1992 déjà vu? Or can 2010 be different?

If there’s one thing worse than being talked about, it’s not being talked about. That might be true normally, but perhaps not when the subject is hung parliaments and what the Lib Dems might do in the event thereof.

Nick Clegg made a perfectly uncontroversial point on Sunday: that it would be inconceivable for the Lib Dems to prop up Gordon Brown as prime minister if Labour came third in terms of votes cast on 6th May. Of course it would be, no matter what the constitutional niceties might say about the right of an incumbent prime minister to try and form a government before resigning.

Some papers, such as the Guardian, have spun Nick’s statement-of-the-bleedin-obvious as some sort of proof that the Lib Dems are swinging to the Tories. This is the usual rubbish spouted by those in the media who see politics only through binary eyes, never mind that we’re in a three-party contest. “You won’t support Labour if they slump to their worst ever election defeat?” they say, “So you must be getting into bed with the Tories then – ha! I knew it”

The fact that Nick left open two possibilities – a Lib/Lab pact in which the Lib Dems are the leading partner, and a Lib/Lab pact if Labour were to come second – is disregarded: the papers have their headlines.

Today’s media scrum over the infinite possibilities that a hung parliament might throw up demonstrates (yet again) why Lib Dems do their best to avoid such talk. Instead of focusing on policy, journalists fixate instead on outcomes based on the assumptions of thing which have not yet happened.

The uncomfortable question for Lib Dems today is simple: is this 1992 all over again? For that election campaign also became bogged down in talk of which party the Lib Dems might support in the event of a hung parliament – to the detriment of the campaigning efforts both of Paddy Ashdown and Neil Kinnock, the Lib Dems’ presumed preferred partner. Undecideds and ‘soft Tories’ who might otherwise have cast their vote for the Lib Dems decided to stick with John Major.

Spool forward 18 years, and the past runs the risk of being replayed, this time with undecideds and ‘soft Labour’ voters worrying that voting Lib Dem will open the doors of Number 10 to David Cameron and the Tories.

Let me be clear: Nick’s answer to Andrew Marr yesterday was perfectly fair and perfectly valid. But, by beginning to speculate on the election results which might occur, it also gave the media permission to indulge their favourite campaign game of obsessing about hypothetical outcomes. And that is difficult and dangerous territory for the Lib Dems, as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago.

It is a distracting side issue to the central question facing the voters: do you want a new politics, or more of the same old politics?

There is no question that the Lib Dems finishing in second (or even first) place in this election would transform the landscape of British politics for good. The Labservative duopoly of the last 65 years would be consigned to the dustbin of history. If that’s what you want at this election there is no better guarantee of it happening than by voting Lib Dem. That’s the message we need to hammer home in the last 10 days of the campaign.

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12 Comments

  • Anthony Aloysius St 26th Apr '10 - 6:09pm

    “The fact that Nick left open two possibilities – a Lib/Lab pact in which the Lib Dems are the leading partner, and a Lib/Lab pact if Labour were to come second – is disregarded: the papers have their headlines.”

    He was also careful not to rule out a Lib/Lab pact in which Labour came third in terms of votes and ditched Brown in favour of a new leader.

    But frankly I think you’ve missed the point. I reckon the reason Clegg gave some clear answers this time, rather than avoiding the question as he’s done previously, is that a decision has been made that the party should indicate it’s unlikely to keep Labour in power, in order to counter the Tories’ “Vote Yellow get Brown” line of attack in the final stages of the campaign, even at the cost of alienating some soft Labour support.

    I reckon the headlines we’ve seen are more or less exactly the ones he wanted to produce.

  • Andrew Suffield 26th Apr '10 - 6:11pm

    It does sound a little silly. Like they don’t get it.

    “So, you’re the Liberal Democrats – do you support Labour or the Tories?”

  • Steve Comer 26th Apr '10 - 6:59pm

    The trouble is we’re dealing with a media that is obsessed with Westminster gossip, and has no idea of how politics outside SW1 works. We ought to emphasise that Lib Dems are not a small party, we run major cities like Liverpool, Newcastle Sheffield, Bristol, Portsmouth etc.
    We also need to try to get back to promoting the policies that proved so popular once the leaders debate enabled them to be heard. Nick did do this yesterday with Andrew Marr, but you woulldn’t think so from todays TV news.

  • David Lawson 26th Apr '10 - 8:26pm

    Well, there have been more comments and more stories, so it looks deliberate. I thought polling showed most Lib Dem voters would prefer a progressive coalition between Lib Dems and Labour. Of course, poor Gordon, indicating that he must go may not alienate too many people.

    Election after election – and well before 1992 – the Lib Dems cursed the media obsession with coalition and struggled to get asked any other question than this. The straight bat answer of “can’t say, won’t say” has lots going for it.

