Political Promise

The Incumbency Problem

In Graeme Morrison on June 3, 2010 at 6:39 pm

By Graeme Morrison

Since its inception, the coalition government has had to convince the public that it is a partnership built to last. Today, with the resignation of Chief Secretary to the Treasury of David Laws, the coalition suffered the first major blow to its stability. By all accounts, Laws was well thought of in both the Liberal and Tory parties. Indeed, the Conservatives had found someone in the Treasury who was perhaps ideologically closer to them than his own party. It will be the two-fold impact of this resignation that will be of disappointment for the PM. To the Liberals however, it represents a point in its short history where the rules of the game have changed.

My point is that the Liberal Democrat’s ‘alternative to the old parties’ image is well and truly discredited. It began when Nick Clegg became the talk of the steamie after the first leaders debate. By signing the Liberals into government, the millstone of incumbency will be draped around Clegg and his party by the time of the next election. It is indeed the price a party must pay for power; you don’t get the credit when things are going well, but you get well and truly punished when things do not.

For me, incumbency is the biggest threat to any government. It is often played as a strength, particularly when a Vice President stands for the Presidency in the United States. In Britain however, a combination of being tarnished because of policy/scandal with a simple dose of ‘the same old faces’ is to the detriment of an incumbent administration. We need only look at how the expenses scandal impacted upon the parties at the last election. Labour were undoubtedly disproportionately punished because of expenses, however the widespread agitation with politicians hardly made a dent in the Conservatives polling by comparison.

It is under these circumstances that the mantra of ‘change’ picks up momentum. Change is the antitheses to the established, a simple way of eating into the support a government may once have held. For the Tories, ‘change’ is a concept that completely contradicts basic conservative traditions. It is however a watchword for creating a marked contrast.

This brings me to the problem the Liberal Democrats now face. In terms of the popular vote, they performed well last month, coming within five points of Labour. They ran on the notion of ‘new politics’ – another sound bite for moving away from the status quo. Cameron was correct in saying the Lib Dems had claimed a moral high ground on expenses. Now they cannot. Not because of this one incident, but because they now form part of the establishment. The Liberals have escaped the same level of criticism as the main two parties over the years. The early resignation of Laws awakens them to what lies ahead as a result of their pact with the Tories.
Governing is indeed an honour. It is virtuous in that you serve a large constituency of people who rely on you. It is also a cruel mistress however. Incumbency makes government shelf lives inevitable. For the Liberal Democrats, however, this is new territory.

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