Nick Clegg has talked of the LibDems having changed from being a party of protest to a party of government? What does this mean?
British political parties can be divided into three categories: parties of government, parliamentary protest parties and non-parliamentary protest parties (without seats at Westminster).
Between 1915 and 1945 there were usually at least three potential parties of government, any of which could have formed a government or collaborated in one. Between 1945 and 2010 there were only two – Labour and Conservative. There is no fixed number of parties of government and the increasing likelihood of further coalitions means that the number could grow from the current three – Labour, Conservative and LibDems.
In the 1950s the Liberal Party relegated itself from being a party of government to a parliamentary protest party. It regrouped and eventually, sixty-five years later, has gone through a baptism of fire to once again become a party of government, with all that it entails.
Arguably, the LibDems have performed well in many respects where they were expected to fail, but have fallen short in areas which might have previously been seen as strengths. The cohesion of the party, loyalty to the leader, preparedness to take unpopular decisions, quality of ministers, steadiness in the face of poor opinion polling figures and the deftness of the whips’ operation have all withstood the test effectively. Personal morals and policy-making are arguably the areas which have let the party down. Some would argue that the nice harmless idealistic thoughtful, but unmanageable, LibDems of protest have morphed into the resilient, united, tough, but rather directionless and somewhat immoral party of government.
Not all parties could make this transformation, or would want to. The Greens transformed themselves into a parliamentary party of protest at the last election and could potentially have become a party of government. Perhaps rightly, they decided that the latter would have been a step too far. The party is struggling to find its voice. Respect has rapidly emerged into being a parliamentary protest party – a role to which its one MP, George Galloway, is well suited.
Ukip is a non-parliamentary party of protest at the moment, and is arguably being successful at it, having persuaded the Conservatives to change course over Europe. Another, the BNP, affected the Labour Party’s stance on immigration. While the BNP is very unlikely to progress under the first past the post electoral system, Ukip might, although the electoral barriers are high. The party could conceivably gain an evenly-spread 15% of the vote at the next election, but win no seats. The questions for Ukip are its over willingness and ability to take the necessary steps to become a parliamentary protest party.
The SDP and the New Party in the 1930s were born with the intention of be parties of government, but most new parties start off as non-parliamentary protest parties and many get no further. The Labour Party is the key example of a party which has gone through all three phases and remains a party of government. In many ways, Labour’s 1924 is the LibDems’ 2010, except that the Liberals have been here before.