    Speculation annoys people I think. Too much looks like presuming the answer to a question not even asked until a week Thursday. It also quickly leads to endless flow charts of hypothetical counter-factuals. It’s like football commentators who, 10 minutes into a big game, say “well if this result stays the same and there’s no change in the other game England will need Hungary at least to draw against Brazil on Tuesday – unless of course Brazil pull out of the tournament”.

  • David Lawson 26th Apr '10 - 8:33pm

    And Stephen I wish I shared your optimism.

    The Lib Dems were within about 2% of Labour in 1983. Beating them in votes cast is not enough because they have 200 seats guaranteed for the foreseeable future under this system. If we get 15% of the seats this leaves 85% of the seats held by people with a vested interest in the current system.

    The refuseniks in any coalition will (1) delay agreeing a specific proposal for 6 months. They will do this by hinting that they might agree to our most preferred option and hoping this will string us along away from what is deliverable. Then (2) they will put wrecking amendments in the referendum bill – if one is needed- as it goes through Commons and Lords. This could easily take another 6 months. The bill might go in the October 2011 Queen’s speech to be voted on in Spring 2012. It is quite likely that someone may feel another election is a good idea at that point and pull the coalition down.

    Even if the referendum bill is agreed immediately and is agreed as the first iterm of business for the coalition (and anything less probably means it won’t happen) the coalition then has to win the referendum. Best case that will be Spring 2011, perhaps following months of difficult cuts.

    The only challenge left then? Getting an actual reform act through Parliament. Repeat point above that someone may feel that an election is a good idea. Repeat point above that 85% of members will be from parties which will lose out if the Act passes.

    The road to fundamental change is long, unpaved, unmapped and all uphill.

  • 2010 is different. That is why Cameron is peddling the ridiculous line that Nick Clegg is holding the country to ransom. That is why the normally sane Douglas Alexander is claiming that all Nick Clegg can only talk about is who will and will not be PM after the election.

    As Nick said at the start of the election: we are not the king makers. The UK electorate is in charge and is it is clear, from polling data, that it is refusing to be stampeded by red or blue. The job of grown up politicians is to make the best of the electorate’s decisions/collective wisdom. A little humility from Cameron and Brown and the parties they lead would be in order.

    Red and Blue, Labour and Conservative, seem – despite all that has happened at Westminster – not to get it. It isn’t simply that a substantial part of the electorate is refusing to play the red blue game of pass the parcel. The UK electorate is clearly ready and willing to consider fundamental political change: a fair electoral system, a collaborative rather than adversarial politics and a revitalisation and renewal of our representative institutions.

    Labour and Tory will have the numbers to block real change but if polling data is a reasonable guide to the state of public opinion they will lack all legitimacy to do so. They will also be running an extraordinary political risk if they gang up, not only against the Liberal Democrats, as champions of reform, but against the public’s expectation of change.

  • David Lawson 27th Apr '10 - 12:03am

    No doubt you are right but change will not be delivered in 2010. The current mood needs to remain, probably through a referendum and another general election in the next 2 years. It would be remarkable if Labour – which gains most from FPTP – or Conservatives – who philosophically support it – allowed it to go on the back of one election.

    All the big changes needed several goes – 1832, broadening the franchise for men and women, the 1911 budget, the 1945 landslide.

    The other parties will never actually oppose change. Cameron has shown that by his change based language. He portrays the Conservative party as the agents of change. He does this while opposing any change other than those (1) which are easy to describe but will have little impact and (2) which will give the party whips further control over MPs. This will be the line while they wait for any coalition to suffer, knowing always that the system makes it better for them than us if the whole thing goes off the rails. Another election? Ok then. Their line will then be – told you that coalitions lead to lots of elections and instability. Once the coalition gets going they know that we have to keep it going.

    The alternative is the Alan Johnson option – someone who just accepts that it is wrong and wants to work with us to change it. Because the other set of significant recent (ish) changes – Pitt, Peel, Gladstone’s first government – came without social crisis but from someone who actually gave a…

  • David Lawson 27th Apr '10 - 12:08am

    And of course we can add the Roy Jenkins’ reforms to that list (or at least those facilitated by him).

  • David, the key this time is that the political background is substantially different to 1983. Then, we had a Tory govt basking in the glory of the Falklands, a Labour party whose policies generally didn’t have support outside their core areas, and an Alliance which was only really just starting to find its feet and wasn’t prepared to be able to capitalise fully on the position.

    Now, we have an electorate which is publicly fed up with politicians, and we’re looking at the possibility of the Lib Dems coming second (or even first) in terms of votes, but third in terms of seats, with the position reversed for Labour. Frankly, that would, I believe, lead to such constitutional controversy that it would have to lead to electoral referm. Indeed, even if the Tories won the largest number of seats, things would have to change.

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