UK’s LibDem Surge Sends Ripples Across the Atlantic

In the run-up to the general election scheduled for early May in the United Kingdom, Nick Clegg, the leader of the UK’s third-largest party, the Liberal Democrats, has quickly become the most popular figure in British politics, having soundly defeated his rivals from the ruling duopoly parties in the first of three televised debates.  Cross-posted from Poli-Tea.

The Guardian reports:

A week ago Clegg was in third place as the leader “campaigning best for the votes of people like you”. Now he has leapfrogged his rivals to first place, on 33%, up 20 points. Cameron has dropped 14 points, from 40% to 26%. Brown is down four points, 22% to 18% today. Men are marginally more impressed by Clegg, and women still more impressed by Cameron, than on average.

As the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Clegg has been an outspoken critic of the ruling Labor-Conservative Party duopoly. Last August, I excerpted an op-ed he had published in the UK Independent arguing that “the duopoly that dominated British politics in the 20th century is dying on its feet.”

Clegg’s surprise victory in the televised debate and subsequent bump in the polls has already begun to affect the political discourse on this side of the Atlantic. Writing in the Cap Times, a progressive news and opinion outlet based in Wisconsin, John Nichols argues that American political debates are “robbed of life and meaning by the exclusion of credible third party and independent contenders.” An excerpt:

Unfortunately, as Jeff Cohen, the founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, notes, what made the British debate exciting — the inclusion of an alternative voice — is exactly what the two major parties in their U.S. and their media allies work so hard to prevent with debate commissions and ridiculous rules for who is and is not “credible.”

American political debates are robbed of life and meaning by the exclusion of credible independent and third-party contenders. This year’s campaigns for U.S. House and Senate seats, as well as for three dozen governorships around the country, will feature candidates from many parties and perspectives. Moderate Republicans such as former Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee are mounting exciting independent campaigns. There’s talk that Florida Gov. Charlie Crist may exit the GOP and seek a Senate seat as an independent. Tea party activists are preparing third-party bids, as are Libertarians, Greens and others.

In Wisconsin, a state with a long third-party tradition, there are lots of rumblings this year. Cumberland City Councilman Rob Taylor is running for the U.S. Senate on the Constitution Party ticket, and the Greens are busily recruiting contenders. Perhaps most significantly, there been some buzz about the prospect that former Congressman Mark Neumann might switch from the Republican primary and run for governor as an independent. And the possibilities don’t end there. If we open our debates up, as Britain has begun to do, we’ll open up our politics. And that’s the best tonic for democracy.

In a similar vein, Henry Olsen writes at the AEI Blog that American politicians should be paying very close attention to the Clegg phenomenon:

American pols should take notice. As I wrote recently in National Review, American polls and election results going back nearly 30 years have shown growing popular support for Independents with growing distrust of government. . . . If America’s broad electoral and demographic middle continues to feel unrepresented by both major parties, an enterprising politician can run and win as an Independent in 2012.

See the original post at Poli-Tea for reaction in the British press, including a report of explicit anti-LibDem bias in the mainstream media.

25 thoughts on “UK’s LibDem Surge Sends Ripples Across the Atlantic

  1. Trent Hill

    “As the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Clegg has been an outspoken critic of the ruling Labor-Conservative Party duopoly.”

    Im not sure they’ve ever HAD a “duopoly”. A number of parties exist in the UK or EU legislature, including (but not limited to), the UKIP, SNP, BNP, LibDems, Tories, Labours, Sinn Fein, Plaid Cyrmu, etc. All told there are at least 8 parties in the UK House of Commons, maybe more (I dont have time to check). That’s hardly a duopoly. Even before Clegg’s surge in the polls, the LibDems had long been referred to as one of the “major parties” and regularly polled around 15%.

  2. Scott West

    @ Trent: You’re right about a number of little parties getting into Parliament, but you’re completely off in your conclusion. The UK system is a duopoly of two major parties with many minor parties, some of long standing like the Liberal Democratic Party, and some with narrow constituencies, like the Scottish National Party. These parties are not regarded as national players or potential participants in government. Multiparty systems will have more than one or two parties participating in government. The UK has had Conservative or Labour governments since the 1920s. Simply because there have been an insignificant number of other parties in Parliament doesn’t negate the duopoly.

