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”.