It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been at a Liberal Democrat Glee Club or said the words ‘Liberal Democrats’ to anyone in the Labour Party over the past few years that the general reaction to Jamie Reed’s proposal that Labour and the Liberal Democrats merge has been a resounding ‘no’ from both sides. It’s the sort of idea that people should dismiss as a non-starter, but because it was apparently seriously considered by both Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair in the 90s, it’s acquired a veneer of respectability and possibility that it doesn’t really deserve. It’s a bad idea that only looks vaguely plausible because of the distorting lens of the British electoral system – because two parties separately don’t get the representation in Parliament that’s commensurate with their separate shares of the vote, the assumption becomes that they must become one, and somehow combine their vote shares into something greater. That people vote for those parties based on their separate identities, and would not necessarily vote for a combined mush of the two, is assumed away.
There’s a reason that splits of political parties are much, much more common than mergers of them: it’s a lot more common and easier for people – especially politicians – to believe that they’re right and need their own organisation to prove it than it is for people from different groups to decide that they’d both be better off if they come together permanently. The merger that created the Liberal Democrats was the last major one in British politics, and that not only nearly killed the new party but also created two disgruntled splinter parties. That was with the benefit of two parties that had worked under an electoral part for two elections and where Roy Jenkins had initially considered joining the Liberal Party rather than establishing the SDP. Other mergers involving major parties (the Tories swallowing the Liberal Unionists and then the National Liberals) only happened after many years of the two parties involved having worked closely together.
However, it’s perfectly possible for parties to work together and co-ordinate electorally without merging. Indeed, it’s the sort of thing that happens regularly in other countries. It’s a lot easier to do that in a proportional voting system, of course, where parties within a grouping are free to compete with each other, knowing that moving votes from one party to another within that bloc won’t affect the overall electoral prospects of that bloc. For instance, assume a country with four parties (A,B,C, and D) that exist broadly as two blocs – A and B would usually work together in government, as would C and D, but a combination other than those two would be very unlikely. Now, imagine that A gets 30% of the vote, B 25%, C 40% and D 5%. In a proportional system, A and B can compete freely with each other and most likely would over the 5% of voters that would determine which of them is the largest party. However, their combined 55% of seats would put them into power. In the same way, C and D’s prime focus would be on trying to shift voters from the AB bloc to theirs. In a system like ours, though, we instead have a situation where A and B competing only benefits C, unless large chunks of B voters can be persuaded to switch to A (or vice versa).
In the latter situation, it might seem that the logical solution is to get A and B to merge, as they’ll get 55% of the vote – but only if all their existing voters will back the newly merged party. However, unless the two parties wer already nearly identical in their policy positions, that’s very unlikely to happen, as the newly merged party will have to try and find common ground between the two parties’ positions that will likely alienate former voters.
Before I detour completely into dissertation-land and regale you with more Downs and Mair theory on party positioning, I’ll try and get to a point – and for once on this issue, I find myself in general agreement with Paddy Ashdown.From the mid-90s to the mid-2000s, there was electoral co-operation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and it proved to be one of the most electorally successful periods ever for both parties. As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the majority of Liberal Democrat seats have been won from the Tories, or had the Tories in second place, and a lot of those were won thanks to co-operation with Labour – sure, it wasn’t official co-operation but there’s no doubt that there were plenty of seats in 1997 where one of the two parties put in very little effort which made it easier for the other to persuade voters to switch and back them as the best anti-Tory choice. (Incidentally, the bulk of the seats with Lib Dems in second place are now Tory-held)
I’m not saying that any agreement could be accomplished easily or quickly, but ruling it out entirely only plays into the Tories hands – the evidence suggests that they’re the ones who benefit the most when Labour and Liberals are too busy turning their noses up at each other to understand we share a common enemy. Yes, we’ll all have to sit through shouts of ‘bedroom tax’ and ‘Health and Social Care Act’ (whilst we shout ‘illegal war’ and ‘ID cards’ back, of course) but shouldn’t we at least see if something’s possible without ruling it out without even discussing it?