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Sunday, January 23, 2005

A two horse race?

Liberal Democrat literature often identifies us as the main challengers in an election and then, using the 'two-horse race' argument, seeks to build the credibility of our candidate(s). I have done it myself, though I have never adopted this tactic when we have not been the main challengers. This has been borne out by the results.

The forthcoming General Election therefore will be unique. This is because, whatever is said in individual constituencies, the Liberal Democrats nationally will be arguing strongly and with good reason, that the contest for number 10 Downing Street is a three-horse race. That this is becoming an accepted wisdom is underlined by Andrew Rawnsley's article in today's Observer. His argument is that we have arrived at this state of affairs due to the strength of Labour and the weakness of the Tories: "....the fear gripping a striking number of Labour MPs and ministers whom I regard as not easily panicked. Complacent Labour supporters won't show up at the polling stations while anti-government protest votes will stack up."

".....it does seem to me to be a real menace to Labour. In the absence of a credible threat from the Tories, disaffected Labour supporters could treat this contest not so much as a general election, but as a huge byelection. Instead of regarding the election as the occasion to make a choice between the parties, large numbers of voters may take it as an opportunity to give a kicking to the government.

This greatly suits those maestros of byelection politics, the Liberal Democrats. They are already well advanced on where they were placed at this stage in 2001. In fact, they are scoring more strongly than the third party has done for nearly two decades. Their opposition to the invasion of Iraq is part of the explanation for that, but not all of it. They have also been clever about targeting particular voter grievances, especially among the elderly.

And the best could be yet to come for them. The extra exposure enjoyed by the Lib Dems during elections has, in the past, given them a campaign boost of as much as six points. So their campaign strategists can sound entirely sane when they talk about winning more than a quarter share of the vote at the election.

In private talks with broadcasters about how they will report the election campaign, Mr Kennedy has been demanding equality of treatment with Labour and the Conservatives. The irony is that he has been the beneficiary of the reluctance of the other two to treat the Lib Dems as an equal."

In the Guardian yesterday, Billy Bragg reviews John Harris' book "So Now Who Do We Vote For?" in which the author struggles with the dilemmas identified by Andrew Rawnsley as key issues for disaffected Labour voters. For Harris this is not just about the Iraq war but in whose hands the public sector is safe:

"Rather than focus on the Iraq war, Harris rightly highlights these two public sector issues as the true source of the dilemma facing traditional Labour voters. Until the Tories came to power in 1979, the welfare state had been reasonably successful in narrowing the gap between rich and poor. The battle lines that Thatcher drew up in the 1980s - between efficiency and effectiveness in the public services - remain in place 20 years later. No one today seems willing to make the case that, if the public want a more effective health service then they will have to pay for it through higher taxes. Instead PFI is wheeled out to convince voters that they can have their cake and eat it."

The government seems to be gambling that Labour voters have nowhere else to go. Even Roy Hattersley, no fan of PFI, offers up the same logic when Harris asks him what he would say to a lifelong Labour voter who was thinking of sending the leadership a message by voting Lib Dem. "'They are wasting their time and their vote', he said. 'Because the next election, like every election in my lifetime, is between the Labour party and the Conservative party and you and a number of other people are going to have to decide who you want: Tony Blair or Michael Howard.'"

Billy Bragg is not convinced and I suspect a great many voters feel the same way:

That is an argument that we are going to hear a lot of in the next few months. It is one that I am not totally unsympathetic to, but it has a troubling flaw. Despite Hattersley's assertion, the last election was different to every other held during his lifetime in one very important way: it saw the lowest voter turnout since 1918. Those who argue that this is a result of people expressing their approval of the government's policies are ignoring other signs. Would voters in Labour's northeast heartlands have overwhelmingly rejected a regional assembly if they were happy with the way things are going? Elsewhere, council ward by-elections have seen disillusioned Labour voters migrating directly to the BNP.

The interesting part of these two articles lies in the impact of turnout. I argued in a previous post that the key issue that will decide the General Election is how many of these disenchanted people will vote and in which constituencies they seek to register their views through the ballot box in any numbers. If as Andrew Rawnsley suggests, people believe that a Labour victory is a done-deal, then they may well vote as if they were in a by-election to give the Government a bloody nose safe in the knowledge that they will not end up with Michael Howard.

Despite the protestations of the astute Peter Hain, I believe that they do have that luxury. That is because it will not just be disenchanted Labour supporters voting in this way, but disenchanted Tories as well. A colleague of mine pointed out in response to the Rawnsley article that turnout has bottomed out and started to go up again. We do not know whether that will continue but one of the reasons for it has been protest voters finding political homes and being determined to register their objections at the ballot box rather than abstain altogether.

What this all adds up to is a realignment of the political landscape in which the weakening of party loyalties and disillusionment with the two main parties of Government offers an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to come through the middle and establish themselves as the substantial opposition to a third term Labour Government. If, as I believe, the Liberal Democrats are ready to assume that mantle, then the 2005 General Election may turn out to be very interesting indeed.

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