With Labour activists and Guardianistas wobbling over the startling revelation that if they don’t win the election, the Lib Dems won’t win it for them, I’ve written a short article on Comment is Free explaining why that doesn’t mean the Lib Dems are about to jump in bed with the Tories and that Labour needs to get real:
If Labour is slowly waking up to the fact that the Lib Dems will be nobody’s patsies, that’s great. I like to think that Labour can bring itself back from the brink over the next 10 days and will stop arguing itself into political oblivion. As their newly exhumed supporter Elvis says, it’s now or never. What they have to wake up to, however, is the fact that there are a lot more possible scenarios out there than either a Cameron or a Brown-led government. Every time they oversimplify and insist that a Lib Dem vote is a vote for Cameron, they merely discredit themselves by mirroring the Tories who are insisting that the Lib Dems are a proxy for Brown.
I’m not sure they are necessarily wise to do this, since not only are hung parliaments popular but their arguments against them are patronising in the extreme. But while people are showing no signs of submitting to such scare tactics yet, we need to redouble our efforts to reassure them.
One thing is for sure: the Tories can no longer claim to be about change in this election, as if that argument ever had any resonance in the first place.
Think this election is different? Think the polls are showing this election has become a three way race and that the Lib Dems are insurgent? Allow Polly Toynbee to disabuse you.
For Polly, we are in a political Groundhog Day. 2010 is the new 2005. You remember 2005, don’t you? While Labour’s illegal Iraq invasion was at its height and its love affair with big business was at its most passionate, Polly Toynbee was telling everyone who would listen to stick clothespegs on their noses and vote Labour regardless. It would appear that Toynbee’s brief dalliance with David Owen in the Eighties has had the effect that, as a true prodigal daughter, she will always find a reason to back the Labour Party even though she can find precious little to agree with them on. Her argument is not so much “my party right or wrong” as “my party, wrong, wrong, wrong.”
The 2010 version of the clothespeg campaign appears to have taken this a step further. No longer interested in even attempting to defend Labour, the crux of her argument is rooted purely on the basis that 1) they aren’t the Tories and 2) voting Lib Dem is a wasted vote, all the time, always, regardless of what the polls say.
Here are four reasons why she is hopelessly, utterly wrong:
Firstly, there is plenty of evidence out there to suggest that Lib Dem support still has not peaked in this election and might still get us into the 38-40% level of support needed to not only be the largest party but to form a majority. The Sun commissioned a poll by YouGov which showed that 49% of the public say they would vote Lib Dem if they thought we had a chance of winning outright, a finding which clearly terrified them and they promptly attempted to bury. Will that happen? I have to admit it is unlikely, but it does suggest there is all to play for. Toynbee quote Ben Page who promises to “run naked through the streets” if Nick Clegg were to win. Of course, what she doesn’t mention is that Page said this on 16 April when pollsters were just waking up to the Lib Dem surge in the polls. I have no doubt whatsoever that if Page had held his tongue for just 24 hours, he wouldn’t have made anything like such a confident prediction.
The polls over the last couple of days have the Conservatives creeping ahead and the Lib Dems being stuck at around the 29-30% mark. Could this mean the Lib Dems have peaked? Possibly (which would still make them the second party in terms of vote share; Labour are resolutely in third place now), possibly not. What we do know is that the BBC’s leaders’ debate this coming Thursday will be watched by a lot more people than the Sky News one and will thus be harder to spin by the rightwing press. We are also now much more alert to “happy accidents” such as pollsters starting their survey before Clegg has finished his closing speech. And we know that there is plenty of time for the Lib Dems to accrue more heavyweight support and momentum. I’m not predicting anything, merely pointing out the futility of writing the party off at this stage.
