For a while I wondered vaguely what had happened to the LibDems. For a few weeks this autumn, Britain’s third party vanished from the BBC’s flagship political debate programmes, Question Time on television, and Any Questions on the radio. In recent years the panels discussing the burning political questions of the day have usually included a Liberal Democrat, reflecting no doubt the allegiance of one-fifth of the voters. Suddenly they were missing.
Then it struck me – the LibDems are now part of the government; to have two representatives of “The Coalition” in a panel of four or five might be considered unfair. The BBC agonises over such matters, as indeed it should. With a Tory sitting on the panel, perhaps the Liberal Democrats were squeezed out. It all felt rather odd as it coincided with a period of ferocious attacks on the LibDems, over their role in the budget cuts. With no LibDem present, we were treated to the spectacle of Conservatives making half-hearted attempts to defend their newfound allies and uncertain as to how enthusiastically to do it.
It’s all part of the British political establishment’s struggle to adjust to the new reality of coalition politics. First-past-the-post is simple. When we were governed by a party representing 35-40 per cent of the votes, it didn’t seem too unfair to give them just one representative on a panel of four or five. Now we have a coalition representing 60 per cent of the votes, is it proper balance to allow it only one speaker? Especially when the two parties in the coalition will be competing for votes against each other in all future elections.
Maybe the BBC had a change of mind, for LibDems seem to be back, usually sitting alongside their Tory colleagues. It makes for some interesting “messaging”, as both try to remain loyal to the coalition while differentiating themselves from the “other” party.
In one way the absence of LibDems was no great loss as they’ve become much less interesting. The “Rule of Any Questions” – incidentally, it’s been running since 1950! – dictates that the closer you are to power, the less interesting your comments. For years you could rely on the LibDems to tell it straight, ignoring the constraints of political correctness or diplomatic nicety. Now they too are retreating into the obfuscation and evasion that goes with political responsibility. It is left to the likes of independents such as Shami Chakrabarti and Will Self to set the debates alight.
One last thought: it would be a mistake to think that the newspaper columnists who frequently feature are really free to comment objectively. Reputation and consistency keep them chained to their own version of the party line. The same old arguments get trotted out. No columnists are going to go on Question Time and contradict the opinion they have been churning out for years or even decades in their newspapers. At least I’ve never seen it happen.