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Change we can believe in?

This is, and was always going to be, a 'change' election (Thumbnail credit Photo: David Reece)

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This is, and was always going to be, a 'change' election. A succession of well-documented debacles - the Iraq war, the expenses scandal, the financial crisis - have left the country in a distinct anti-politics mood. Many commentators declared that after Blair's 'betrayal', the electorate could never be wooed in the same way again. The nation watched Obama's message of hope from afar with wistful, nostalgic eyes. "We remember believing we had a glossy, inspirational leader with real star power - we remember what it was to feel true optimism," those of us old enough to remember, thought.

As such, the Tories positioned themselves as the party of change. It appeared that they were going to glide in, and inherit the reins of the country, with little to no accompanying enthusiasm. As recently as April 13th, eight out of eight of the leading pollsters declared that they believed that the Tories would win a small majority - no mean feat considering the bias against them inherent in the electoral system, and the size of the vote swing it required.

Then, with the Lib Dem manifesto launch and the leaders' debate, the country went crazy. The Lib Dems are now recording 30%+ poll ratings, and the whole election has been thrown wide open.

How, precisely, has this happened? Well, it's because the Lib Dems have been able to upstage the Tories, and present themselves as the party of 'real change'. Many of the voters, who had switched from Labour to Conservative, had only done so out of frustration with the way things were. At the debate, Clegg repeatedly used his position on the left of the stage to gesture at the other two, and declare them "the old parties", representing an old, failed system. So effective was the message that this phrase, 'the old parties', has been picked up by people across the country - political commentators and ordinary folk alike.

But what change do these two parties (the Tories and the Lib Dems) promise, and which will best convince the electorate that they can deliver real change?

The Tory grand vision for this election is that of the "Big Society". This is the idea that we non-politicos should have a much bigger role in running the public services, and much greater involvement in civil society. This involves parents being able to take over failing schools, and boards of local people running hospitals. It's backed up by a picture of every one of us mucking in, setting up youth clubs and helping out charities. It's a small state vision - one which has been calculated to seem attractive and different to New Labour's more statist approach, as well as plausible at a time of huge budget deficits. It also chimes with the Tories' natural small state bias.

It is still a huge gamble. Do people really want to be told that they should do more to help their community? After 13 years of being told that the government can do everything for them, probably not.

Furthermore, it is a message that is difficult to put across. People don't necessarily know what exactly the Conservatives mean by 'Big Society'. Perhaps realising this, after the razzle dazzle of the 'Big Society' manifesto launch, the Tories seem to have changed tack, only mentioning it occasionally. Many of the Tory billboard posters denounce Labour and Gordon Brown, rather than stating a positive message about the 'Big Society'. David Cameron appeared to have forgotten about it completely, in the first leaders' debate. This clearly suggests that the Tory message is somewhat incoherent.

The Liberal Democrat vision, on the other hand, is one of 'fairness'. They propose to rebalance taxation so that more of the burden falls on the rich, to give more money to the schools with more underprivileged children in them, and to build a 'greener' economy. They propose to protect civil liberties; much in contrast with Labour's position. Yet, where they've really scored points is on their proposals for constitutional reform. The electorate are hungry for a change of the political systems that they feel have failed them.

The Lib Dems, perhaps selfishly, have long supported proportional representation, in addition to an elected House of Lords. To the public they seem the most convincing, because they're viewed as a non-establishment party.

Most importantly they're almost invulnerable to attacks on their policy, because the electorate are so hungry for change. Any attacks by the Tories or Labour can be easily presented as the death throes of a failed two-party system.

If all of this points to the Lib Dems capturing the nation's hearts and minds, we're missing out on one crucial fact that the Tories have rightly pointed out. They can say that if you vote Lib Dem, you'll get Brown. Now, this logic makes sense, as it'd take a huge percentage of people to vote Lib Dem for them to get a majority. The Lib Dems, as you'd expect, have refused to be drawn on which party they'd join in a coalition with, or support in minority government. They want to retain that bargaining chip until after the election - "give us what we want, or we'll join in coalition with the other party". This, combined with the fact that Labour appear to be love-bombing the Lib Dems at almost every opportunity, and Brown's ongoing unpopularity, makes it look rather like, 'vote Lib Dem, get Brown' will be a telling message.

This is why if Lib Dems really want to be seen as the party of change, they must announce that they would not serve in any government with Brown as Prime Minister. If they do this, then they will be immune to such arguments.

Consequently this would throw Labour into disarray. Ed Balls, the Labour minister for schools, was asked on the Campaign Show what Labour would do in this situation. In a rather flustered response, he merely said that the Lib Dems wouldn't do it. Furthermore, they would deprive the Tories of their greatest weapon against the Lib Dems, the 'vote Lib Dem, get Brown' message, making the Tories themselves seem like part of the problem - the status quo that change is needed from.

This analysis, of course, ignores the obvious game-changers left in play. We still have two leaders' debates to go. Anything could still happen.

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5 Comment

jamjam Posted on Sunday 18 Aug 2019

but that would be a u-turn on cleggs understandable policy that he would first talk to the party with the majority of support as this is whats morally right. he seems to be deliberately leaving both labour and the torys as possibilities shown by his refusal to clarify what he means by majority of support (seats or percentage vote). moreover a statement such as this could be seen as petulant and remove the support of the disenfranchised left which is probably where a lot of their current popularity is coming from.


Ieuan Ferrer Posted on Sunday 18 Aug 2019

I'll clarify my point - I want the Lib Dems to refuse to work with Brown. This is not the same as suggesting that they should refuse to work with Labour.

Apologies if the message was unclear at all.


Ieuan Ferrer Posted on Sunday 18 Aug 2019

Also, I agree that it might seem a little harsh, assuming or petulant. However, I reckon that this would not put too many people off, and that the Lib Dems would stand to gain a lot more from making such an announcement. To mitigate worry about petulancy (is that a word?), perhaps the statement should come in a comparatively low-key way. The media would pounce on it regardless, after all.


Veritable avalanche of Cleggstacy Posted on Sunday 18 Aug 2019

Remember, kids.

Vote Yellow?
Get Brown.


Malcolm Tucker Posted on Sunday 18 Aug 2019

That's still a hell of a lot better than:

Vote Blue
Get Blue


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