It always frustrates me when people misuse words like “unprecedented”, but it has to be said, they seem to apply tonight.
A YouGov poll due to appear in The Sun tomorrow this morning shows the breakdown of votes for the three main parties as follows:
Liberal Democrats – 33%
Conservative – 32%
Labour – 26%
Yes, that’s right, according to this poll (and one other), the Lib Dems are winning. This is where the word “unprecedented” comes in: the Liberal Democrats have never, in their entire history, placed first in any opinion poll. Apparently, one poll put the SDP/ Liberal Alliance (the Lib Dems immediate predecessor party) first in 1985, but other than that you have to go back to the early 80s. Even so (as far as I can tell, and I may well be wrong), at no point since the Labour party replaced the Liberals as the “natural” alternative to the Conservatives in the first half of the twentieth century have the Liberals/ Alliance/ Lib Dems polled in first place during an actual election campaign. It’s astonishing to think so, but unprecedented (or at least unprecedented in the modern era) actually applies, without any hype.
Of course, thanks to the vagaries of the first-past-the-post electoral system, the fact that the Lib Dems are polling first in terms of share of the popular vote does not mean they would win a majority of seats. The BBC have an interactive seat calculator, and inputting these vote share values via the very-fiddly-to-use sliders (an option to insert share of the votes numerically would be a great help) produces the following projected outcome in the Commons:
Conservative – 245 seats
Labour – 241 seats
Liberal Democrats – 135 seats
This is, of course, a neat demonstration of how colossally unfair the electoral system is – in fact, it’s not clear to me that an electoral system which manages to put the party that wins the popular vote in third place in the Commons deserves to be described as democratic.
But setting that aside, this also means that we would have a hung parliament, with the Conservatives narrowly the largest party. This wouldn’t necessarily translate into a David Cameron premiership, but it is somewhat difficult to imagine that any of the smaller parties – or the Lib Dems – would be so stupid as to prop Labour up in power, since it would be electoral suicide come the next election to have done so. The most likely outcome, I would guess, would be either a minority Conservative administration, or a coalition between the Conservatives and some smaller parties (most likely one or more of the unionist parties from Northern Ireland – although, in Scotland, the SNP and the Conservatives have made surprisingly cosy bedfellows, and I guess it’s conceivable the same might happen at Westminster).
It would be very interesting to see how Nick Clegg would play his cards in this situation. I see no reason to doubt what he has said, and that, whatever the outcome of the election, the Lib Dems will not enter a formal coalition with any other party, and will instead negotiate and vote on an issue by issue basis. To be honest, I can’t see any circumstance in which it would make sense for the Lib Dems to enter a formal coalition, because they would be very much a junior player. Nick Clegg would presumably become deputy Prime Minister, and they might get their hands on one of the big offices of state – most likely Vince Cable as Chancellor of the Exchequer – but they would be unlikely to have much impact on the government programme, and would end up sharing with their senior partners the public blame for anything unpopular the government did. On the other hand, a hung parliament with 130-odd Lib Dem MPs would represent probably the best chance in a generation for passing some form of electoral reform bill, and the chance of finally achieving this holy grail might well impact on the party’s decision making. One particularly intriguing possibility is that, if Labour and the Lib Dems were to join forces, they would be capable of outvoting the Conservatives, even if the latter party were in government. This raises the possibility of a successful private member’s bill, even if the Conservative government were to be opposed, as they would be likely to be – they are the only one of the ‘big three’ parties not to have some kind of manifesto commitment to electoral reform.
Of course, I need to be careful not to get over-excited, and to count chickens before they hatch. There’s still a long time to go until the election, and another two leadership debates during which both the other leaders will doubtless make it their priority to ‘get’ Clegg (though they will need to be careful not to make it look like they’re ganging up on him, since this will just reinforce the idea that the election is a straight fight with the Lib Dems on one side and the other two parties on the other). It also strikes me that, at present, the appetite for Nick Clegg has more to do with personality than it does policies, and the popularity of the party may change when (if?) the focus shifts more closely onto policy. In particular, I think Nick Clegg’s talk last year of ‘savage cuts’ may come back to haunt him (although it may help him take votes from that wing of the Conservatives’ supporters who feel that the Tories aren’t being forceful enough on fiscal responsibility).
It will be interesting to see, over the next few days and weeks, whether the ‘Clegg effect’ is a bubble phenomenon – temporary, and likely to collapse as rapidly as it rose – or if it might turn out to be something of a self-sustaining prophecy. It’s long struck me that there’s quite a large reservoir of people who would like to vote Lib Dem but don’t because they feel the party have no chance of winning. If the surge in support encourages those voters to think that a vote for the Lib Dems might not be wasted then this might encourage them to tell pollsters that they’re voting Lib Dem, which would in turn help to make a vote for the Lib Dems look less like a wasted vote – and so on.
Realistically, of course, the issue isn’t whether the Lib Dems will win – they won’t, not unless something truly extraordinary happens – but how well they will do. In the 2005-10 parliament they had 62 MPs in the Commons. The big question for them this time will be – will they break the 75 barrier? The 100 barrier? The 125 barrier? Given the current poll ratings, 75 would probably end up seeming like a disappointment, but anything more than 100 would count as a fantastic result, I think.
A few short months ago I was sounding off about how I thought Nick Clegg’s decision to take the Lib Dems to the right had been a mistake, and predicting that they would suffer a fall in support as a result. (So, that proves how much I know…) Much of the reason for the Lib Dems success comes down, I think, to the woeful ineptitude of the Conservatives – it’s not so much that people are endorsing the Lib Dems specifically (and for the record I still think the shift to the right was a tactical error, albeit one that seems unlikely to matter in the grand scheme of things) as it is that they are looking for change in a generic sense, and the Conservatives don’t seem to be able to supply it. The Conservatives really haven’t helped themselves by doing things like spending months criticising Labour for not owning up to inevitable tax rises, and for relying too heavily on ‘efficiency savings’ to cut the deficit – then suddenly spinning on a sixpence when the polls started to go pear-shaped, and starting to promise tax cuts to be paid for by efficiency savings. If they had sat down and tried to think of a course of action that would make them appear opportunistic and…er…economical with the truth, they’d have been hard pressed to come up with a better strategy.
Anyway, if my experiences with mis-predicting the demise of the Lib Dems has taught me anything, it’s that making wild and sweeping political predictions is a mug’s game. So with that in mind, here’s a wild and sweeping political prediction small and understated observation accompanied by many caveats: I think a hung parliament is looking really very likely indeed. It is, of course, perfectly possible for things to change radically within a few days, let alone before polling day (he said, caveating wildly…), but it would take a lot of movement to get to a position where one of the parties would secure an overall majority. The result from BBC’s seat calculator I mentioned earlier had the Conservatives as the largest party in the Commons, but still 81 seats short of an overall majority. It is possible that the fear of a hung parliament will itself scare voters into jumping to either Labour or the Conservatives, but I think the possibility of an overall majority is getting really very remote. Ah well, at least something has finally happened to spice up the election…
In other news, this post has been written in the middle of yet another sleepless night. So if what I’ve written here doesn’t make any sense – if I’ve just spent the last little while typing rthftrg hgftxcjg etfvjgkjl hhggf ytuj, and only imagining that there are actual, real words here – then that’s why.