1992 déjà vu? Or can 2010 be different?

by Stephen Tall on April 26, 2010

If there’s one thing worse than being talked about, it’s not being talked about. That might be true normally, but perhaps not when the subject is hung parliaments and what the Lib Dems might do in the event thereof.

Nick Clegg made a perfectly uncontroversial point on Sunday: that it would be inconceivable for the Lib Dems to prop up Gordon Brown as prime minister if Labour came third in terms of votes cast on 6th May. Of course it would be, no matter what the constitutional niceties might say about the right of an incumbent prime minister to try and form a government before resigning.

Some papers, such as the Guardian, have spun Nick’s statement-of-the-bleedin-obvious as some sort of proof that the Lib Dems are swinging to the Tories. This is the usual rubbish spouted by those in the media who see politics only through binary eyes, never mind that we’re in a three-party contest. “You won’t support Labour if they slump to their worst ever election defeat?” they say, “So you must be getting into bed with the Tories then – ha! I knew it”

The fact that Nick left open two possibilities – a Lib/Lab pact in which the Lib Dems are the leading partner, and a Lib/Lab pact if Labour were to come second – is disregarded: the papers have their headlines.

Today’s media scrum over the infinite possibilities that a hung parliament might throw up demonstrates (yet again) why Lib Dems do their best to avoid such talk. Instead of focusing on policy, journalists fixate instead on outcomes based on the assumptions of thing which have not yet happened.

The uncomfortable question for Lib Dems today is simple: is this 1992 all over again? For that election campaign also became bogged down in talk of which party the Lib Dems might support in the event of a hung parliament – to the detriment of the campaigning efforts both of Paddy Ashdown and Neil Kinnock, the Lib Dems’ presumed preferred partner. Undecideds and ’soft Tories’ who might otherwise have cast their vote for the Lib Dems decided to stick with John Major.

Spool forward 18 years, and the past runs the risk of being replayed, this time with undecideds and ’soft Labour’ voters worrying that voting Lib Dem will open the doors of Number 10 to David Cameron and the Tories.

Let me be clear: Nick’s answer to Andrew Marr yesterday was perfectly fair and perfectly valid. But, by beginning to speculate on the election results which might occur, it also gave the media permission to indulge their favourite campaign game of obsessing about hypothetical outcomes. And that is difficult and dangerous territory for the Lib Dems, as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago.

It is a distracting side issue to the central question facing the voters: do you want a new politics, or more of the same old politics?

There is no question that the Lib Dems finishing in second (or even first) place in this election would transform the landscape of British politics for good. The Labservative duopoly of the last 65 years would be consigned to the dustbin of history. If that’s what you want at this election there is no better guarantee of it happening than by voting Lib Dem. That’s the message we need to hammer home in the last 10 days of the campaign.