Election Test for UK Coalition Hits Lib Dems

It’s almost exactly 12 months since Britain saw the formation of the first coalition government for 70 years, as David Cameron and Nick Clegg brought together the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in a joint administration committed to tackling the massive economic crisis facing the country in the wake of the credit crisis.

Coalition politics underwent their first electoral test on May 5 with local elections, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland parliamentary elections, and the referendum on the Alternative Vote.

There was a strange mixture of outcomes. The Liberal Democrats had a disastrous day, losing 700 local government seats and failing to achieve the fundamental switch to the voting system which they have long craved; the Labour Party had a good day in local government elections, but a rotten day in Scotland as the Scottish National Party swept all before them to take an overall majority in the Scottish parliament – and this despite a proportional voting system which had been specifically designed to limit their grasp on power; the Welsh nationalists lost seats to the Labour Party, which ended the day one short of an overall majority in the Welsh assembly. The balance in Northern Ireland is little changed, but with turnout down and much less evidence of sectarian sentiment than in the past.

Scotland is now bound to push its interests more vigorously in Brussels, while a strengthened coalition between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland may well seek greater co-operation with the Irish government in European affairs.

May 5 gave a terrible bashing to the Liberal Democrats, and particularly for Nick Clegg, who had taken his seat in Westminster and become party leader after years as an MEP– and who could take much of the credit for the party’s election success one year ago.

It was a painful experience for the Lib Dems, as the junior coalition partner lost those former supporters on the “progressive” (anti-Conservative) wing of the party and others who perceived the Lib Dems as betraying commitments made before the general election, in particular on university fees. Clegg’s party lost control of a swathe of local government authorities as 700 local councillors lost their seats, mainly to the Labour Party but also to Conservative candidates.

Perhaps the bitterest blow for Lib Dems was the comprehensive defeat of a vote for AV, the alternative vote proportional representation system, by 69 per cent to 31 per cent. Thus ends for the foreseeable future the long-standing Liberal Democrat ambition of introducing proportional representation for Westminster elections.

Although Labour leader Ed Milliband did support the change to AV, most Labour politicians campaigned against it, so the Lib Dems have no hope of achieving it through a coalition with the Labour Party in some future hung parliament – at least until Labour itself undergoes a conversion (perhaps following boundary changes which are likely to hit them badly).

“No more Mr Nice Guy” is the Liberal Democrat response to its coalition role following the elections. Ministers such as Chris Huhne can be expected to take a tough line on sensitive issues, but they will also wish to avoid breaking the coalition and facing an early general election. They would indeed be turkeys voting for Christmas.

One issue difficult for Lib Dem ministers may be the EU budget for 2012, where Cameron will certainly maintain an aggressively tough line. His domestic position has been strengthened by last week’s votes and he will see no reason to restrain his rhetoric as the budget negotiations proceed.