Cleggmania and the return of the Lib-Lab pact?
Eddie Ford wonders if we are about to see the fulfilment of the Blair project
Without doubt, May 6 is one of the most closely fought general elections in quite some time. Previous elections have, bar the political shouting and psephological hair-splitting, often been eminently predictable - and hence, some would say, quite dull - affairs. However, this time round the UK’s undemocratic first-past-the-post voting system means that nobody really knows who is going to win.
Reflecting this fundamental uncertainty, the opinion polls have been in an uncharacteristic state of turmoil. The Tories’ reign as clear opinion poll leaders appears to have come to a close, with the Liberal Democrats either pulling ahead of the Labour Party or snapping uncomfortably at their heels. Hence, according to a YouGov poll conducted on April 15-16, the Lib Dems stood at a relatively spectacular 30% - with the Tories at 33%, Labour 28% and the assorted others getting 9% - making this the highest level of support for the Lib Dems YouGov had found since the aftermath of the 2003 Brent East by-election. Furthermore, the same survey - more very depressing reading for the sleepless Labour spin-doctors - reported that 59% believed that Nick Clegg had had the “best” second week of the campaign, with only 14% opting for Cameron and a paltry 8% for Brown.
And, as the days have progressed, the never ending stream of opinion poll findings have continued on a similar trajectory with regards to the fortunes of the two big parties - indicating that the Tories especially might soon have to start thinking the unthinkable. Thus the daily YouGov poll in The Sun for April 17 had the Liberals at 31% and Labour trailing at 27% - the Tories only in the lead by a two percent margin at 33%. By April 20, things had even got better for the Lib Dems in YouGov’s estimation - they were now actually three percent ahead of the Tories at 34%, with Labour languishing at a fairly dismal 26%. Though as a possible corrective, the very latest ComRes poll has the Conservatives now at a far more respectable 35%, with both Labour and the Liberals tying at 26% each.
Of course, this dramatic opinion poll surge towards the Lib Dems, even if it may be gradually dissipating, followed in the immediate wake of last week’s televised leaders’ debate - the first ever such event, quite incredibly, to be held on these shores. On this ‘historic’ occasion, the three leaders of the UK-wide mainstream parties - the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru were not unreasonably excluded from the debate - had 90 minutes to perform their tortuously rehearsed routines: not a single word or phrase left to chance, of course. And a more artificial debate and environment could hardly be imagined - with the audience carefully selected so as to conform to the BBC/ITV/Sky paranoid idea of ‘balance’ and the questioners’ appropriately vetted even more. No applause, clapping, heckling - indeed, no signs of life at all - were to be permitted from the deathly quiet audience. Under such neurotically controlled conditions, designed to smother all spontaneity and revealing a morbid fear of real debate, it is then believed - or so the wretched plan goes - that the three contestants can avoid making the most dreaded of all acts: the gaffe; the unscripted moment. An unintentional expression of opinion that has not passed and been processed through an army of advisors. Here is the overriding purpose of the leaders’ debate: to project yourself as a safe ‘pair of hands’ to the establishment and its all-pervasive media.
Under such freeze-dried conditions, when you are getting the same exposure - being treated equally - as the two other big boys, then it is only to be expected that Nick Clegg would do as well as, if not better than, his opponents: in fact, it was all but inevitable. After all, he differs in no fundamental way from Brown and Cameron - coming from the same stock school of mainstream politics, knowing all the turns and tricks necessary for any such aspirant. Or, to put it cruelly but justly, he can be just as boring and dull as his rivals. However, he has the added advantage of being able to present himself as the ‘outsider’ - which to a certain extent, he is, of course - the fresh-faced, younger man coming up against the grey men in suits (even if he is wearing such a suit himself).
Naturally, not being an idiot, this is exactly what he did - played it up to the maximum that conditions allowed. Therefore his opening salvo of pointing to Brown and Cameron and declaring: “Now they are going to tell you tonight that the only choice you have is between the two old parties who’ve been taking it in turns to run things for years” - imploring the ITV studio audience, and a 10 million viewing public at home, not to let the Tories and Labour continue “playing pass the parcel with your government”, as they have been doing for the last “65 years now”: making the “same old promises, breaking the same old promises”.
