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FLAVOUR OF THE MONTH

19-04-2010

Parliament

Who said this would be Britain’s first high tech General Election campaign? Twitter, Facebook, You Tube, nah, it’s that old favourite television that’s changed everything these last few days. Steve Beauchampé assesses the state of play with 2½ weeks to go.

It is perhaps startling (and not a little depressing) that the inaugural televised debate between the three main party leaders should have impacted so markedly upon both public voting intentions (as expressed via subsequent opinion polls) and the overall direction of the 2010 General Election campaign.

The event itself - which focused on Home Affairs - was so tightly stage-managed so as to be little more than a series of set-piece presentations by the Labour, Conservative and Liberal-Democrat leaders, Yet even though less than a quarter of the voting age population tuned in, it’s impact on how Britain is governed after May 6th could yet be seismic.

Without question the landscape of British parliamentary election campaigns changed for ever last Thursday - but perhaps not for the better.

Henceforth an inordinate amount of time and effort will undoubtedly be invested by the major parties in trying to ‘win’ these debates, at the expense of other campaigning tools, with the inherent danger that our politics will become even more presidential, more vacuous, hollow and stylised.

But what’s done is done and the outcome of the debate, as the polls indicate, is an immediate and substantial surge in Lib-Dem support, with backing for both Labour and the Conservatives generally down by between 4%-7%.

This is a particular problem for the Tories, whose support in some polls has fallen by a fifth.

Labour were never going to win the election outright (especially with no great vote winning policies in their manifesto - or at least the narrow spectrum of it reported in the mainstream media) relying instead on support from the Lib Dems (and possibly other parties) to form a coalition government.

Certainly less votes = less seats = less power to forge a coalition government in its image, but even a coalition was at the limits of their expectations this time last year, so disappointment will be tempered.

The Tories have higher ambitions, and if floating (or perhaps younger) voters are prepared to redirect their support to the more left-leaning Liberal Democrats following leader Nick Clegg’s much-praised performance last Thursday, the Conservatives may find themselves denied power for the fourth General Election running.

Especially as to win an overall majority they need to topple around 23 sitting Lib-Dem MPs and persuade sizable numbers of Lib Dem supporters to defect in around 100 Labour marginals.

Furthermore, the Conservatives are politically out on a limb compared to the rest of the electable political spectrum. Their policies share little common ground with either the Lib-Dems, Scottish or Welsh nationalists (other than opposition to ID Cards) and thus the prospect of an alliance with any of their foes seems remote.

Much grassroots Tory support would rather stay in ‘honorable’ opposition than to give ground on voting reform, EU or defence matters.

The Liberal Democrats, as their name rather implies, are essentially a libertarian, social democratic party of the centre-left, internationalist rather than nationalist in outlook, believers in social welfare and though strongly opposed to the big brother state Labour’s Blair and Brownite wings have constructed since 1997, their more natural bedfellows are Labour.

Although opinion polls published in the last 48 hours show Liberal Democrat support running almost level - and even at times ahead of - both Labour and the Conservatives, even if the party is able to translate such support into votes come election day, it is extremely unlikely that it would win more than 100 seats (80+ is a more realistic estimate) owing to the vagaries of Britain’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system.

The absurdities of FPTP were graphically illustrated by two polls this last weekend showing Labour in third place, yet still the largest party in terms of seats!!

This may be a blip, and much of the Lib Dem’s support could evaporate between now and polling day. Yet there are reasons to believe that it may not (as least not sufficiently to remove it’s potentially pivotal impact).

For one thing, this week’s Leader’s Debate will be lower key, thus diminishing the chances of Gordon Brown or David Cameron making an impact. It’s on Sky News (which few people watch), it’s based around foreign and defence policy (and the Lib Dem’s anti-war, anti-Trident message should play well with floating voters) and to an extent the novelty factor surrounding the whole process will have subsided.

Far more important will be the final debate on BBC 1 on April 28th. Centred around economic policy, Clegg holds strong cards - removing low earners from income tax bands, breaking up the banks and a more convincingly costed budget reduction programme. And that’s before we even mention the estimable Vince Cable!

In 1951 97% of voters polled for either Labour or the Conservatives. By 2005 that figure had fallen to 69%. but as the 2010 General Election campaign has progressed there has been an increasing feeling that many people want an end to the two party system (the big two barely reached a collective 60% in the weekend’s opinion polls).

They don’t want Labour and they don’t much want the Tories either. Suddenly, Nick Clegg and the party he leads seem to offer a way out.

Quite unexpectedly, Clegg has become flavour of the month. And at this point in the political cycle he only has to be flavour of the month for a month.

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