    These little parties continue to exist because of their presence in local councils. Their presence in parliament is primarily a reflection of local strengths, not national importance.

    The Lib Dems polled at 22% in the last election but the “first past the post” system (winner takes all) means that they have only 62 seats out of 646 in parliament. This is the most seats they’ve had since the 1920’s, making them notionally more respectable, but not really taken seriously in the media or by the two major parties.

    The Liberal Democrats have always positioned themselves as being between the ideological extremes of Conservative and Labour. This may have been true into the 80s, but at this point the two big parties have converged into the middle of the political spectrum. Ironically, this weakening of the political branding in the duopoly has gradually created a situation where all three parties are so similar that historically Labour voters are considering voting Liberal for a change and because Clegg may be more appealing than Brown.

  3. NewFederalist

    Trent’s take on the number of parties may be a bit oversimplified but he is correct that the duopoly in the UK is nothing like the same as in the US. The fact that there have been three national parties since the rise of the Labour party is still more choice than we get in the US. In my opinion the last real “third party” we had in the US since the Democratic/Republican duopoly began in 1856/1860 was the People’s party (Populists). Everything else has either been a splinter party (which fades away when the issue or personality creating the split fades) or a minor party which elects virtually no one at any level. Just my $.02.

  4. Gene Berkman

    The Liberal Democrats opposed British participation in the Iraq War, and Nick Clegg says he would oppose a preemptive strike on Iran.

    On social issues, the Lib Dems back the legalization of marijuana.

    Like the other two parties, they accept the British welfare state, but there are elements in the Lib Dems pushing them toward a more market oriented policy, even as the Conservatives move away from Thatcherism.

    A Liberal Democrat victory would be fitting punishment for the two parties that backed Bush’s War.

  5. Thomas L. Knapp

    One of the Lib Dem tax proposals — cutting income taxes from the bottom up by increasing the personal exemption — is right out of the Kubby 2008 playbook. Not saying that’s where they got the idea, but GMTA.

    A Lib Dem plurality would certainly shake things up, anyway.

  6. NewFederalist

    I read on the BBC election site that even if the LibDems polled something like 35% of the vote (as opposed to the 22% they polled last time) they would still end up with only about 130 seats which would still leave them the third largest party in Commons. What a system! The LibDems could poll more votes than Labour or the Tories and still end up with less than half as many seats as either of the two major parties. I guess all political systems are pretty much rigged.

  7. Thomas L. Knapp

    New Federalist,

    Any system composed of geographic districts is going to potentially produce skewed representational results.

    Gerrymandering institutionalizes the distortion.

    If the Lib Dems end up with 130 seats in Parliament, one of the other parties will have to come begging for their participation in order to form an executive branch. They might even be able to wangle the prime ministership out of the deal if it’s Labour they choose to work with.

  8. Trent Hill

    “The UK system is a duopoly of two major parties with many minor parties, some of long standing like the Liberal Democratic Party, and some with narrow constituencies, like the Scottish National Party. These parties are not regarded as national players or potential participants in government. Multiparty systems will have more than one or two parties participating in government.”

    You could not be more wrong, though this is a typical error in third party circles. The two party duopoly does not refer to a system in which two parties dominate the political scene. It is a system in which those two parties are protected, by ballot access laws or other unfair restrictions, by legal walls.

    “These parties are not regarded as national players or potential participants in government.”

    Quite untrue. Where do you derive this arbitrary standard? And where do you get your facts? The Lib Dems have long been a serious player in national government and in their electoral history (stretching back to 1992) they’ve never scored lower than 16.5% in national elections and have reached as high as 22.1%.
    Your contention is that if Labour held 52% of the seats of Parliament, and the other 48% were held by 24 parties—that that would represent a duopoly or monopoly? Hardly.

  9. NewFederalist

    I believe Nick Clegg has ruled out working in coalition with anyone. This hung parliament should be fun to watch! Each vote will have the potential to topple the government.