Unsurprisingly then, it was the almost universal consensus that Nick Clegg came out on top - with even a slight whiff of roses. The Guardian, to name one, gushed with enthusiasm about how Clegg “stole” the show by “offering himself up as the fresh and honest alternative” to his rivals in an “electrifying” and “fast moving” performance. Indeed, his “revelatory” display even has the potential to completely “change the political landscape”. In a similar fashion Andre Sparrow, a prominent Guardian blogger, also thought that that Clegg is now on a “high” and “may change the dynamic of the election” - even if “he’s not Barack Obama”. Even Counterfire - available 24 hours a day for quotes and opinions - was impressed by Clegg’s performance, noting his “polished”, “clever” and “skilled” presentation.
Perhaps more significantly still, at least for the Clegg camp, was the favourable assessment given by Leslie Everett, a leading expert on “personal branding training” - especially body language - and founder of Walking Tall International Limited, not to mention author of Drop dead brilliant: dazzle in the workplace with confidence and panache. Examining Clegg’s body language, Everett found him noticeably “more relaxed” than the others. The Liberal leader was the more “personable” of the three - by halfway through the debate, he was no longer holding onto the podium: he had his hands in his pocket, looking as though he was “having a conversation”. Unlike Brown, she thought, who was holding on to the podium “for dear life at one stage with both hands”.
Accordingly, the first substantial poll conducted after the debate by Populus for The Times found Clegg to be the overwhelming winner - scoring 61%, with Cameron and Brown trailing on 22% and 17% respectively. YouGov was even more glowing, excitedly informing us that Clegg has become the “fastest moving” and “highest scoring” topic ever recorded on its TellYouGov leaderboard. As for YouGov participants, or ‘tyggers’, they variously described Clegg’s display as “convincing”, “fantastic”, etc - whilst Cameron was “underwhelming”, “disappointing” and “uncomfortable”. Brown seems to have got the wooden spoon for appearing “insincere” and “misleading”, and one obviously disgruntled respondent viewed his performance as “rude” and “slightly weird”.
Now, as alluded to before, the current Lib Dem surge will in all probability decline, as polling day gets closer. However, for all that, there can be little doubt that Nick Clegg and the Liberals will reap political and electoral rewards - to some degree or another - from the leaders’ debate. More lovely votes. And with another leaders’ debate to be held on Thursday April 22 on ‘foreign affairs’, this is no real reason to believe that he will somehow totally screw up this time. So everything to play for if you are Nick Clegg.
The really important point to make, of course, is that increased support for the Lib Dems, when all is said and done, acts to further increase the likelihood of a hung parliament - the first one in three decades. Thus the latest ‘uniform swing’ projections from UK polling Report in association with YouGov - by which the national change in vote share for each party is applied to each individual seat to see how that would affect the end overall result - give us the Tories with 265 seats, Labour 271 and the Lib Dems 83, the others scooping up 32. Effectively then a hung parliament, with Labour falling short by 55 seats. Obviously, such a projection, with its statistical/psephological methodology, has to be taken with a slight pinch of salt - it is a crude measuring stick. Indeed, under certain circumstances, and if extrapolated to the point of near madness, it can produce some illogical and downright impossible projections. But taking everything in total, the current electoral/opinion poll trajectory is unmistakably heading towards some sort of hung parliament.
Just as significant, if not more so, there appears to be a decline in public antipathy to the idea of a hung parliament - maybe not such an unBritish phenomenon, after all. The political tide could be turning. Something that David Cameron is uncomfortably aware of, hence his dark vision of such an eventuality as one which would see “a bunch of politicians haggling” - they would be “fighting for their own interests” and “making short-term decisions for their own future”. The only way we can “stop a run on the pound” and “prevent the IMF coming in”, warns the Tories’ spokesperson on business, Ken Clarke, is to elect a “decisive Conservative government” to sort out the “mess Britain is in”.
Therefore the increased attacks on the Lib Dems - ‘Vote Clegg and get Brown’ and so on. Naturally, there is a substantial degree of truth in such accusations - more Liberal votes mean more chance of a hung parliament. To this anti-Clegg end, the old Tory bruiser, Norman Tebbit - the Chingford bovver boy - has added some extra venom. Appearing on the BBC’s Today programme, Tebbit bluntly declared that the Tories need be “less squeamish” and directly confront the Lib Dems with “searching questions” - the imperative, as he said, is to “puncture the Clegg bubble” before May 6.
Both Cameron and Tebbit are right to be worried. Cameron needs to win an extra 116 seats to gain a Commons majority - far more than Margaret Thatcher ever achieved. Between 20 and 25 of the top Tory target seats are Lib Dem-held. If Clegg manages to hold on to all or most of these seats, which seems a distinct possibility if his poll ‘bounce’ is even half sustained, then the mountain that David Cameron has to climb gets ever steeper ... and further away.
