Alex Massie

The Liberal Democrats and the Fallacy of Sunk Costs

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John McTernan makes the case:

Paradoxically, it is the increaing unpopularity of the Liberal Democrats that will bind them closer to the Tories. It’s illogical, I know. Being in the Coalition has halved their support, so really they should leave as soon as possible. But they won’t, they’ll cling on for dear life. Economists know this as the “sunk cost fallacy” – ordinary people use the phrase “good money after bad”. Essentially, most of us have an aversion to loss, so we tell ourselves any stories we can think of rather than do the logical thing and cut our losses. For sure, some Lib Dems think that there will be an upside. But the shrewd ones realise that just as their ministers are being made to take the pain now, Cameron and Osborne have no intention of sharing any gain. Yet they’re already trapped, taking damage and hoping that this is the worst.

No-one who had a choice would build a political strategy on the saccharine slogan “the darkest hour is just before dawn”. However, that is what the Lib Dems have decided to do.

Maybe. But are the Lib Dems really throwing "good money after bad"? And if they are then wouldn't they be doing so were they to have found themselves in government with Labour too?

As I argued this afternoon, the success or failure of this government can't sensibly be measured by adding up the number of manifesto


aspirations "delivered" by either party, rather it needs to be taken in the round. This is a Conservative-led government that is less conservative than it would be if the Tories were governing alone. It devotes rather more time (and money) to areas of shared Tory-Liberal concern than a Tory government might be expected to.

Across a wide-range of policy the Liberal Democrats have, for the first time, a say and an influence. And they will continue to do so. Their costs, while sunk, are an investment that may yet pay dividends. Sure, a policy dividend may not be the same as a political pay-out but that's a different matter entirely.

The Conservative and Labour parties exist to be in power. Without it they are of little use. The Liberal Demcorats have, for the first time in recent memory, been given the opportunity to be more than a protest party or the home for nice people who don't want to be too closely associated with the mucky business of normal politics. If they choose - and a good proportion of their supporters seem so minded - to spurn that chance then so be it. But their leadership seems to be made of slightly sterner stuff.

So when Brother Korski looks to Germany and sees "grim parallels" for the Lib Dems, I see a rather sunnier prospect. The FDP are a useful role model and again and allowing for all the usual and obvious differences, it may prove possible for an Orange Book liberalism to win 12-15% of the vote in Britain. That might be all Clegg needs to retain a position of influence in British politics. 

That would, for sure, mean a different kind of Liberal party (one truer to the spirit of liberalism at least) but it would not be the end of the Liberal Democrats.

In the meantime, they're not "throwing good money after bad". Yes, they have to hang on in there because abandoning ship simply exposes them to the oblivion of the deep but they're on board to actually get stuff done, not just to cling on to their seats at the next election. In other words, the Lib Dems are in the midst of an uncomfortable transformation from protest party to party of ideas and influence. They won't - and can't - get everything they want but how could it be otherwise? It cannot.

Their political capital is much reduced; their policy capital however remains in better shape than would be the case were they on the opposition benches. It's not a sunk cost by any means but even if it were then, to switch to poker parlance, the Lib Dems are pot-committed.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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