One of the main things the Lib Dems have to do during the current coalition government is to prove that coalitions can work. The reason they need to do this is because one of their main long term reform policies is to change the electoral system to a more proportional one. This would likely result in more coalitions in the future. Ergo the Lib Dems have to prove that this is not necessarily a bad thing.
The problem is that they have to do this whilst still under our old friend First Past the Post.
The Lib Dems got 23% of the vote at the last election and got 57 MPs. Let's leave aside for the moment the fact that 57 is only about 8% of MPs. We all know that is not proportional of course but let's take that as a given.
So 57 MPs from 23%. Since being in government the Lib Dems have had to take a lot of "tough decisions". That's political speak for "things that are really going to piss some people off". When you add those to the number of former Lib Dem voters who were really only in it for the protest and are not happy that the party is now in government we see the sort of vertiginous falls in the polls we have seen recently with the Lib Dems down to as low as 8%.
Now in reality as we get closer to the next general election I expect that number will pick up. Although I am pretty damn sure the party will not poll anything like as much as 23%. But let's go with that 8% figure for a minute.
According to projections by UK Polling Report 8% would see the Lib Dems with 7 seats. But hang on a minute, they had 57 seats on 23%. Now they're only getting 7 seats on 8%!?
I'll illustrate the reason for this using this graph I produced (on the old/current boundaries*) which uses the UK Polling Report swing calculator to show how as the percentage of Lib Dem votes tick down by 1% point at a time, we see the number of seats reduce by more than that as we progress. I went as far down as the 8% indicated by the worst poll so far. The red line shows what would happen if the seats decreased linearly with the vote (roughly what you'd expect in a proportional system).
|Iniquity: Now in graph form|
It's not just that FPTP is disproportional that is the problem for the Lib Dems. It's that it gets even more disproportional the lower the vote goes.
This means that as the party takes the "tough decisions" the hit that they take is much much harder than that of their coalition partner. Not only are the Tories not seeing their vote drop as much as the Lib Dems (their core voters are happier with them as the austerity measures are more in line with what they want to see) but even when it does drop, the punishment they receive in terms of proportional loss of seats is much less. On the UKPR projection, a loss of 15 percentage points reduces the Lib Dem seats by a factor of more than 800%! The worst projections we see for the Conservatives at the moment on a reduction of around 5% or 6% see only a reduction of maybe 25% of their seats. Still enough to see them out of power but nowhere near as bad as the sort of pummeling the Lib Dems could be facing.
Given all of this it is no wonder that Nick Clegg is pushing the "differentiation" line so much harder nowadays. I understand that some Conservative activists and MPs are aggrieved about this. But they should try to put themselves in the place of a Lib Dem activist or MP for a few minutes.
If they did they might see that there is a huge difference between being out of power for a few years with a solid base to rebuild from and an existential threat that could see their party all but disappearing.
It is indeed ironic that in order to prove a more proportional system could work, the Lib Dems may have to face the worst excesses of a totally disproportionate system.
We may find in the end that the party simply cannot take that sort of pressure and it ends up leaving the coalition in an attempt to ward off the electoral Armageddon scenario.
But that wouldn't necessarily prove that coalitions cannot work. It would however prove something all Lib Dems already know.
First Past the Post sucks.
*The slight disparity between the 7 seats figure and that seen in the graph is due to UKPR's use of the new expected boundaries in their projection