Will the Liberal Democrats Be Jolly Good Sports?

In tomorrow's referendum the proposal to change the voting system in Britain will be trounced, possibly rendering the coalition unstable.

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Amiel Ungar, | updated: 00:33

Nick Clegg
Nick Clegg


Britain goes tomorrow to local council elections and parliament elections in Scotland and Wales. It will also hold a referendum on switching from first past the post voting to alternative voting. The results of the voting can have an impact on the leadership of both the coalition and the opposition. 

To judge by the polls, alternative voting or AV for short will be resoundingly rejected by the voters. A poll taken by the Independent that favors a yes vote currently projects a 32% margin for the no side.

If the predictions are born out. Prime Minister David Cameron will have achieved a degree of vindication within his Conservative party. Conservatives were aghast when Cameron lured the Liberal Democrats with the referendum as bait. Not only are Conservatives, as the name implies, predisposed to existing institutions, but many MPs feared that the new system would work to the detriment of their party.

Now it looks like Cameron sold Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg the Brooklyn Bridge in return for a stable coalition and Nick Clegg bought it.

Clegg appears to be the main loser. The major concession that he received in the coalition agreement is turning out to be hollow and this casts doubts on his political acumen. In some quarters it will be seen as a personal repudiation of Clegg for entering the coalition and reneging on pledges such as university tuition fees.

Ed Miliband, the Labour Party leader who has supported the yes side contrary to many Labour MPs, will be embarrassed if the polls are right and Labour voters reject AV. It essentially means that Miliband cannot persuade his own party. If Labour, in addition to losing local elections in Scotland to the Scottish Nationalists, will also sustain a defeat in Wales, Miliband's leadership would be left in a shaky position..

The biggest losers are the Liberal Democrats, who are also expected to lose seats in local elections. The dilemma of the Liberal Democrats is a familiar one to parties who have never had governmental power and have a chance to enter a coalition as a junior partner.

The up side of the arrangement is that it can give the smaller party a chance to showcase its leaders and their abilities in positions of responsibility. The German Social Democratic Party exploited this opportunity when it received the opportunity of joining a grand coalition with the Christian Democrats in 1966 and used it for an electoral breakthrough.

The downside to this arrangement is that the junior partner is by definition the junior partner and can influence but not really set  policy. The feeling that it has compromised too much for power and reneged on its promises can produce massive defections from the party. Although the German Social Democrats were rewarded for joining the coalition, the Italian Socialists who made a similar choice, were severely repudiated.

The Liberal Democrats appear to resemble the Italian case more than the German example. When the coalition agreement was signed, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats committed to maintain their partnership till the next scheduled elections.

The question now is whether the Liberal Democrats can swallow tomorrow's looming humiliations and whether David Cameron can persuade his party to toss some consolation prizes in the direction of his bruised coalition partner.