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The pitfalls of third party power...

By Zach Davis-Hancock - posted Thursday, 16 June 2011

When a third political party gets the chance to govern, there are often dire political consequences. The latest example of this phenomenon is the 11% local government swing against the UK Liberal Democrats who are in a power-sharing coalition with the Conservatives.

The Liberal Democrats have been lynched for the Lib-Con coalition's cuts to public spending. The Democrats in Australia were whipped over the 1998 GST compromise. This pattern leaves many historical lessons for the future of the Greens Party, especially in dealing with the Carbon Tax.

Since the rise of the UK Labour Party in the 1920s, the then Liberal Party was relegated to a third force in UK politics. In 1988 the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party merged to form the Liberal Democrats, and its electoral fortunes have grown to become the defined third force in UK politics.


Fortunes peaked last year when, for the first time since the 1920s, the Liberal Democrats became the Conservative's junior coalition partner in government. But last month came the reality check: an 11% swing against the Liberal Democrats, with Labour's primary vote going from 27% to 37% as a result. The Liberal Democrats lost more than 700 Councillors and lost control of heartland local administrations such as Hull, Manchester and even Sheffield, the home council of leader Nick Clegg.

This massive swing against the Liberal Democrats has resulted in some people calling for Clegg's resignation as leader, and other elements of the Liberal Democrats calling on Clegg to tear the coalition agreement up.

Anti-Tory constituencies massacred a party supporting a largely conservative economic agenda. However, the Conservatives remain curiously unscathed, holding their vote steady. This is because the Liberal Democrats defeated Labor to take control of the industrial heartland of the UK. In other words, a Lib-Con coalition's spending cuts infuriated the Lib Dems centre left base. This forced the 'yellow' base of these towns back to Labor.

Both the press and party agree - this is the price of power; especially the price of power with the Tories. No political party can win without its base. The challenge for any third party is to hold its base whilst it tries to compromise and govern. If this is not managed well, governing will become a one-time event.

In terms of the Australian political experience, this has been shown best by the demise of the Australian Democrats. Under the Australian political system, having the balance of power in the senate gives a minor party the same political power as the Liberal Democrats have in Coalition.

The day the Democrats started their fall from grace, was the moment they agreed to a compromise deal on the GST. In the minds of Democrats' voters, rather than 'Keeping the bastards honest', the Democrats were doing deals with them. By 2007, the Democrats had no senators left.


The Greens have successfully filled the void of the Democrats as the third main political force. Now with the Greens guaranteeing supply, they are in the same position as the Democrats. That is, they have the poison chalice of being in a position of power with a major party. This will require compromise to govern whilst meeting the expectation of their base.

For the future of the Greens, the fight over the Carbon Tax will be crucial. The Greens need to pass a Carbon Tax that is strong enough to sell to their base.

In order to survive, the Greens must not become wedged between their base and Labor, causing the base to fall apart and the Labour Party to become able to reclaim the 'inner city left wing' votes that are trending towards the Greens. This would be the precise phenomenon that has trapped Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats in the UK.

The Greens would benefit from a few policy wins and concessions from Labor, but Gillard really has little to give; political capital is low and the fiscal straightjacket of a balanced budget in 2012/13 has left the cupboard bare. This is an historic time for the left of Australian politics, but a smooth path forward seems highly unlikely.

To survive as the moral conscience of the Australian left, the Greens can not be seen to cede on their agenda. This is a historic time for the Australian left and for the first time, it's a challenge which doesn't rest in the hands of the 'faceless men' of the trade union movement; but rather it rests in a meshed coalition of sectional left lobby groups.

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About the Author

Zach Davis-Hancock is a student at Murdoch University and a Coalition Advisor.

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All articles by Zach Davis-Hancock

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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