Secondly, Polly is simply wrong to assert that if the Tories win the plurality in terms of both seats and votes, they will have “won” the election. They would certainly have won the right to try and form a government, as Nick Clegg has said, but that is where our obligation to them ends. If the Lib Dems come second, then the party the Tories will have to persuade to help them out will be the third party, Labour. Don’t see it happening? Well, I wouldn’t run down the streets naked if it did, after all Blue-Red alliances are not exactly unheard of, but I would certainly consider it unlikely. And even a Tory minority government is not exactly a stunning victory, hamstrung as it would be by a combined Lib Dem-Labour majority.
Thirdly, as I argued on Comment is Free last weekend, a strong Lib Dem vote in this election is the best possible result if you want meaningful political reform. At this stage one has to question Polly’s motivations. Is she really the stalwart electoral reformer she claims to be? She brands Labour’s commitment for a referendum on AV as “pathetic” yet for the past five years been a part of that happy band of Labourites who have been working behind and in front of the scenes to make the mood music for AV as a stepping stone towards full STV compelling. So why complain now? And if it isn’t good enough, why support them now?
Back to my substantive point though, the best two arguments for PR are that a) FPTP produces undemocratic outcomes and b) FPTP doesn’t even produce the “strong” government (which is another way of saying weak parliament) its supporters insist is the only sensible way of carrying on. I can cite you examples worldwide why both are the case (FPTP using Canada has been stuck with a balanced parliament for six years and three consecutive elections now) but what will really motivate the British public is seeing how broken the system really is upfront. If Toynbee is interested in taking the case reform beyond the dinner table, then she should be urging people to vote Lib Dem in their droves right now.
All this will be undermined if people fall meekly in line by voting tactically. Not only does that exhaust the movement for reform of its momentum by boring people to death with psephological arguments about making the most of their vote in their constituency, it means that the Lib Dem vote share will inevitably go down and thus rob us of our strongest symbolic argument for reform. It isn’t just Toynbee making this mistake; Vote for a Change is ignoring the way the polls have shifted and adopting the tactic of trying to bore for electoral reform as well; these people badly need to get with the programme.
Thirdly, and most contentiously, I would argue that Clegg may yet emerge as the consensus choice for Prime Minister if the Lib Dems come first or second in terms of vote share, regardless of the number of MPs they get.
It isn’t that I think this is a shoo-in; it is just that I think that the three other options being talked about are highly problematic. A Cameron premiership would be dependent on Lib Dem or Labour support and an insurgent Clegg is unlikely to go along with that. If Labour come third in terms of vote share then it is surely game over for Brown; even he, surely, isn’t deluded enough to think he can hang on? But the “David Miliband” option isn’t exactly problem free either. There would still be the little matter of Labour losing the election, it would lead to the second consecutive Prime Minister with no personal mandate (after the first one had been rejected) and it would be problematic for Labour itself which is badly in need of a period of reflection and an open leadership election.
In comparison, Prime Minister Clegg doesn’t sound like too bad an option. It would be a vindication of the popular vote, it would allow Labour to go off and select a leader of their own and it has a certain constitutional neatness to it, with the Prime Minister of the day having to negotiate with parliament rather than take it for granted. It wouldn’t be an easy option by any stretch of the imagination – Clegg would be in for one hell of a rough ride. It might have to be part of a two- or three-way coalition and it would almost certainly not last longer than a couple of years, but two years of consensus politics guiding us out of the economic downturn and introducing a series of necessary political reforms (including a referendum on whether to replace the voting system with a proportional system) sounds quite enticing to me.
If there is a clearer and more productive way forward than that in the case of a hung parliament, I haven’t heard of it. So let’s stop all this talk about tactical voting and the risks of getting both Brown and Cameron if you vote Lib Dem. The only thing we know for sure in this election is that a vote for the Liberal Democrats will get you Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, more Lib Dem MPs and a stronger Lib Dem mandate for change. Everything else is just noise.
