Before discussing the position of the Liberal Democrats with regard to the complexities of their role as kingmakers, let’s consider the positions they find themselves in.
In the view of some, they hugely underperformed at the election. I think the distinction to make is that they hugely underperformed against expectations created. For me, it was clear they weren’t going to perform well (as per my prediction. The single factor that leads to this is the jump in support on the back of the leaders’ debates. This did not represent a decisive shift. It represented a castle built on sand.
Just look at the performance of the Liberal Democrats over the elections for which they’ve existed:
- 1983: 14.4%
- 1987: 13.6%
- 1992: 19.2%
- 1997: 18.0%
- 2001: 19.4%
- 2005: 22.1%
For the Lib Dems to jump from 22% to the high 20s or low 30s was unlikely at best.
So their result of 23.0% represents some form of progress. This said, the number of seats they won at this election was actually 5 less than in 2005. This suggests to me that, though their share of the vote increased by one point, this support was concentrated in areas where support already existed.
Even so, despite their relatively poor performance at the election, the Lib Dems are now the kingmakers.
By their own judgment, they should be uncomfortable with this.
Nick Clegg was fond of saying that Labour’s share of the vote was little more than a fifth of the electorate once you took into account the turnout. With 23% of the vote at 65.1% turnout, the Lib Dems have just 14.97% of the eligible vote.
So a party with the support of just over 1 in 7 of the electorate is likely to determine who forms the next government.
Some will think of this as making up for all the power the Lib Dems have previously deserved but never got because of an unfair electoral system. I just think of it as a peculiarity and fairly undemocratic outcome of our current electoral system.