It’s tough being a third party, Greens Senators with the defeated Family First senator Steve Fielding, and former leader of the now defunct No Pokies Party, Nick Xenophon.
It’s hard to guess how history will view Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom. Clegg is the Deputy Prime Minister and the first Liberal Democrat to hold a cabinet position through the coalition government with David Cameron’s Conservatives. Under his watch the Lib Dems recording their highest ever vote, 23%, and under his watch the vote has collapsed spectacularly. Since the hung election result in 2010, Clegg’s Liberal Democrats have made a point of working constructively with the Conservative party to achieve stable government which, particularly given the state of the European economy, has meant not only reneging on several election promises but essentially a massive ideological realignment of the party.
Their policy platform has typically been to favour tax and spend economic policies, a liberal approach to social issues and a passive approach to Foreign Affairs. Now in the name of stable government and compromise they have been passing a raft of economic reforms which have been positively neoliberal and been forced to countenance a neoconservative foreign policy. Labour frontbencher Harriet Harman recently attacked Clegg in the House of Commons recently declaring that “Liberal Democrat voters didn’t vote for this, they didn’t vote for these policies.” And she’s absolutely correct. This has been reflected in the polls. Under Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy the Liberal Democrat vote crept up from around fifteen percent into the low twenties over the course of the 90’s and 2000’s, now opinion polling suggests they will be fortunate if they can hold their numbers to double figures at the next election. A result somewhere between eight and twelve percent seems probable. The Labour parties vote has increased almost in direct proportion to the Liberal Democrats decline, rising from its position in the low thirties following the 2010 election to plateau in the healthy low forties.
The tough thing for Nick Clegg is that he probably didn’t have much of a choice, he essentially controlled the balance of power. David Cameron won nearly fifty seats more than Gordon Brown at the previous election and if Clegg had used his numbers to prop up Brown he probably would have suffered a negative swing of at least five percent from moderate voters who had been expressly of the view that New Labour had runs its course and needed to be removed.
Here in Australia the Greens were placed in a comparable but different situation after the 2010 election. Unlike the Liberal Democrats who like to think of themselves as a moderate party, the Greens are unabashedly to the left flank of the Australian Labor Party so the prospect of them assisting Tony Abbott in forming a minority government was never on the cards. Still there was the threat that the Greens would be accused of selling out for political expedience, being little more than an external faction of the Labor party and so forth. Consequently the Greens appear to have gone the other way to the Liberal Democrats, making a point of differentiating themselves from the government and alienating the more conservative elements in the Labor Party. This has also backfired for the Greens, a substantial block of Greens voters were former Labor voters who still retain an interest in ensuring that a left of centre party holds government. These voters are unhappy with the Greens perceived dragging down of the Labor vote and hold them partially responsible for the looming threat of an Abbott government.
Family First senator Steve Fielding experienced a similar fate to Clegg. In 2004 he attempted to present himself as more in tune with middle Australia than either the coalition of the Labor party. He was old fashioned christian values like the coalition, but a bit of an economic softy who wanted to give lots of money to schools and hospitals. Crucially he painted himself as constructive and cooperative, willing to work with both sides of parliament unlike The Greens or One Nation whom he accused of being narrow minded and radical. As a result he managed to perform an extraordinary feat of preference harvesting, getting preferences directed to him from The Labor Party, the Liberal Party, the National Party, the Christian Democrats, One Nation and the Democratic Labor Party. Only the Democrats directed preferences towards the Greens in the final senate count and this was enough to get Fielding elected. Once he was in the Senate though he couldn’t maintain the rhetorical facade of being on everyone’s side, he had to choose a side when votes were put to the senate and increasingly he chose to vote with the coalition. This spelled the end for Fielding who had no major constituency of his own and had traded on being everyone’s second preference, the Labor party and some micro parties routed and through their preferences behind the Greens next time and Fielding found himself with no base on which to stand.
What would have happened if the Greens had become a Labor lackey , so to speak, instead? Chances are the vote would have still dipped, “I might as well just vote Labor” some would surely say. It’s a very difficult to maintain levels of support as a third party, there seems to be an enormous element of catch 22 about it. But we shouldn’t feel sorry for Christine Milne or Nick Clegg, they only got their spike in votes by trading off voters disaffection with the major parties. Marketing yourself as an appealing “third option” is a volatile business and a short term one at that. If you don’t ever persuade voters to ideologically align themselves with you to begin with you can’t expect them to stick loyally by you. Perhaps the Green approach is the better one actually,