Labour may as well not have fronted. If the UK electoral system was fair, this election would be a fight between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Even with its current unfairness, it may still be a fight between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
I wrote that after watching the second Prime Ministerial Debate on Thursday night. Even though my MPhil was due the next day and LaTeX was being stubborn about producing some rather crucial graphs for it, I thought I should record my impressions while they were still fresh. I thought we were witnessing a historic realignment in British politics, that whatever the result on May 6, there will be significant electoral reform (it is almost certain that the LibDems will hold a gun to either Brown or Cameron’s head over proportional representation or preferential voting and perhaps both, what the Brits call ‘the alternative vote’).
I also thought that Labour — having lost (thanks to economic and social shifts) or abandoned (through scrabbling after the middle-England vote) its working-class constituency may well be on the wrong side of an historical ‘Overton Window‘. In other words, its moment in British history is passing, and the country is returning to its political ‘default’: Whigs v Tories.
Now I’ve had the time to ponder the implications of the debate and look carefully at what both polls and betting markets are saying, I’m pleased to note that many other people formed the same view. Here’s one from the Guardian:
If they had hoped the radically changed landscape of British politics would prove a mirage, then both Labour and the Conservatives will be disappointed. Last night’s TV debate – with Nick Clegg repeating the accomplished performance of the week before – means the two largest parties now have to accept that they are in a new kind of contest from now till polling day. Any hope that normal service would be resumed has gone.
While David Cameron may have edged the debate (this seems to be the consensus view, and was also my impression), he only just edged it, and the fact that Nick Clegg continued to perform strongly is very much in his party’s favour. I do think the format punishes the man standing in the middle; last week it was Cameron, this week it was Clegg. Next week it will be Gordon Brown, and if his first two performances are anything to go by, he will be either bypassed or eaten alive by the other two.
What was especially notable were the ding-dong policy differences that emerged between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. These are not differences easily placed on the standard political spectrum, but matter to the majority of Britons. The Liberal Democrats opposed the Iraq War, which is immensely unpopular in this country in a way the Afghanistan war is not. Clegg was able to run with this, arguing with the more verbally nimble Cameron while Brown could only spectate. The Liberal Democrats want to scrap Trident: once again, the argument was between the two younger men while Brown could only look on in horror. It resulted in the comedic spectacle of David Cameron (and it really did sound like he was vomiting hot coals as it came out of his mouth) saying ‘I agree with Gordon’. Clegg, of course, just stood there looking smug. He is a bit smug, but this election has been blown so wide open that the public seem willing to forgive him his smugness. Brown’s response was a feeble witticism comparing Cameron and Clegg to his two boys squabbling at bathtime. Clegg’s put-down was wondrous: ‘it’s a good line in rehearsal, Gordon’, but Brown’s image still raised a genuine laugh, in part because the squabble is between Cameron and Clegg.
In short, Lib Dems and Tories have substantive policy differences in ways that Labour and the Tories do not, the former having lost any real political ‘base’ and so reliant on a gimcrack sort of ‘third-way-ism’. The Lib Dems are not third way in the slightest, but they’re not social democratic, either. A £10,000 tax free threshold? Get rid of Trident and repeal the anti-terror laws? Pro-free trade? Consistent opposition to the Iraq War? Not socialist or left, but not Tory or right, either. On Europe, they could have been arguing with Tory landed interests about the Corn Laws.
Of course, the Liberal Democrat surge is coming smack-dab up against the institutionalised unfairness of the British electoral system. Over the last thirteen years, the system has been gerrymandered to favour Labour;
before that, the Tories engaged in some determined gerrymandering of their own. The effect of this — as Murky points out here — is that Labour could win the most seats despite coming third in the popular vote. This nightmare scenario is summarised nicely by Seumas Milne:
If Labour were to continue to trail in third place, the Liberal Democrats could scarcely keep it in power, whether Labour ended up the largest party by a quirk of the electoral system or not. That is the sort of thing that leads to coups d’etat or colour revolutions in other countries.
All that said, as Murky points out, ‘Labour seats tend to be held with small majorities, Conservative with large majorities, and Lib Dem with very large majorities. Once you’ve got more votes than anyone else, an extra vote doesn’t translate to an extra seat.’
Labour winning the most seats under this scenario requires them to hold off the Liberal Democrat surge in a large number of seats they hold by a fingernail. Because Britain’s system is first past the post, the LibDems will likely win a decent number of seats off Labour, but they are also just as likely to deliver Labour seats to the Conservatives. For this reason, the betting markets (William Hill, Intrade, Centrebet) all have the Tories winning the most seats, but unable to form government in their own right. Which brings us back to a hung parliament and Clegg holding a gun to Cameron’s head over electoral reform.
A return to the world of Whigs and Tories may be a good thing. People forget that the great social shifts that made the world we have now were presided over and debated by Whigs and Tories: abolition, free trade, women’s suffrage, the Reform Bills, women’s property rights, income tax, pensions. Yes, pensions: they were introduced by the last Liberal Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.
We are, as they say, living in interesting times.
[DISCLOSURE: the author is a member of the Oxford Conservative Association].