Guardian endorses Lib Dems in Euro elections (more or less)

by Stephen Tall on June 2, 2009

Following the endorsement of its sister paper the Observer and its leading columnist Polly Toynbee, the Guardian editorial today all-but formally recommends its readers vote for the Lib Dems in this Thursday’s Euro polls:

The case for supporting the Liberal Democrats is now very strong. Anyone who believes Britain should be an engaged member of the European Union – who does not believe scare stories about the Lisbon treaty and who wants to back a party that campaigns on this – should vote Lib Dem. So should anyone who cares about constitutional renewal. Nick Clegg’s party has ancestral roots in the battle to establish democracy, and its radical ideas stand in uplifting contrast to Labour’s still too cautious agenda. The higher the Lib Dem vote, the more progressive plans for political renewal will be shown to have popular backing. People should remember, too, that on two other great crises – the debt-driven collapse of high finance and climate change – the Lib Dems led the way.

I see from the comments thread under the Toynbee endorsement some unhappiness that the Lib Dems should have won her backing. I could say I understand the malcontents’ sentiments: Ms Toynbee is not my favourite columnist, and her backing of Labour at the last general election with her conveniently slippery ‘clothes peg’ argument was frustrating-to-the-point-of-mendacious double-think. BUT… if the Lib Dems are ever to make the critical breakthrough we need to achieve power we are going to need a lot more endorsements from voters who think a bit like Polly. Heaven forfend we may even need the votes of people we disagree with even more than we disagree with Polly.

I recall an interview with Tony Blair in the lead-up to his 1997 election triumph in which he recalled with amused bafflement the complaints from some of his own party that ‘even Tories are voting for us now’. The Lib Dems will never get a whiff of power if we do not attract the support of those who are not currently Lib Dems.

Now, of course, that does not – absolutely not – mean sacrificing our principles in the relentless pursuit of power at any price. Yet if you look at the Observer, or Guardian’s, or even Ms Toynbee’s reasons for voting Lib Dem I challenge anyone to show that their reasons are rooted in anything other than respect for the party’s progressive, positive and pro-internationalist outlook.

I see no reason why the party should shudder at the touch of erstwhile opponents if they are won over by sound liberal principles. Some of the voters I recall most fondly are those I remember being ‘soft Labour/Tory’ voters on first canvassing, and who, over the course of the campaign, were gradually won over to voting Liberal Democrat because they reconised that their political values were in actual fact well-reflected by the Lib Dems.

All that said, do I actually think endorsements are vote-winners? Probably not. Newspapers (and indeed their star columnists) follow public opinion at least as much as they shape it. For the Guardian or Observer to declare full-throated support for Labour at the moment would ring hollow to the ears even of the most tribal of Brownite partisans.

More important than any one editorial is the paper’s sustained coverage over a period of time. It was not The Sun putting Neil Kinnock’s head in a lightbulb on 9th April 1992 which helped lose him the election – it was the paper’s relentless negativity in the preceding nine years of his leadership which made it hard for the public to imagine him as Prime Minister. For the Lib Dems, therefore, it is far more significant that the Mail newspapers have contracted our deputy leader Vince Cable to write a regular column – and that their editorials garland him with praise – than that the paper should ever formally endorse the party (which clearly isn’t going to happen).

What a newspaper endorsement does do, though, is boost party morale, and help shape the news agenda. That the Lib Dems are attracting heavyweight support – combined with that ICM poll and the sunny weather – is pretty much the perfect way to approach this Thursday’s polls.