So Charles Kennedy has finally gone. It was clearly inevitable, I suppose, even before he announced that he'd been seeking treatment for drinking problems, although, as I've already said, the death by a thousand cuts of the palace coup against him was distinctly unedifying. What I think is rather more interesting is the quite probably false assumptions on which that coup was launched. Quite apart from the fact that none of the other significant figures in the Lib Dems have much to match the affable charisma of Kennedy, it seems to me that those who orchestrated the coup have profoundly underestimated the scale of the task facing them if they want to turn the proceeds of tactical and protest voting against the other two parties into a permanent and effective national political force, one which has the chance of holding the balance in Parliament.
First past the post electoral systems have a notedly centripetal effect, because they reward the ability to assemble winning coalitions across as many seats as possible, which of course reinforces itself because voters and parties are fully aware that it is difficult to win without holding the centre ground. Centrist parties do not do well in that kind of environment, simply because, in the absence of issues which are able to genuinely split the electorate along more than one axis - religious or national affiliations, usually - no party of the right or the left can afford to vacate the political centre for very long, and such parties will usually have larger hinterlands away from the centre, making them more capable of gaining power anyway. They can only flourish on a national scale in periods where, for some reason, one of the other two parties - and it is almost always two - falters, and they generally only ever make permanent any gains from such periods in the event that the faltering of others exposes a serious institutional weakness. This is because they always risk being outflanked on both fronts, unlike their right- or left-wing counterparts, making their policy positions and so support often of necessity unstable. It tends to be only in the event that one of the parties of the left or the right collapses, and in doing so sheds some significant part of its institutionalised support, or the electorate changes so that some part of it previously uncolonised by either left or right opens up, that third parties are able to achieve some degree of permanence on the national political scene.
These are only generalisations, and there are doubtless exceptions to them, but since the Second World War the British electoral system has been relatively stable, to no small degree because of the way in which it has been governed by them. Think of the changes which were necessary for the Labour Party to overturn the set of alignments which had more or less governed since the end of Palmerston in the mid to late nineteenth century: Taff Vale and the escalation and institutionalisation in trades unions of what could reasonably be called class conflict; the self-immolation of the Liberals under the pressure of the First World War and Lloyd George's ego; and the coming of manhood suffrage. I think it's plausible to say that without any of these developments, none of which were the doing of the Party itself, the Labour Party's history would be extremely different. Even with the help of the creation of a constituency, the self-destruction of the party which occupied much of the political space which it was sensible for Labour to stand in, and the enfranchisement of the un- or semi-skilled working class, in an overwhelmingly working class society it took a political generation, and another World War, for Labour to form a majority government.
Social and political changes of this kind of moment do not strike as occuring at the moment in Britain. The War on Terror is just not on anything like the scale of either of the World Wars, and Labour, rather than the Lib Dems, have benefited from the Tory loss of the middle ground after their assassination of Thatcher and apparent loss of economic competence, if that was comparable to Lloyd George's machinations against Asquith anyway. The Lib Dems are looking to exploit an opportunity which doesn't exist, and have rid themselves of two of their most valued political assets in doing so, a much-liked, if perhaps insufficiently ruthless, leader, and a reputation for fair play, all on the back of failures by the other two parties which could, and I suspect will, be relatively easily remedied. I think there's a Greek word for that.