Vote Lib Dem, Get Tories
The Lib Dems are having their pre-election conference, and early indications show it will produce a plethora of vacuous promises and slogans of the sort that could specifically refer to any policy you agreed with, or be a sign of opposition to any policy you disagreed with, but in fact tell us nothing. One thing is clear though: for once in a generation, the Lib Dem conference matters. It comes down to two words: Hung Parliament.
For once it looks a lot like a hung parliament might become a reality. A year ago, Labour lacked the momentum to even scrape into “biggest party” position, let alone an overall majority. This year, they’re doing well enough to remain the biggest, but not necessarily enough to win the popular vote. Plenty of opinion polls are spelling out complete doom for the Tories, who thought they were on the home straight, whilst plenty more are predicting that an impasse will be reached once all seats are declared.
So that might be the reasoning for listening to the Lib Dems, but what of the reasoning for opposing them. Weren’t the Lib Dems the student-friendly voice of fluffy niceness in politics only 5 years ago? What happened to the “Left of Labour” situation we witnessed during Blair’s reign?
These are not the Lib Dems of Charles Kennedy or Paddy Ashdown, representing a populist agenda full of acceptably Left-Wing ideas, like free degrees for higher rates of income tax on the richest, or opposition to the Iraq war. This could be for one of two reasons. Either because they feel the political landscape has shifted, and have decided to keep up with it, or because Nick Clegg is driving the Parliamentary Lib Dem’s far to the right on many issues.
The fact is, the situation has completely changed from the time of the last election. The Tories looked old-fashioned then, more a slick set of airbrushed commercials now. Labour was being throttled by the man hell-bent on “reforming” the NHS, a man who refused to leave power until his “final mission” was accomplished, knowing that even his highly establishmentarian successor would be doing an about-turn on his policies. The Lib Dem’s were being run by people who represented those sorts of policies that spelt common sense to nice educated people, a bit more trust in people to use their freedoms wisely, and even appealed quietly to the Pro-legalisation of Cannabis lobby.
All that has now shifted. I intend to write about Labour with regards to Health and Education very soon, but at the exact point when the Tories seemed on the ascendency and the whole population seemed to be shifting to the right, the Lib Dems made a calculated switch. Nick Clegg is anything but the socially Liberal fellow that Charles Kennedy represented, but however far he would decide to head towards a Lib-Con alliance for his own ends and how much for political expediency, there is certainly no clear evidence that he will choose the Lib-Lab coalition that seemed to make sense in most people’s minds 5 years ago.
The thing with the hung parliament situation that worries me is that we have no idea what the equations in the heads of the individual party leaders look like. Would Cameron or Brown accept a coalition if they secured a flimsy majority of, say, 5? Would they seek a coalition if they had were short of a majority by 5? And more importantly, at what point will the Lib Dems decide to focus on a coalition with ether the Tories or Labour, and when will they pick on ideological grounds?
Supposing Labour has 30 more seats than the Tories, but need a coalition to secure power. What if Clegg simply throws his weight behind the Tories, bringing two minority parties together? Knowing what we know about Clegg and his political background, his rightwing, pro-business outlook, etc. we should err on the side of caution and expect this to be the case. But there will also come a point where he simply can’t justify it; where he is the King Maker, but Labour are clearly the King.
All we can know is this: that the best chance of a Labour-led coalition is for people back Labour. The best chance of the Tories getting into power in any shape is if a lot of people voting from the left of the spectrum back the Lib Dems and Greens, diluting the vote and setting up a Lib-Con coalition, or worse. At some point Nick Clegg will be faced with a Lib-Lab coalition or no power, and it won’t be because more people have voted Lib Dem, it will be because Labour have done their level best..
Or, Labour will win a fourth term… (I’ll get to that next week…)