Finally, a short coda in response to David Miliband’s claim that the Lib Dems are anti-politics. If by “politics” he means establishment, then he is in fact correct. But the sort of system the Lib Dems are standing for in this election is a noisy, argumentative one in which ideas and policies are contested. Politics in other words. The one party rule that Miliband et al stand for is the very definition of anti-politics, where MPs are leant on to do what they’re told, where governments rely on huge majorities to force everything they want through, where oppositions can oppose without ever having to accept responsibility and where people like Messrs Miliband and Cameron merely have to wait in the wings until their inevitable rise as heirs apparent. If Miliband wants to defend the status quo, let him, but don’t let him get away with claiming it is “politics”.
Today’s polls confirm that the leaders’ debate on Thursday has become a game changer. Ever since 1983, much of the focus on the progressive end of politics has been on tactical voting to prevent the “left” vote from splitting. But as we move towards a genuinely multi-party system, that method loses its effectiveness whilst promoting cynicism. Increasingly it has lead to a Labour party which feels it can take the support of progressives for granted and can instead focus on attracting swing voters from the centre right. …
What we’ve seen over the past 48 hours is the possibility of a genuinely new approach. Instead of playing by the political establishment’s rules, we have a real chance now of doing something genuinely disruptive. Not only would more it lead to more Lib Dem MPs voting for a genuinely democratic political system, a high Lib Dem share of the vote will illustrate perfectly why one is so badly needed.
Blogging will be light over the next few days as a dog took a chunk out of my finger today while out delivering leaflets and I have surgery tomorrow. If any Lib Dem supporters have any sympathy for me you can show it by donating and going out to campaign yourself.
This is a very different election campaign for me. In 1997 and to an even greater extent in 2001 and 2005 I was up against the coalface campaigning in target seats (Oldham East and Saddleworth and Hazel Grove in 1997, agent for Leeds North West in 2001 and campaigns organiser for East Dunbartonshire in 2005). This year, my job has meant that I’ve spent most of the campaign thus far in front of a computer screen watching the campaign itself from afar.
The week started badly for me, with the news seemingly dominated by that most nauseating of phenomena, the leaders’ wags (actually, they’re all wives but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where the media, Labour and the Tories are taking their cues from. The Daily Mail going for Sarah Brown on the basis of her feet was probably a new low for journalism. Far from discouraging this kind of trivialisation, Labour and the Tories have been doing all they can to encourage it, with the Conservatives promoting “Sam Cam” to key spokesperson status.
Treatment of the public as face slapping morons continued throughout the week with Labour’s attempt to target their manifesto to that all important 5 year old demographic. Sadly, the Green Party have clearly decided that this is the way to go and so brought out their own 1970s children’s animation-inspired Election Broadcast. By the end of Tuesday it seemed like this whole election campaign was going to get drowned in trivial and patronising drivel.
And then on Wednesday things started to change… Actually, that’s not quite right because the first thing which excited me this week was Nick Clegg’s Jeremy Paxman interview on Monday. Paxo was his usual contemptuous, bullying self but what was astonishing was that he failed to land a single blow of Clegg. Throughout Clegg looked relaxed and calm and often rather quizzical, as if Jeremy had wondered in off the street from a different political era when the rules were different. Which, in a sense, he had. Watching this performance I was astonished to learn that not only had Brown and Cameron not confirmed to appear on a similar programme but that Cameron had ruled it out. Surely this clearly showed that Paxo was passed his best and that there was all to play for in securing a half-hour of prime time immediately following Eastenders? The fact that Cameron has turned this opporunity down suggests there are major jitters currently shaking CCHQ.
Anyway, back to Wednesday. I’ve been keeping a close eye on the Lib Dems’ manifesto development process so it contained few surprises for me. What was rather more surprising was the Election Broadcast. Lib Dem PEBs are something I endure, rather than look forward to. At best they are dreadful, generic vox pop affairs with “ordinary people” saying how much they like Lib Dem policies and the leader popping up at the end to say how it is really important that people vote for him. Utterly uninspired, completely dull. Remarkably similar, in fact, to this.