  10. Ross Levin

    Someone was half jokingly talking about a situation in which Labour only needs one more MP to get a majority and the Greens just happened to elect Caroline Lucas in Brighton. Kind of funny, I guess.

  11. Trent Hill

    “The Liberal Democrats opposed British participation in the Iraq War, and Nick Clegg says he would oppose a preemptive strike on Iran.

    On social issues, the Lib Dems back the legalization of marijuana.

    Like the other two parties, they accept the British welfare state, but there are elements in the Lib Dems pushing them toward a more market oriented policy, even as the Conservatives move away from Thatcherism.”

    This is part of what is so interesting to British politics to me–as a libertarian, I don’t know who I should be rooting for.
    The UK Independence Party is explicitly libertarian, but they tend to be more pro-military engagement and their call to ban the burqa is a disgusting violation of civil liberties and private property.
    The Conservatives/Tories definitely have a libertarian wing, too, led by MEP Daniel Hannan (who is a friend of Ron Paul’s, has been on Judge Napolitano’s show 5+ times, etc) and London Mayor Boris Johnson (who is a regular reader of LRC).
    The Lib Dems, as Gene already pointed out, also have a market-liberal/classical liberal element. See here:
    http://www.bonkers.hall.btinternet.co.uk/liberator.html
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/3621340.stm

    BTW: It’s 11 parties in the House of Commons, with at least one other party represented in the House of Lords (UKIP) and a great deal of Independents.

  12. Trent Hill

    “Someone was half jokingly talking about a situation in which Labour only needs one more MP to get a majority and the Greens just happened to elect Caroline Lucas in Brighton.”

    That’d give Lucas immense power. I remember when CP member Rick Jore controlled the balance of the Montana House–he was VERY powerful.

  13. Trent Hill

    Basically, I hope the Green Party wins the seat they’re aiming at in Brighton Pavillion, I hope the UKIP wins a seat or two, especially Nigel Farage’s campaign. I hope the libertarian wings of the Conservatives and LibDems do well. Basically…I just want Labour to do badly and Euroskeptics to do REALLY well.

  14. Trent Hill

    NewFederalist,

    The Internet is notoriously bad for sarcasm, but you’re coming in loud and clear.

    Believe it or not, I’d actually like to see the BNP win a seat too, not because I like them, but in the interest of vibrant, mulitparty, democracy.

  15. Scott West

    Maybe we have different opinions about what duopoly means. I’m pretty well informed. I read the UK Guardian, the BBC and the Independent daily. I also read polling reports from UK Polling report a few times a week.

    @ Trent:
    “The two party duopoly does not refer to a system in which two parties dominate the political scene. It is a system in which those two parties are protected, by ballot access laws or other unfair restrictions, by legal walls. ”

    – The “First Past The Post” system is the general term for the legal framework which protects the two dominant parties in the UK duopoly. It is patently unfair, overtly restrictive and would result in a 33% vote for the Liberal Democrats in this election resulting in only about 100 seats according to a recent report posted at the Guardian here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/apr/19/liberal-democrats-guardian-icm-poll. Note the graphic toward the middle of the article. Even with a plurality of the votes, the Liberal Democrats won’t be the largest party in parliament or even the second largest party. They’ll still be in third place in terms of representation.

    There are a high number of safe parliamentary constituencies for the two major parties. That is why, even with a significant national swing to the Liberal Democrats, there is almost no chance that the party could produce a majority government.

    “Swing” is much discussed as a political phenomenon in the UK and you can see what the effects of different swing variations here: http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/advanced-swingometer-map.

    This very effective barrier to election by minor parties that has ensured the continued dominance of these parties despite past good performances by the Liberal Democrats. For some charts and graphs on the vote share/seat share discrimination, see here:
    http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2010/02/for-uk-conservatives-its-mp-ratio-that.html.

    Trent: “The Lib Dems have long been a serious player in national government and in their electoral history (stretching back to 1992) they’ve never scored lower than 16.5% in national elections and have reached as high as 22.1%.”

