Liberal Democrats after the election: a left of centre party which should be able to work more easily with Labour than the Conservatives

by Stephen Fisher and Eilidh Macfarlane

At the 2010 election Liberal Democrat MPs, members and voters were all more social liberal than economic liberal (using both terms in their traditional British not American sense) i.e. left rather than right of centre. But their leaders, especially Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and David Laws are further to the right than most of their party. In his book 5 Days in May, Andrew Adonis goes so far as to argue that the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition with the Conservatives rather than Labour not because of the parliamentary arithmetic was considerably better but instead because Nick Clegg and David Laws especially were ideologically closer and personally warmer to the Tories than to Labour.

David Laws and others seriously dispute the Andrew Adonis story about 2010, but the accusation raises the question of the extent to which the relatively right-wing nature of the Liberal Democrat leader and negotiating team might have on the government formation process. Our answer is that this year with a weakened leadership after five years of coalition with the Conservatives the social liberal nature of their MPs and members will matter much more.

As in 2010 the Liberal Democrat leadership in May will be to the right of most of the party. David Laws and Danny Alexander will be part of the negotiating team for any potential coalition and along with Nick Clegg they are seen to be on the right of the party. Although the negotiating team for 2015 also includes three members seen to be left of centre in Steve Webb, Lynne Featherstone and Kate Parminter, both Webb and Featherstone have served loyally as ministers and the team will be led by Danny Alexander.

By contrast, if the forecasters are remotely right then the overall ideological profile of the Liberal Democrats MPs who are likely to be elected this May will be rather similar to what it was in May 2010 in being left of centre. The members also remain more on the social liberal side.

The main profile change for the Liberal Democrats is with their voter base. With many left leaning 2010 Liberal Democrat voters having switched to Labour, Greens and even UKIP, their voter base will also be much more right wing. Of the September/October 2014 British Election Study (BES) respondents who voted Liberal Democrat in 2010 and still intend to vote Lib Dem, just 14% strongly agree that, “government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off”, compared with 31% for those that have switched to Labour.

Most fundamentally however, the Liberal Democrats will be in a different position in any government formation process. In 2010 the Liberal Democrats were choosers with the power to play the Conservatives and Labour off against each other, albeit in a very unequal contest. This year there is a high chance of the Liberal Democrats being called on for support, but much less chance of them being able to choose whom to support.

According to the electionsetc.com forecast there is about a 67% chance that post-election the government will depend on Liberal Democrat support or at least their acquiescence. While this suggests considerable influence, their actual bargaining power will depend very much on whether it is Labour or the Conservatives calling for their support. There are essentially three types of outcomes in which the Liberal Democrats would be pivotal. One in which Labour have the most seats, one where the Tories have the most seats, and a third where the Tories do but would not be able to command a majority even with DUP and Lib Dem support. We discuss each in turn, concluding that the Liberal Democrats may have less bargaining power if Labour are making the call, but their working relationship, even with the SNP, could well be a smooth one. Conversely, points of potential tension and difficulty between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are numerous, making continued joint government potentially fraught and unstable even if the parliamentary arithmetic seems to necessitate it.

Scenario 1 – Labour most seats and dependent on support from Lib Dems and perhaps others, but not the SNP

There is a broad range of possible outcomes that are compatible with the description of this scenario. An average set of seats totals for the scenario from the electionsetc.com model would be Con 264, Lab 298, LD 25 and SNP 39. The Tories and Lib Dems would be well short of a majority and Labour would surely lead any government even though their clear lead on seats would not necessarily be accompanied by any lead at all on votes. While there may be concerns for a party committed to proportional representation about forming a government with the runner-up on votes, especially if the Lib Dems themselves win many more seats but fewer votes than UKIP, the constraints of parliamentary arithmetic will be a more powerful force.

The scenario has a 33% chance in the latest electionsetc.com forecast, including situations where Labour perhaps also depend on DUP and minor parties of the left (Greens, PC and SDLP) and Sylvia Hermon (the Independent MP for North Down who is closer to Labour than the Conservatives). Moreover there is an additional 5% chance of an outcome in which Labour and DUP would command a majority but Labour might prefer the support of the Liberal Democrats instead or as well in this situation.

