New warning coalition could split the Lib Dems

David Cameron's old politics tutor and leading constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor warned that the Liberal Democrats risked being split and "swallowed up".

As the new coalition government unveiled its full programme this morning, David Cameron’s old politics tutor and leading constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor warned that the Liberal Democrats risked being split and “swallowed up” – as happened during all previous coalitions between the old parties – and that coalition government had “always benefited the Conservatives”.

Writing in this week’s New Statesman, Professor Bogdanor sets out the historical context in outlining one possible scenario:

“Coalitions have been of less benefit to the Liberals. In fact, they have always led to, or have been the product of, a party split – for example, with the Liberal Unionists, who split from the Liberals over Home Rule in 1886, and the Liberal Nationals in the 1930s. One wing of the party would subsequently be swallowed up by the Conservatives, while the other wing remained independent.

“In 1932, when one group of Liberals left the National Government over free trade, the Liberal Nationals (later National Liberals) remained, and, under the leadership of Sir John Simon, became even more enthu­siastic appeasers of Nazi Germany than the Conservatives.

“A similar split could easily occur today, with the right wing of the Liberal Democrats under David Laws merging with the Conservatives, while the left, under Vince Cable and Simon Hughes, deserts the coalition, perhaps to seek an arrangement with Labour.”

Professor Bogdanor also calls Nick Clegg’s campaign “tactically shrewd” for not stressing which way he would jump in the event of a hung parliament, enabling the Lib Dems to take votes off Labour to ‘keep the Tories out’ and vice versa off Tory voters:

“Nick Clegg was tactically shrewd in not making his preference known; had he done so, the Lib Dems would have secured fewer than the 57 seats they won. But in Oxford West and Abingdon, the seat lost by Dr Evan Harris, leaflets were delivered to electors telling them that voting Liberal Democrat was the only way to keep the Conservatives out, given that Labour, a distant third, had no chance.

“David Cameron agreed, saying that if one voted on the Thursday for the Lib Dems, one would wake up on the Friday with Gordon Brown. Perhaps the leaflet should have said that voting Liberal Democrat was the only way to keep the Conservatives in; indeed, after the election, the defeated Harris endorsed the coalition with the Conservatives.

“Perhaps in Labour-Lib Dem marginals, electors were told that voting Liberal Democrat was the only way to keep Labour out, since the Conservatives, a poor third, had no chance? As a campaign guide published by the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors declared: ‘You can secure support from voters who normally vote Tory by being effectively anti-Labour and, similarly, in a Tory area secure Labour votes by being anti-Tory.’

He ends with a warning for Labour:

“It seems the Labour Party and the left do not yet realise what a catastrophe has hit them. It is comparable to 1983, though then the left could at least hope that Labour and the SDP-Liberal Alliance might come together. There seemed to be an anti-Conservative majority in the country that was frustrated by the electoral system.

“Today, there seems to be an anti-Labour majority comprising the Conservatives, accounting for 36 per cent of the vote, and the Liberal Democrats, representing 23 per cent. In 2010, 85 MPs were elected owing no allegiance to either of the major parties.

“This means that, for Labour to win an election, it needs to win well over 85 seats more than the Conservatives. They have done this just five times since the war – in 1945, 1966, 1997, 2001 and 2005. In 1945 and 1966, however, third-party representation was negligible. Labour’s only chance of escaping from opposition in this parliament seems to be to detach some or all of the Lib Dems from the government.

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