    As the Liberals, their electoral history stretches back to 1859, though they’ve been defined by the relationship of the two major parties at least since 1931.

    The percentages you refer to are the share of the vote, not the share of seats won in parliament. Due to the restrictive districting and the actual electoral performance has always been much less, though it has been increasing.

    General election performance:

    1983 SDP-Liberal Alliance
    Share of votes 25.4%
    Seats 23
    Share of seats 3.5%

    1987 SDP-Liberal Alliance
    Share of votes 22.6%
    Seats 22
    Share of seats 3.4%

    1992 Liberal Democrats
    Share of votes 17.8%
    Seats 20
    Share of seats 3.1%

    1997 Liberal Democrats
    Share of votes 16.7%
    Seats 46
    Share of seats 7.0%

    2001 Liberal Democrats
    Share of votes 18.3%
    Seats 52
    Share of seats 7.9%

    2005 Liberal Democrats
    Share of votes 22.1%
    Seats 62
    Share of seats 9.6%

    Performance in EU Parliament elections has been better in terms of seats on a lower voting percentage on account of the proportional representation used in the EU elections. This is why the Liberal Democrats are very much in favor of PR and very much opposed to the current, discriminatory, restrictive and undemocratic legal apparatus that has depressed their UK electoral performance for so long.

    Trent: “Your contention is that if Labour held 52% of the seats of Parliament, and the other 48% were held by 24 parties—that that would represent a duopoly or monopoly? Hardly”

    Right now the Lib Dems and the nationalists together with a single Independent and George Galloway of the Respect Coalition compose no more than 15% of Parliament . This is an historic high. The Conservatives and Labour have had between 85 and 99 % of the seats in Parliament for the last 70 years. That is a functional duopoly. Prior to Labour’s supplanting the Liberals as a major party in the 1931 election, the Liberals and Conservatives had dominated Parliament for another 50 years before that. The fact that other parties like the Irish Home Rule Party were in Parliament at that time doesn’t change that fact.
    Check out this historical percentage vote chart:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Popular_vote.jpg

    This is a historic duopoly.

    Finally, there is a difference between being in the government in the sense of getting elected to parliament and being thought of as a ruling party. The Lib Dems are on the uptick and I (though I’m not a political supporter) hope they smash the two party system in the UK. But don’t underestimate the effect of the discrimination that they’ve experienced.

    The effects are in the UK political culture. British newspapers are very political, but there is not a single national daily that is a supporter of the Liberal Democrats. They are all lined up with Labour or the Conservatives. When they change sides, its political and does not involve the Lib Dems. As the Guardian reported recently, Rupert Murdoch has cultivated ties to both New Labor and the Conservatives, but he has no contacts within the Lib Dems. Political debate is concerned with the Government and the Opposition = Labor/Conservative, Conservative Labor. The Lib Dems have their own front bench of shadow secretaries, but they are not considered as seriously in the media or outside their constituencies.

    The Lib Dems do constitute a national party in away that the Scottish Nationalist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party etc do not, but none of them aren’t leadership parties. People are just sick of Labour and the Conservatives, and the Lib Dems have a fresh looking leader and enough of a national presence to take advantage of that.

    It is ironic though that the Lib Dems big chance is coming when the ideological center that they’ve occupied for so long is also occupied by the major parties they’ve defined themselves against. I hope that the system does open up as a result of this election, that the British media will step outside the box a bit more, and that other parties can build effective national organizations. I’d say the Greens are close, and I sympathize with them.

  16. Ross Levin

    I’ve got to agree with Scott West here. Trent, I think you’re being too narrow in your definition of a duopoly or two party system or whatever. If they control like 85% of the seats and possibly even more of the power, then it’s pretty much a duopoly, even if it isn’t as absurdly strong as the one in America.

  17. MN Indy

    The best thing that could happen to the UK would be a Liberal Democratic plurality with minor parties picking up seats across the board: Greens, UK Independence Party, Scottish National Party, British National Party, Welsh nationalists, etc. That would edge it a little closer to a real diverse system, even if the big two maintain the majority of the seats.

