Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

In the balance

The new Lib Dem leader could be kingmaker to the next Labour – or Conservative – government, says Paul Whiteley

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Duverger’s Law’, named after the French political sociologist who first coined it, states that third parties will tend to be squeezed out of existence in countries with a first-past-the-post electoral system like Britain’s. Since most voters are found in the centre ground of politics, a party shifting position from the left to the centre, as New Labour did in the 1990s, will pick up a lot of extra votes. Similarly, a party shifting from the centre to the right, which the Conservatives did under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, will eventually lose votes. In this case, a centre party, like the Liberal Democrats, will pick up these abandoned Conservative voters; this largely explains the party’s recent electoral successes. The implication of this account of party competition is that, if the Conservatives shift back to the centre and Labour stays where it is, the third party will be squeezed and Duverger’s Law vindicated.

There is validity in this analysis, but only limited validity. This is because the ‘positional’ issues that underlie the left-right dimension (that is where parties have different policy objectives, such as on taxation, the European Union, and the Iraq war) play only a relatively modest role in explaining voting behaviour. Generally, valence issues are more important. These are issues on which there is widespread agreement about policy goals, and disagreements are about which party is best at delivering them.

The economy is a classic valence issue since the overwhelming majority of the electorate prefer low inflation to high, low unemployment to joblessness, and healthy economic growth to stagnation. Equally, nearly all voters want an effective health service, safe streets, good public transport, and so on. In the 2005 general election, the British Election Study surveys shows that the government ‘lost’ a lot of these valence issues in the sense that more voters thought it had done a bad job in handling them than thought the opposite. The one valence issue offsetting an otherwise fairly dismal record was the economy, with a large margin of voters thinking that Gordon Brown had done a good job. Since the economy tends to be the most important valance issue, in a real sense it saved Labour.

At the moment, both unemployment and the public sector deficit are rising, and consumer confidence is falling, increasing the likelihood of a recession before the next election. If by then the government’s economic record has become tarnished, and the public services continue to under-perform, disaffected Labour voters may well turn to the Liberal Democrats.

In the last two general elections, the swings from Labour to the Liberal Democrats were larger than the swings from Labour to the Conservatives, illustrating the point that Labour voters find it easier to switch to the third party than they do to the Conservatives. Equally, by the next election, over 30 per cent of the electorate will be too young to remember an economically successful Conservative government, something last seen in 1992. Such voters are unlikely to choose the Conservatives as the automatic alternative to Labour, which gives an opportunity to the Liberal Democrats. The new Liberal Democrat leader, though, has to ensure that the party presents a safe pair of hands on the economy.

A second factor that is also more important than left-right position issues is the image of the party leaders. Since 1997, the Liberal Democrats have been fortunate and the Conservatives unfortunate in their choice of leaders. Both Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy consistently outscored their Conservative rivals in public esteem, prior to the arrival of David Cameron. The new Conservative leader has made a good start, and is currently enjoying a honeymoon in the eyes of the public. We do not know how he will score against the new Liberal Democrat leader, but the latter is also likely to enjoy an electoral honeymoon.

It is also important to remember that, from the time of Labour’s low point in 1983, the party had to wait 14 years to win power. It then increased its vote share by significant amounts at each successive election until 1997. In contrast, the Conservatives have lost three elections in a row without significantly increasing their vote share, an indication of how far they still have to go. The Liberal Democrats have to make sure that they do not select an Iain Duncan Smith as their next leader, but, on current evidence, there is no reason to think that any of the leadership contenders will be unable to hold their own against David Cameron and Gordon Brown.

A third, relatively unobtrusive factor which plays a very important role in explaining support for the Liberal Democrats is campaigning by grassroots party members, or the ‘ground war’ in the constituencies. Grassroots campaigning is important for all parties, but it is particularly important for the Liberal Democrats. The party has learned to target its campaigning efforts in order to win seats, and it has been doing this very successfully since the mid-1990s. With the grassroots Labour party weakened and demoralised, and the grassroots Conservative party relatively elderly and inactive, this is the Liberal Democrats’ key card. If the party can mobilise its activists and concentrate its efforts, it can win many of the 25 marginal seats where it is the main challenger to the other parties. Having said that, even if it wins all of them, it will still be well behind the Conservatives, making it hard to shake off the image of being the perpetual third party.

However, there are reasons for thinking that we are reaching a tipping point in British electoral politics. The Liberal Democrats are likely to be in the pivotal role of deciding which of the other two parties will form the government after the next election. The chart illustrates the point. It shows the effects of progressively reducing the Labour vote on the number of seats which the three parties will win in 2009/2010. It assumes that these Labour votes are shared between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in the same proportions as occurred in 2005, although this is not a critical assumption. As the chart shows, Labour loses its overall majority in the House of Commons when its vote falls by around three per cent.

However, the Conservatives – and this is the crucial point – do not gain an overall majority until the Labour vote falls by just over 12 per cent. Thus a wide range of plausible swings at the next election produces a hung parliament, in which the Liberal Democrats are the pivotal party. Constituency boundaries are due to be redrawn in the next four years, but this is unlikely to change the picture. Because Labour is going to lose seats in the boundary revisions, it actually makes a hung parliament more likely to occur with a relatively modest loss of Labour votes. The next election could put the Liberal Democrats closer to power than they have been since the 1920s.

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Paul Whiteley

is a professor at the Department of Government, University of Essex

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