This is perhaps the easiest of the three scenarios for the Liberal Democrats. There is significant common ground. Labour are likely to find the main Lib Dem manifesto priorities acceptable and might make a generous policy offer, perhaps even including some constitutional reform. But ultimately the Liberal Democrats will not, in this scenario, have the option of governing with the Conservatives and nor (for various reasons including cost and fear of annoying voters) will they want a second election, so they might need to accept whatever they are offered.

Even though this would be the fundamental character of the situation, Labour are unlikely to simply present the Liberal Democrats with a Hobson’s choice (take it or leave it). It would be too high-handed and politically insensitive. Any deal (coalition or confidence-and-supply) is more likely to be stable and productive if both sides establish cordial relations and agree on their main aims.

Notice then that there would seem to be very little room for the relatively right wing Lib Dem leadership to make much difference. They will be duty bound to push for their manifesto commitments and although the Liberal Democrats argue that they would help reign in Labour profligacy, it is hard to imagine they would force a second election because public spending cuts are not deep enough.

One interesting issue in this scenario is whether Labour would seek to hasten a departure by Nick Clegg (as the Liberal Democrats did for Gordon Brown in 2010) and whether the context of being in government with Labour would affect the outcome of any Lib Dem leadership contest (for which Tim Farron is currently hotly tipped). A shift of leadership to the left would be more in tune with the personal preferences of the activists and remaining MPs. They may be relatively unconcerned about upsetting their more right wing voters because they will be more focused on winning back their more left wing former voters. But conversely many of the seats they will want to win back are Con-Lib contests which might be jeopardised by too big a lurch to the left.

Scenario 2 – Conservatives most seats and dependent on support from Lib Dems and perhaps others, but not the SNP

This situation has about a 25% chance according to the latest electionsetc.com forecast, either with (12%) or without (13%) the DUP. Moreover there is an additional 6% chance of an outcome in which the Tories and DUP would command a majority but the Tories might prefer the support of the Liberal Democrats instead or as well.

A typical set of seat totals that would produce this scenario is Con 301, Lab 262, LD 23 and SNP 39. So no prospect of a Labour-led government without both the SNP and LD. Unless pretty much all the other parties gang up to form an anti-Tory government then this scenario would appear at first glance to be again fundamentally one of Hobson’s choice for the Liberal Democrats. But in practice the difficulty for both the Tory and Lib Dem leadership of maintaining a deal to govern together means that the Conservatives will need to woo the Liberal Democrats in a way that Labour would not need to do were the arithmetic the other way round.

For the same reasons as in Scenario 1 and more, there would most likely be serious post-election negotiations. The most difficult of the main Lib Dem manifesto priorities for the Conservatives is perhaps the increased environmental legislation and maybe the additional NHS funding increase of £8bn a year. Both the Conservatives and Labour reject the £8bn plea but it may still be welcomed in government, just as the 2010 Lib Dem proposal for raising the threshold for income tax was.

The issue of an in-out referendum on EU membership is probably the most difficult of all. David Cameron has promised a referendum if he stays as Prime Minister after the election. But if the Tories do not have a majority they might not be able to pass the necessary legislation without support from at least one of the bigger parties. Given their strong pro-European position the Liberal Democrats could be left in the position of having to scupper plans for a referendum. Rather than being a deal breaker a Lib Dem veto might actually suit Cameron and pro-European Tories very well.

A corollary of this argument tells us about potential deals with UKIP. There is a only a very small chance that UKIP will be pivotal for a Tory-led government commanding a majority but their price for support is an early referendum. Presuming the Liberal Democrats would refuse, then a deal involving both the Liberal Democrats and UKIP seems highly unlikely and has been ruled out by the Liberal Democrats. It would also be extraordinary if the Tories preferred a deal with UKIP to one with the Lib Dems. Only if UKIP win many more seats than handful they are currently forecast would they have much power.

