Lost in (moral psychological) space the UK’s Liberal Democrats are faced with electoral collapse

The UK’ Liberal Democrats (LD) are in an unusually interesting place political place.  In Government, as part of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition at Westminster they are considered to be in the midst of a grave crisis one which, by some of the more unfriendly assessments, could see them wiped out as a political force losing all but a handful of their 57 currently held seats in the 2015 election.  In the 2010 election they took 23% of the vote, their best ever result, but they are now languishing on between 7 to 9% according to the latest polls

Polling Organisation Lib Dems Con Lab UKIP GRN
Ashcroft 7 31 31 18 5
Populus 8 34 36 13 3
You Gov 8 32 32 18
Com Res 9 30 30 19 4

By any accounting a 60% collapse in support is something of huge significance which needs explanation, particularly because it the main driver of the extraordinary numbers in the UKIP column.  Almost 15% of the 2010 electoral vote has floated free of it previous embrace of the LD and much of it has found a home in those startling UKIP totals.

In the standard political reckoning the Lib Dem’s woes are accounted for by the unpopularity of being in government at a time of austerity, by the breaking of pre-election promises and their identification with Conservatives which alienates left wing voters.  Those broken promises are significant see here and here, so was the 2010 tactic of running against austerity arguing that it could be mitigated or softened and then in Government the Lib Dems were party to actually deepening austerity by cutting 25% faster than the Labour government had proposed.  This later policy caused the recession to deepen and delayed recovery and extended  austerity, exploded indebtedness  by several years in the UK.

So if breaking your promises and making policy errors are the drivers of a 60% decline in popularity then the Conservatives,  rather than being down 10% on their  2010 showing would be down a very great deal more.  The difference in the way in which types of voters react to the same events needs explanation at the moral psychological level

Conservative voters revere and valourise authority, right wing parties tend to strengthen in Government for this reason.  Right wing voters are high on in-group loyalty  and this leads them to rationalise and reason in a way which is supportive and sympathetic to authority, so economic failure and broken election promises on the part of the Governing right are more easily forgiven and rationalised.  Recall Haidt, reason follow emotions which follow moral intuitions.  This phenomenon in itself accounts for a key strength of the political right in global democratic politics, success in policy or the economy is readily recognised and rewarded by right wing voters whereas policy failure can be overlooked more readily.  Now the UK’s Conservatives are challenged by UKIP who are banging on the Authority and In Group Loyalty foundations for all they are worth.

If right wing voters reason to forgive right wing governments then the inverse, has been spectacularly true and ruinous for the Lib Dems.  Moralised anti-authoritarianism and weak or non-existent in group loyalty have wrought destruction on their political prospects.  Reason follows intuitions so the moralised anti-authoritarian have little difficulty accepting “policy betrayal” such as on £9000 per year student fees as vindication, of a type which is deeply salient and of intense emotional  pull.

The Lib Dems were able to denude Labour of several million votes by tracking to Labour’s left across 1999 to 2010.  Labour in 97 had 13.5 million votes to 5 million for the Lib Dems whereas in 2010 Labour had 8.6 million to the Lib Dem 6.8 million.  This blog argues that politics need to be understood both in Haidt terms and Fiske terms.  The Lib Dems ripped up Labour’s support base by tracking stronger on Fairness and Liberty and more strongly anti-authoritarian as well as more fundamentally CS and EM with outright MP hostility.

In the standard model the Lib Dems are suffering from opposing Labour to its left and now governing on the same space or the right of the same space.  Perfectly true but the questions is why should that be uniquely ruinous for them?  Parties position themselves tactically all the time and shape-shifting is as old as politics itself.  The argument here is that the Lib Dem had such spectacular success in destroying Labour support by positioning across Haidt and Fiske moral foundations with a different emphasis of that to Labour.  Now, in Government they have not simply adopted some different policies but have moved in moral psychological space in such a ways as to spell political disaster for them, voters may not recall the broken pledge on VAT but they sense the shift in the moral basis of their position.

Some key movements in moral psychological space:

Policy areas under Labour met with Lib Dem hostility

Labour Policy Moralised Foundations Lib Dem in Government
  Haidt Fiske  
Liberal Interventionist Wars In Group LoyaltyAuthoritarianism MPAR Fought a liberal interventionist war in Syria and against ISIS in Iraq.  Adopting Labour’s Haidt and Fiske moral reference point.
Welfare ReformEducational ReformHeath Reform

Public Sector Reform

MP All these reform processes have been continued by the Lib Dem and Tory coalitionLid Dems in opposition evinced moralised hostility to contract change – hostility to MP
Redistribution Fairness CS The Lib Dems campaigned on poverty and exclusion but in Government they are unable to re-distribute at all.  (The one policy success of increasing personal tax allowances is offset by it being paid for by increasing the regressive VAT tax )
Security/Terrorism Authoritarianism AREM The Lib Dems have continued the Labour government security policy supporting detention without trial under a different name.The unique selling point of the Lib Dems is there strong EM reference but this has been systematically under-mined by there security policy.
Constitutional Reform EM Classic Lib Dem EM reference which cannot be pursued over Tory hostility
EU policy EMMP Classic Lib Dem EM reference and enthusiasm stymied by Tory hostility

Argument summary: governing under austerity and breaking election pledges are not fatal to a Party’s political prospects (see the Conservatives)  but what is critical is the way in which moving decisively across political moral psychological tramlines is felt by voters.

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