So I was pretty astounded when it turned out that the party had managed to come up with a broadcast that I thought was actually good:
In fact, I thought it was more than good. It works because it isn’t simply a litany of policy-bites but constitutes an argument. It puts the leader front and centre. It has striking, cinematic visuals. It avoids talking down to people or sinking into that chirpy, horrifically inauthentic tone that party films often resort to as their comfort blankets (see the Labour, Green and Tory examples above). It has a nice soundtrack (thank the gods they didn’t use that awful theme tune the party launched at conference), scored by someone who is very definitely a Lib Dem supporter. It even tickles my geek fancies. The Brian Eno track was also used in the film 28 Days Later from which the film clearly borrows some of the visuals from as well. What kind of inspired genius suggests that a major political party’s election broadcast should essay a funky, low budget horror film and actually sees it through?
Pleased as I was with that, Clegg’s performance on the ITV leader’s debate yesterday was just the icing on the cake. I thought he was doing well while I watched it but never imagined that he was getting through to the ordinary public. The ComRes poll today, showing a whopping 14% increase in the party’s share of the vote amongst people who watched the programme clearly demonstrates to what degree there is all to play for in this election and how it might yet end up surprising people.
The anti-Clegg spin today has been hilarious. In particular, I’ve been highly amused by all the Tory and Labour politicians stating that they always expected Clegg would walk it. If you put a tenner on Clegg winning (on Boylesports anyway), you would have made back £27.50. By contrast, Cameron’s odds were 4/5 and Brown was in second place at 15/8.
The other bit of spin is that Clegg can say what he likes because he won’t be in power. Yet the Lib Dems are the only party going into this election with a costed manifesto. Yet we have been staring a hung parliament scenario in the face for over a year now. If anything, Clegg had an even bigger credibility gap to negotiate than the other two precisely because he was the insurgent candidate. Yet he overcame that handicap and romped home. As a result, he could well hold the balance of power in three weeks time. Not exactly consequence free stuff, is it?
The received wisdom is that Clegg and the Lib Dems will now be under increased scrutiny and that there is no room for complacency. That is absolutely right but there are two reasons to be optimistic. Firstly, if we get attacked more, it means that more of the debate will be on our agenda which in many respects will be helpful. I’d love it if the debate focused around around our plans to raise personal allowance for example; bring it on. That combined with the fact that the audience didn’t seem to like it when Cameron and Brown went on the attack last night suggests that the best strategy of the other parties might still be to grin, bear it, and where possible ignore Clegg.
But the second thing is that it is clear from what we’ve seen throughout this week, starting with Nick’s assured performance on the BBC, followed by the much more astute messaging in the manifesto and election broadcast, that the leader’s debate was part of a wider strategy that he is getting right and not just a fluke. The messaging is clear and it links together seemlessly with Nick’s style and narrative.
Contrast Clegg’s consistency throughout the week with Cameron flailing around with a wide variety of different messages and themes. One minute he’s doing this “big society” thing, the next he’s talking about “broken Britain”, the next he’s talking about “all being in it together”. He’s got plenty of slogans but they don’t add up to a particularly clear message and he tends to use them interchangeably rather than focus on one. The result is a mess. Brown to his credit does have a much clearer message, although his narrative (stay the course) and his sloganeering (a future fair for all) are totally different. Once you get past the Mr Men stuff, their actual election broadcast with Sean Pertwee is actually quite effective – I don’t understand why they haven’t made it a more central part of their campaign. And even if they were to sort this out, their fundamental problem would still remain: Gordon Brown.
So there is everything to play for, but nothing is going to be easy. As I finish writing this, YouGov have just released their latest poll:
So even if Labour get bashed down into third place, they will still have the plurality. The next time an interviewer presses Clegg on whether he would work with the party with the most votes or the party with the most seats, let them chew on this.