For many years, the United Kingdom’s Press has believed that
there is a two party system of government and have paid little
attention to the smaller parties – Greens, Liberal Democrats,
United Kingdom Independence Party (anti-European Union), the
British National Party (fascist thugs) and the Scottish and
In 1951 this might have been justified as the Conservatives
and Labour shared 95% of the vote. By 2005 and 2010, the combined
figure had dropped to 65%, but still the Press did not learn.
One could understand the papers which are owned by right wing
oligarchs living outside the country, or those few which are
slavishly Labour, but the BBC, which prides itself on its
independence, was little better.
Also, the UK has a first-past-the –post electoral system
which makes it very difficult for smaller parties to get into
Parliament, especially the Liberal Democrats whose support
is spread quite evenly throughout the Country. In 2005 with
23% of the vote they received 9% of the seats.
What made the 2010 election different was that Gordon Brown
agreed to Tory leader David Cameron’s request for televised
debates, and Nick Clegg, the LibDem leader, was allowed to
participate fully. Until the debates, of which there were
3, modelled on the United States’ practice, Nick was virtually
unknown to the British public. Suddenly, 8 million viewers
saw this bright, good looking 43 year old looking straight
at the cameras and contrasting his vibrant young party with
the “old parties”, whose leaders helped him by fighting each
Overnight, the LibDems’ share of the vote in the opinion
polls shot up from 21% to 30% or even more, and over the following
3 weeks this only fell back slightly. The rightwing press
tried smear tactics, which were not successful. Half a million
people, mostly younger citizens, rushed to register to vote.
The election stopped being boring and everyone seemed interested.
When LibDem candidates appeared in town centres, they were
greeted as friends by people promising to vote LibDem for
the first time in their lives.
Polling night was a great disappointment in that the exit
polls showed that the LibDems had fallen back to their 2005
share of 23% - a figure which surpasses nearly every other
European liberal party! – with 5 seat fewer than before, only
8%. But, for the first time for many decades, neither the
Conservatives nor Labour had an overall majority of seats,
and the negotiations had to start.
There were several options. The Conservatives, as the largest
party, could have governed alone, with an agreement from the
LibDems or Labour that they would not be voted out on their
main programmes. Or they could do a coalition with the LibDems,
one with the defeated Labour Party being unthinkable.
Most LibDems think of themselves as left of centre, and Labour
would be the natural allies. However, at a time of acute economic
crisis, Nick Clegg believed that strong government was essential.
He did have talks with abour, but Labour’s heart was not in
it and negotiations with David Cameron were successful. (Nick
led European Union trade negotiations with China when he worked
at the European Commission, so the Conservatives had a tough
Now the UK has a coalition Government, in which Nick Clegg
is Deputy Prime Minister, with 5 LibDems in the Cabinet and
a further 15 as junior ministers. The legislative programme,
read out by Queen Elizabeth II yesterday, contains very many
policies from the LibDem manifesto, and the two parties are
committed to a 5 year government to enable them to carry out
their reforms and eliminate the deficit.
The real lesson to be learned from a Russian point of view
is that the UK suffered from limited access to the media for
minor parties. If a platform is given to others – as in the
prime ministerial debates – the people are able to make an
informed choice and will be excited by a political process
that they will not think to have been “fixed” by those already
Robert Woodthorpe Browne
Chairman International Relations Committee of the Liberal
Democrats, Vice President on the Bureau of Liberal International.
Former Chairman, now Vice President of Parliamentary Candidates
Association. Former Chairman, now Deputy Chairman and Vice
President of the British Group of Liberal International. Chairman
of the International Relations Committee and Member of the
International Affairs Team of the Liberal Democrats
Council Member of ELDR. Member of Executive of Liberal International.
Joined Liberal Party UK in 1960.