Opinion: Baleful – keeping our heads despite the ‘debate tsunami’

The fact that Tim Bale, an academic from Sussex University and author of The Conservative Party; From Thatcher to Cameron, is represented in the FT as attempting to answer a silly question about the Liberal Democrats illustrates the extraordinary nature of the ‘debate tsunami’ that has struck British politics. It also serves to underline the need to resist any temptation (limited I know so far as most Liberal Democrats are concerned) to build castles in the air, on the basis of a few days of post ‘debate’ polling.

Bale’s piece is entitled: ‘Lib Dem Revival not yet a Revolution’. There is, of course, a slight problem with the title. No one, certainly no one from the Liberal Democrats, has claimed that it is. After all Liberal Democrats believe in seeking a peaceful transition to a fairer and more sustainable society and economy. We are champions of change by consent; of reasoned change, by democratic rather than revolutionary means.

What Bale’s piece does – despite the FT sub-editor’s title – is draw attention to the scale of the task that faces Liberal Democrats who want to promote radical and lasting change in British politics.

As Bale points out:

  • Everyone needs to bear in mind that eight decades have gone by since Liberalism was last regarded as a serious electoral option by more than a quarter of British voters.
  • The Liberal SDP Alliance did briefly enjoy a crest in support, but the crest “flattered to deceive”.
  • Despite dramatic by-election victories, wins in the North at Labour’s expense and in the South at Tory expense, the mould of British politics has not broken.
  • The Liberal Democrat advance in parliamentary seats in 2005 depended to a significant degree on factors that have waned in electoral importance – Iraq and the party’s commitment to the abolition of university fees.
  • The parliamentary returns from eroding electoral support for Labour are likely to be modest and the votes needed to win in Tory held seats may remain beyond the Liberal Democrats grasp (as they did in 2005).
  • The electoral arithmetic suggests that the Liberal Democrats can frustrate their political rivals but that they will find it difficult to overhaul them in terms of seats in parliament.

But Bale is missing the point. The Liberal Democrats are now positioned to challenge the legitimacy of the present political system. We are poised to challenge the electoral system and the constitutional settlement that sustains an unholy alliance and irredeemable party duopoly, which has held Britain back for decades.

What Liberal Democrats know and can now demonstrate, to an electorate desperate for change, is that they offer a realistic means of challenging
the legitimacy of a broken political system. Successfully challenging its legitimacy is necessary but not, by itself, sufficient. It is not a sufficient condition for achieving greater fairness in British society and entrenching truly democratic institutions.

What has come in sight, in the last few days, is only a start. I believe the British electorate is mature enough to understand that. And we must
be mature enough not to lose sight of the extraordinary effort required to secure and then sustain the changes that Britain desperately needs.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • If we come first or second and still come last i seats it will show up or electoral system for the sham that it is and force the change that we need in this country.

  • If we follow David Cameron’s logic about electoral reform to its conclusion it makes no sense – he says that our system allows the electorate to ‘throw out the government’ except this time it definitely doesn’t. Unless you take his argument that everyone must vote Conservative or else he won’t win.

  • paul barker 20th Apr '10 - 6:18pm

    Talking about a Revolution- we are perhaps looking at Britains 1989, a quiet explosion ushering a period of Reform & Unbritish optimism.

  • Andrew Suffield 20th Apr '10 - 7:17pm

    Realistically, Lib Dems are going to come last on seats however this plays out. There simply are not enough marginals for anything else to happen; the pool of Tory and Labour safe seats are going to nudge them into the lead no matter what the popular vote is.

    But it can come really close. We could have a Lib Dem party in parliament which is at least as strong as one or both of the others. That would be a radical shift from the past few decades, and would be enough to make a start.

    And maybe we could get STV for the following election, which would mean it really was up for grabs for whichever party gets the most votes.

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Apr '10 - 10:27pm

    Andrew Suffield

    Realistically, Lib Dems are going to come last on seats however this plays out. There simply are not enough marginals for anything else to happen; the pool of Tory and Labour safe seats are going to nudge them into the lead no matter what the popular vote is.

    Have you tried canvassing in any “safe” Tory or Labour seats recently? I’m not getting the impression there’s a huge number of loyal voters just waiting to come out for them. It’s just not like it has been in the past. The predominant feel is “a plague on the lot of you”. Tories, of course, were always reluctant to declare, a good canvasser knows when an “anti” is really a Tory who won’t say. But there’s been a massive decline in “Labour like we always do” people.

    Doesn’t mean they’re flooding to us, but does mean we have a chance in the most unlikely places if we can find a way of breaking through the “you lot are just like the others”, “it isn’t worth voting”, “Ruper Murdoch told me I shouldn’t vote for you” (they don’t put it quite that way, but that’s what they mean) mentality.

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