I was particularly interested in Antony Loewenstein’s claim that the Liberal Democrats are poised to overtake the Tories as the second most popular political party in Britain. I’m not sure I accept that proposition, but I also can’t claim to have followed British politics closely enough to have an informed opinion.
However, it’s certainly true that the Liberal Democrats in the UK have been much more successful than any “third force” in Australian politics (notably the Australian Democrats) at joining the mainstream and becoming a truly realistic alternative government with a more than fanciful chance of winning. I can’t help wondering why? Certainly the Australian Democrats’ policy stances have generally tended overall to be much closer to my own centrist views than either of the two major parties, and yet I’ve never really been tempted to join or view them as a serious political force (except in an upper house accountability sense). I probably wouldn’t be tempted now anyway, because my general impression is that their policies have drifted perceptibly to the left over the last couple of years. On the other hand, I have to confess I haven’t examined the Democrats’ policies in any detail recently, so I might be quite wrong. Moreover, even if there has been an apparent leftward drift, maybe that’s because the median point itself has moved rightwards in substantive policy terms).
Is it some unique feature of the UK electoral system that makes it easier for a new (or breakaway) political force to rise to prominence? Or did the Australian Democrats (I’ll try to resist calling them Dimocrats out of deep and genuine respect for Andrew Bartlett) just cock it up badly? Or is it a sinister conspiracy between the two major parties and the big end of town (as Loewenstein seems to suggest in a juvenile Indymedia moment)? Did successive Democrats leaders starting with Don Chipp make a serious strategic error in pitching only for the modest goal of “keeping the bastards honest”? Or did successive failures to win a lower house seat indicate that this modest aspiration was the only realistic one in an Australian setting? Could Natasha Stott-Despoja’s apparent attempt to break away from marginal “keeping the bastards honest” status have been successful had it not been for endemic disunity, infighting and disloyalty? Did Meg Lees’ figuratively jumping into bed with Peter Costello over GST (and Cheryl Kernot’s literally doing so with Gareth Evans) terminally doom the party to slow electoral oblivion irrespective of what N S-D or anyone else might have done thereafter? Is the party’s extraordinarily high level of internal democracy (especially rank and file election of parliamentary leadership) an advantage or handicap for a party seeking mainstream status? What do readers think?