Many argue that Conservative backbenchers would be furious at the prospect of another Con-Lib coalition, especially one without an EU referendum, but the consequences for the Tories of a confidence-and-supply agreement could be worse. Rebellions by Liberal Democrat backbenchers have been sufficiently problematic for the current government that some reasonably argue that the Tories could only rely on Lib Dem ministers in a second coalition.

After 2010 there were enough Lib Dem ministers appointed to give the Conservatives a majority. To do the same again this year would probably mean giving government jobs to the vast majority of the post-election Lib Dem MPs. Whether this would be acceptable to Tory back benchers and whether enough Lib Dems would even be willing to accept the posts is sufficiently unclear as to suggest that any post-election deal might face trouble further down the road.

One possible development in this scenario is that several months into a Con-Lib government (coalition or otherwise) the polls suggest both Labour and the Liberal Democrats would win more seats if there were another general election. Under the provisions of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act the Liberal Democrats could side with Labour on a no confidence motion (presumably following some whipped up political storm) and then Labour and the Liberal Democrats could ensure there is no government formed within two weeks to force a general election.

The risk of such a development is significant. The Tories should expect to be hit by traditional mid-term government slump with Labour as opposition beneficiaries. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats have a lot of former voters that they might be able to recover, especially with a new and more popular leader. To avoid being deserted mid-term, the Conservatives will have to work hard to keep the Liberal Democrats happy, and David Cameron will have strong incentives to do so as his position as leader will come under pressure if he cannot keep the show on the road.

Despite the symmetry of the parliamentary arithmetic, the contrast between the politics of scenarios 1 and 2 is stark. In scenario 1 Labour and the Liberal Democrats should be able to work well enough together for a fixed term with relatively little policy tension. Conversely, despite having managed five years together and despite the fact that in 2015 both parties will have a relatively culturally and economically liberal (laisser-faire) voter bases and leaders, the differences between the members and parliamentary parties will mean that another five years of joint government between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will be hard to maintain even if the parliamentary arithmetic favours it.

Scenario 3 – Conservatives most seats but Labour looking to form a government with both Lib Dem and SNP support

This is the kind of outcome that most of the main forecasters and bookies are pointing to with a typical set of seat totals close to Con 287, Lab 276, LD 20 and SNP 42. The Tories would be the clear winners with a small lead in seats and around a 3 point lead on votes. But since the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and DUP combined would not have a majority, either these three parties could try to govern at the mercy of the SNP, or the Liberal Democrats and SNP both would have to support Ed Miliband.

Although this scenario roughly corresponds to the “SNP kingmakers or wreckers” wedge which has a 14% chance in the electionsetc.com graphic, because the smaller parties might also play a role and the SNP alone might be sufficient to sustain Labour in power, there is only an 8% chance that Labour would need the Liberal Democrats as well as the SNP.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have ruled out a coalition with the SNP, but as Nicola Sturgeon notes, this does not rule out a confidence-and-supply or some other kind of still loser agreement.

In return for their support the SNP have said that they want no update for Trident, no financial ‘austerity’, and more powers for Scotland than those in the Smith Commission. It is neither clear that Labour would be willing to meet these demands nor clear that the SNP would hold firm on these demands, even though they have ruled out turning to the Tories.

In some ways the involvement of the Liberal Democrats could ease negotiations between Labour and the SNP, perhaps in a way that would strangely make a three-party agreement easier to reach than a two-party one.

If there are three-way negotiations, the Liberal Democrat policy of partial renewal of Trident might be a helpful focal point at which Labour and the SNP might compromise. Regarding Scotland, Labour have proposed further devolution of welfare spending powers in the Vow Plus and they might be prepared to offer still more. The Smith Commission was a process in which the three parties successfully reached a negotiated agreement. Given the Liberal Democrats long record of calling for Home Rule for Scotland within a federal UK agreement on still further powers for Scotland might also be possible.