  18. Trent Hill

    “compose no more than 15% of Parliament ”

    15% of Parliament and 11 separate parties (plus independents) pretty much eliminates the idea of a duopoly to me. We simply have different ideas about what constitutes a duopoly. The UK’s ballot access laws don’t suck, even though it’s representation system does.

    I don’t think that 2 parties having a majority of the control constitutes a duopoly. Similarly, I don’t think Italy, Poland, Germany, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Iceland, or Ireland have duopolies. They’re all controlled by two parties to some degree historically–but have variously strong or weak minority parties that makes up 10-45% of the opposition.

  19. Scott West

    The countries you mentioned all use some variation of proportional representation. The UK is first past the post. That’s chalk and cheese.

    There aren’t 11 equal parties in Parliament. There is Labour, the Conservatives and then everyone else. You don’t seem to want to acknowledge that for some reason. I’m not endorsing the setup, its just that there are barriers beyond just getting on the ballot.

    There are 9 other parties and most of these parties are quite small.

    Labour, Conservatives and the Lib Dems are the only national UK parties with representation. The Lib Dems have only a pretense of forming a government, as I discussed above.

    The nationalist/unionist parties (Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, Democratic Unionist Party, Sein Fein, Ulster Unionists and the Social Democratic and Labour Party) participate in Parliament as representatives of marginal constituencies. They are not national parties and will not take part in government any more than they would run candidates in England. Sein Fein doesn’t even take its seats in Parliament.

    Respect is a very small party left-wing multicultural party with one MP. It will probably have one or two successful candidates.

    The independents you mention were all elected as official candidates of Labour or the Conservatives, with the sole exception of Richard Taylor. That alone should give you pause.

    I agree that most of the countries you mentioned aren’t duopolies, but Italy is a duopoly now. Didn’t used to be, but it is.

  20. Trent Hill

    “There aren’t 11 equal parties in Parliament. There is Labour, the Conservatives and then everyone else. You don’t seem to want to acknowledge that for some reason.”

    I’ve acknowledged it quite specifically, so that’s a red herring.

    “The countries you mentioned all use some variation of proportional representation. The UK is first past the post. That’s chalk and cheese.”

    Most of them have similar numbers of third party representatives in their legislative bodies (Denmark being one important exception), some of them even mirror the British example with 2 larger parties, one lesser but still national party, and then a cobbling of smaller parties with representation.
    I don’t see why it matters what the form of election is if the parties have roughly similar representation. Italy has something like 18-20% of its Parliament outside of the main two parties–Britain has 15%. What is the difference?

    “Labour, Conservatives and the Lib Dems are the only national UK parties with representation.”

    False. UKIP has two Lords.

    I also don’t see why it matters whether the parties are regional or national in scope–this is simply a distraction from the main issue at hand, which is that the two parties do not have a stranglehold on the political system.

    “I agree that most of the countries you mentioned aren’t duopolies, but Italy is a duopoly now. Didn’t used to be, but it is.”

    Ohk, that’s a start. I disagree and think Italy is a duopoly, it’s numbers of third parties is about as high as Britain’s. Similarly, Poland’s parliament has 18.5% representation for third parties–why are they not a duopoly?

  21. NewFederalist

    The UKIP may have two peers but they aren’t elected. They are contesting the vast majority of constituencies this election (524 IIRC) but have yet to elect anyone to Commons. They have elected MEPs which is significant.

  22. Trent Hill

    NewFederalist,

    That is correct, both Lords switched from the Tories to UKIP–but this gives them stature. Imagine if two sitting Senators switched to the Libertarian Party.

    They elected 12 (I think) MEPs in the last election and have a very good shot at getting 1-2 MPs this time around.

  23. d.eris

    I think it makes sense, and might help in the present debate, to speak of strong vs. weak duopoly political systems or strong vs. weak multi-party systems.

    However one might term the system in the UK, Clegg has been using the term ‘duopoly’ to refer to the Labor-Conservative formation for a while, and seems to be gaining some traction that way. I did a few news searches for the term and found it used in a number of different papers (the Independent and the Guardian) to refer to Labor-Tory dominance in the years 2008-2009.

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