In a recent seminar at the Constitution Unit, Professor Tim Bale confessed to being sceptical of the coalition’s chances of survival, and in particular, the prospects for the Liberal Democratic Party. Prof Bale drew upon a large body of cross-national research to support his opinion.
He began by describing some reasons for being optimistic about the coalition’s chances of survival, such as the fact that it is a minimal-winning coalition, made up of just two parties, which together form a majority. Furthermore, the combination is not counter-intuitive, as the parties are not too far apart. Structurally, these conditions seem to create a stable foundation for coalitions.
But the negatives outweigh the positives. One problem is the way British politics operates: British traditions such as whipped party discipline and cabinet collective responsibility do not allow for the sort of flexibility that might be needed in coalition agreements. Furthermore, British political culture does not have much experience of coalitions.
The main cause for concern, however, relates to the prospects for the Lib Dems. Using parallel examples from coalitions in New Zealand as case studies, Professor Bale indicated that the future for the Lib Dems is bleak.
As the party is relatively new, it is also ‘weakly-institutionalised’, with a number of ‘faultlines’ running through it. The apparent ‘right-left’ split between the party’s leadership and its grassroots support is perhaps the starkest example. In opposition, resolving these faultlines was never a pressing issue, but now in government, they are increasingly seismic. Indeed, as the Lib Dems fail to harvest credit for the government’s achievements, and continue to take the blame for many of the coalition’s unpopular measures, the risk is that many of the party’s members will want to escape. Should this happen, it is possible that most of the party will leave, but the core around the leadership will stay with the Conservatives.
Hence the Black Widow effect: the large spider, after having lured the small spider into a trap, often does not kill it but lets it escape, at the price of leaving part of itself behind. Whether this pessimistic outcome occurs remains to be seen.