The issue of anti-austerity economics will be perhaps the most tricky for the Liberal Democrats in reaching agreement with both Labour and the SNP. Given the current Liberal Democrat pitch is one of moderating Labour’s spending plans, it will be difficult for them to justify supporting a still higher spending position somewhere between the Labour and SNP preferences. However, as in scenario 1 but not so starkly, it is hard (if not impossible) to imagine that the Liberal Democrats would walk out and force another general election because they could not secure greater cuts to public services. So despite the difficulty over tax and spending, the prospect of a Lab-Lib coalition supported by the SNP look rather good in this scenario.

Given Vince Cable’s background in Glasgow politics it is understandable that he should feel that getting into “any tie-ups” with the SNP would be inconceivable. But the alternative for the Liberal Democrats in this scenario would most likely be to stand aside while Labour and the SNP, perhaps also with PC, SDLP, DUP and the Greens, do a deal. Such a government might occasionally or even frequently depend on the Liberal Democrats not siding with Tories to vote them out. But given the social liberal nature of Liberal Democrat MPs and members and their desire to win them back the left of centre voters they have lost since 2010, it seems unlikely that Lib Dem MPs would want bring down a left of centre government and force a general election when it would most likely help the Tories back to power.

If the Liberal Democrats in this scenario would not fight the SNP and Labour then arguably they should join them: the Lib Dems could both influence an SNP-Labour deal and bring something positive to the table that could make it work better.

So what does all this mean for voters?

The analysis here does suggest that there is credibility to the party’s argument that they would be able to exert a moderating influence on the policy proposal of whichever one of the two main parties wins enough seats to lead the government. But they are likely to have more power to influence a Conservative-led government than a Labour one because the Con-Lib policy preference gap is greater than the Lab-Lib one, especially on Europe. The extent of Lib Dem influence in any situation where they are potential partners in government will naturally depend very much on how many seats the party wins.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Robert Ford, Jonathan Jones, and Andrew Russell for very helpful comments on earlier drafts.

Disclosure: Eilidh Macfarlane is a member of the Liberal Democrats. Stephen Fisher is not a member of or paid by any political party. Both are members of Trinity College, Oxford.

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4 thoughts on “Liberal Democrats after the election: a left of centre party which should be able to work more easily with Labour than the Conservatives”

  1. 1. “if the forecasters are remotely right” then Danny Alexander won’t be an MP, let alone leading the coalition talks.

    2. “They will be duty bound to push for their manifesto commitments”. Is that what they did in 2010? Tuition fees?

  2. This seems an eminently sensible appraisal, but I feel that the Lib Dem hierarchy and a large proportion of their rank-and-file can identify with the Conservatives on just as many economic issues as they can (identify) with Labour. I am sure that, despite his protestations, Vince Cable would feel better in bed with the Tories than with a Labour leadership which can be unrealistic and inconsistent on economic matters. Balls and Miliband often seem at odds with themselves! I think that Danny Alexander, Cable AND a majority of Lib Dems would think long and hard about teaming up with them – especially as all polls show the public having less confidence in Labour’s ability to manage the economy than the Conservatives’

    As the coalition economic policies seem to be working, the Lib Dems will want to take some credit for those current policies. I would imagine that a ‘better the devil you know’ attitude will prevail in the event of (as I predict) the Tories having a substantial number of seats more than Labour, and the Lib Dems retaining rather more of their seats than the polls predict, at the May election.
    If, for example the Conservatives take 305 seats and the Lib Dems 25, there is more likely to be a continuation of the present coalition arrangement than a grand alliance of say Labour on 265, ScotNats on 35 and Lib Dems on 25.

    Again, I would point to the bookies odds. Cameron is current 2 to 1 odds on to stay in Downing St, whereas Miliband is 11 to 8 against as a possible next PM.
    The Conservatives are 2 to 1 on to have the largest number of seats in the new parliament, Labour 2 to 1 against. A huge difference!

  3. I believe the LD leadership would have to get any arrangement approved by the Liberal Assembly. How would the LD rank and file respond to a proposal to support the Conservatives, after doing so once had cost them half their seats?

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