Analysis: Americans should examine the Liberal Democrats


LONDON, United Kingdom — All politics is local — a cliche but true. Although this hasn't stopped the great institutions of American journalism from rushing out reams of commentary — most of it written by people who don't live in Britain — about the result of the British election and its meaning for the United States.

The fact that America doesn't have a viable third party — just the occasional nutty billionaire creating a political movement around his ego — should warn everyone off easy comparisons between Britain's new coalition government and what America is stuck with.

If anything, what the election has done is cement the fact that a rare era of parallel political development between the mother country and rebellious oldest child is over. The days when Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton inhaled on one side of the Atlantic and Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair exhaled on the other are gone. The relationship between the U.K. and U.S. is special but the nations are no longer joined at the hip.

No, if the election holds any comparative value at all, it is for Republican and Democratic grassroots activists — the true believers — who like their parties to be pure of heart and ideology.

First, you need to know the history of the Liberal Democrats:

The Lib Dems are a hybrid. The Liberal Party, the party of William Gladstone, was one of the big two in Britain throughout the 19th century and up to the 1920s when it was overtaken by Labour. The Liberals faded into insignificance, until the party became a vestigial organ like an appendix inside the British body politic.

By the 1970s, the last time they played a significant national role, the Liberals had become a party primarily for the professional classes who found the Conservatives too harsh in dealing with Britain's social problems but who didn't fit the working-class profile of the Labour party. Class is overwhelmingly important in this country.

In 1979 came Margaret Thatcher, the most radical prime minister of the last half-century. Her policies polarized the country and the Labour Party, which veered to the hard left. But there simply wasn't enough room in the British political landscape for another minority party, and in 1988 the Social Democratic Party and Liberal Party merged to create the Liberal Democrats.

The Lib Dems slowly built their grassroots from moderates on all sides, but mainly from the left. But the party was hampered in general elections by Britain's winner-take-all, first-past-the-post system. Its percentage of the popular vote was never reflected in the number of parliamentary seats it won.

Electoral reform, based on proportional representation, became its core policy. It was a policy that Tony Blair was on the verge of endorsing back in 1997, until he led the Labour Party to a historic landslide and decided not to reform a system that had given Labour a majority that would take four elections to overturn.

Throughout the last decade the Lib Dems' appeal grew. What the party stood for, beyond electoral reform, was anybody's guess. It was a rag-bag of sometimes contradictory views, from encouraging free markets, to blocking nuclear energy, to someday joining the euro. Its wooliness was part of its attraction in our new post-ideological time. Unhappy voters from across the political spectrum began to see in the party whatever they wanted to see.

Labour supporters, disgruntled by the Iraq War and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's laissez-faire attitude toward those who earned seven-figure bonuses playing casino in the shadow banking system, saw in the Lib Dems a more progressive party than the one they traditionally supported. The Lib Dems opposed the Iraq War and their Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, was the first major British politician to warn about the crash that would come from the housing bubble.

Moderate Conservatives, troubled by the continued dominance of the Thatcherite wing of the party on matters concerning immigration and the European Union, saw in the Lib Dems, with their belief in free markets and openness toward Britain's Asian and Afro-Caribbean populations, a return to the "One Nation Toryism" of the pre-Thatcher era.

When Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg gave his first stunning performance in the Leaders' Debates, the party completed its 80-year-long voyage from irrelevance.

But it wasn't policies that brought it there — and here's the lesson for American grassroots activists — it was the fact that in Britain, non-ideological voters, floating free since Margaret Thatcher's time, had finally voted for the Lib Dems in large enough numbers to prevent the big two from winning a majority.

The lesson for grassroots activists in the U.S. is learn to love the non-ideologues among the electorate — keep them in your party otherwise you may find yourself shut out of power. The lesson for those who want to break free of ideologues in their parties is be careful — you might have to wait three decades to build a political entity that will get enough votes to get you into office.

That's because two-party politics is coalition politics. On election night as it became clear there was going to be a hung Parliament. Ken Clarke, veteran Conservative MP and now justice minister, told the BBC there was no need for a coalition government, because the two main parties were already grand coalitions. He's right.

Last summer, at the height of the U.S. health care furor, I interviewed House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) for a BBC documentary. Clyburn made the same point. He said the House Democratic caucus was the most diverse grouping in America. It was a strength. "If you get a piece of legislation through our caucus you can be sure it has broad support in all segments of the population." Broad, certainly, but also shallow, as the tepid response of many Democratic grassroots campaigners to the final health care bill demonstrates.

And this must be the fear for the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems are just strong enough to be invited to join a coalition but once inside how will they survive as a stand-alone party? Just to take up Prime Minister David Cameron's coalition offer they have already made serious compromises on their two main policy areas: the scale of electoral reform and how quickly to make budget cuts to deal with the government's massive deficit.

As they make compromise after compromise those who voted Lib Dem can only feel disappointment. Progressive voters will feel cheated and go back to Labour. One Nation Tory types may well go home to their original party. A party born of schisms and splits, the Lib Dems by joining in a coalition may never regain their strength.

The new era in British politics may be very, very short.