal Democrats won Eastleigh in 2010 because the voters wanted a Liberal Democrat MP.

I have alluded to something in my last post - namely that in the opinion poll carried out by Conservative peer Michael Ashcroft, 23% of those who voted Labour in 2010 and who voted on Thursday switched to the Liberal Democrats. It doesn't seem that Labour supporters are desperately keen to punish the Liberal Democrats for entering Government with the Conservatives. The impression I get is of Labour supporters accepting that - given the choice of a Conservative or a Conservative/Liberal Democrat Government - the latter is the lesser of the two evils.

No comments:

Post a Comment