The Political Incentives Destroying the UK

Brad DeLong points out that the downturn in the United Kingdom is now worse than during the Great Depression. In light of this information he calls for the Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrat party which is a minor partner in the coalition government with the Conservatives, to bring an end to the current government. From Delong:

Liberal Party leader Nick Clegg ought to end this farce today. He ought to tell Queen Elizabeth II Windsor that his party has no confidence in her government, and that his humble suggestion is that she ask Labour Party leader Ed Milliband to form a government.

It is true that if he does this his political career and his party’s electoral future are dog vomit. But his political career and his party’s political future is dog vomit anyway. At least defection from the ill-advised Conservative-Liberal coalition now would benefit his country.

Sadly this won’t happen because DeLong is over-simplifying the politics incentives involved.

It is true that right now Clegg and the Liberal Democrats’ political future is truly “dog vomit.” In abandoning the coalition with conservatives in the near future, the Liberal Democrats will likely be effectively dead for a century.

The issue is that the Liberal Democrats is a third-place party that’s always struggling because UK uses a first-past-the-post election system that heavily advantages the two most popular political parties. This type of unfair system, which the United States also uses, often allows one party to receive only a small plurality of the popular vote but win a huge majority of the seats in Parliament. For example, in the 2005 election Labour won 35.2% percent of the popular vote but got 55.2 percent of the seats.

Rarely does a third party ever even win enough seats to force one of the top two parties to agree to form a coalition government. Because of this type of election system so heavily disadvantages a third-place party, they are perpetually in danger and almost never have any power. If the Lib-Dems give up their current power as part of a coalition government now and force a new election, the party could likely be effectively destroyed. Sharing the blame for this terrible downturn would basically kill most third-place parties in this type of system.

This gives Lib-Dems two powerful incentives to hold on till the bitter end. First, this will probably be their last chance at having any power for decades so they may as well hold onto this power for as long as they can. And the second important reason is perhaps. While a new election now is sure death perhaps if they hold on until 2015, something unexpected will come along to save them. Three years is a long time, a lot could happen. While their political future in 2015 is likely going to “dog vomit,” there is at least a chance it won’t be.

This reminds me of an old parable that goes something like this:

A man was set to be executed the next day but told the King if he was given a year he could teach the king’s favorite horse to sing. The King decided to give him one year. If the horse sang he would set the man free, if not he would have the man killed. Later a fellow prisoners said, “are you crazy, you can’t keep that promise.” The mans answered “I know but I bought myself a year and a lot can happen in a year. Perhaps the king may die. Perhaps he will decide to pardon me anyway. Perhaps the horse may even learn how to sing. Regardless I now have another year and the chance that something will save me.”

The political incentives make the choice are simple. They can do something guaranteed to completely destroy their party now or they can hold onto power and the possibility something will come along to save them.



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Jon Walker

Jon Walker

Jonathan Walker grew up in New Jersey. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 2006. He is now living in the Washington DC area. He created a politics and policy blog, The Walker Report (