Senior Labour figures - even Brown himself - are making a pitch for potential Lib Dem voters to back Labour. Where the Tories are throwing rocks at Clegg, Labour is throwing love balls. The loud and clear message from Labour over recent days is that the Liberals, unlike the Tories, of course, are natural allies. Thus triggering Tory suggestions of a return to the days of the Lib-Lab pact of the 1970s (which itself saw savage cuts in government spending) and press speculation that Clegg might end up as home secretary, with Vince Cable as chancellor in a power-sharing Lib-Lab government.
Lending credence to such speculation, the Welsh secretary, Peter Hain - darling of Unite Against Fascism - has already issued an appeal for Clegg to “set aside” his well-known dislike of Brown and join forces with Labour after the general election: “personal chemistry should not get in the way of the national interest”. Similar sentiments have been expressed by Lord Peter Mandelson, who in a memo to Labour members says: “I am not against coalition government in principle and for Britain anything would be better than a Cameron-Osborne government.” Over the weekend too, home secretary Alan Johnson stated that it was about time that the UK ended its “long-standing fear”. We now have to “kill this argument” that coalition government is somehow “dangerous”: just look at “what happens in many other progressive countries”.
Paradoxical though it may seem to some, a Labour inability to form a government in its own right - a Brown defeat, if you like - could be viewed as the ultimate confirmation, or fulfilment, of Tony Blair’s explicitly stated project to totally reconfigure ‘centre-left’ politics and heal the divisions between the anti-Tory parties. In fact, quite perversely, Blair was a Labour leader who thought that the very formation of the Labour Party was a tragic mistake. Thus he made his true feelings apparent during the 1997 Labour annual conference, when in a speech he expressed his admiration for Keynes, Beveridge and Lloyd George - commenting that “division among radicals almost 100 years ago resulted in a 20th century dominated by Conservatives” - something never to be repeated, presumably. Rather, Blair wanted “the 21st century to be the century of the radicals”. In other words, the split of the trade unions from the old Liberal Party and the establishment of a party representing the independent interests of the working class was a foolish error and one that needs to be rectified - as quickly as possible. Perhaps the Blair project can now finally begin for real.
Some Tories fear so too - not without reason. Peter Bingle, the Bell Pottinger lobbyist, leading lifelong Tory activist and former councillor, has openly confessed to the lurking, terrible suspicion that the leaders’ debate may well have cost the Conservative Party the general election. We are witnessing, he thinks, the “most inept Tory campaign in living memory - but it could be even worse than that. According to the doom-laden Bingle, if the Tories do not get their act together fast then the party could find itself out of power possibly forever: “The stakes are now very high. If David Cameron does not become PM on May 6-7 the electoral system will be changed” - and the abolition of the FPTP system will mean that there will not be a Tory government “for a very long time, if ever again”.
Of course, there is a certain amount of hyperbole in Bingle’s remarks - no point ringing the alarm if nobody can hear it, so bang it as loudly as possible. But they do point to one direction that a post-May 6 Britain can take if we do indeed end up with a hung parliament. Communists, however, do not eagerly anticipate a hung parliament or a Lib-Lab pact mark two, least of all a national government of ‘all the talents’. No, such an eventuality would represent a major shift to the right and hence a setback for the working class movement as a whole.
For all of Clegg’s acclaimed polish, though he pretends that the Liberal Democrats are a ‘new’ political formation different from the rest, in reality they are in essence the continuation of the old, anti-working Liberal Party: the ‘other party’ of the ruling class and capitalism. The right wing of the Labour Party or the left wing of the Tory Party: take your pick. Nick Clegg, like David Cameron and Gordon Brown, subscribes to the stifling anti-working class consensus on neoliberalism and cuts, cuts, cuts - with him it is just a question of when, when, when.
- For the latest updated - almost hour by hour - polls, go to www.ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog
- The Guardian April 15.
- As can be found by consulting the various ‘swingometers’ and electoral calculations - like the admittedly quite dull Electoral Calculus at www.electoralcalculus.co.uk; or, rather more enjoyable, the BBC’s flashy, ‘interactive’ Election Calculator (news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/election_2010/8609989.stm), Swingometer (news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/election_2010/8574653.stm) and Poll Tracker (news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/election_2010/8280050.stm).
- See the full memo at www.prweek.com/news/rss/997573/Bell-Pottinger-lobbying-chief-Peter-Bingle-pens-fresh-Tory-campaign-memo