Tom Gibson has been lending invaluable support to CentreForum in the last few days, so I thought I’d ask him what he thought of events since the Debate. Note: he’s supported Labour in the past, and is now that most precious of things, a Floating Voter. For a tenner, you can have his phone number. Here’s Tom:
David Yelland has written an excellent article on the Lib Dem surge which identifies it as the first time in recent British political history where a party without substantial media connections has found itself splashed all over the front pages. For the five years that Yelland edited the Sun he didn’t even meet a Lib Dem leader, yet the successor of these ignored figures may soon hold the balance of power in Westminster.
The scene which Yelland imagines – of journalists scrabbling for Lib Dem phone numbers – seems to be happening already (note the sudden proliferation of Nick Clegg profile pieces and the fact that Times Online now has a dedicated Liberal Democrats section on their Election ’10 page). Recent events bear out his disturbing assertion: that while the Lib Dems were not ‘banned’ from Murdoch’s papers, they were ‘purposely edged off the paper’s pages and ignored’. Our politically aligned press has long ignored the middle party out of the self-perpetuating assumption that it would never win power. While it is hard not to be sceptical of much of Nick Clegg’s notion of a ‘new politics’ (see the Guardian’s recent article of ‘the British Obama’), the potential end of such a situation must surely bring a smile to the face of anyone who hopes for a better democracy. I’m not alone in feeling there is something dodgy about party leaders jetting across the world to hold meetings with a billionaire who most certainly isn’t one of their constituents in the hope he holds the keys to 10 Downing Street.
The newspapers’ discomfort seems apparent in the changing attitude of the Times to the Lib Dems over the last few days. On Sunday the Lib Dems were cast as vulnerable to further scrutiny. They were ‘slavishly pro-European’ and their plan to cut the deficit contained ‘even more sleight of hand than that of the other two parties’. Cameron was told to up his game in order to avoid a future permanently made up of coalition governments. On Monday the Lib Dems were a ‘contradictory party’, on both sides at once of a philosophical debate between Labour and the Conservatives which was the real issue of the election. Three-horse races were described as ‘best left to sport’. On Tuesday Lib Dem tax policy was ‘nakedly populist’, and Clegg was ‘being less than straight’ with the electorate. This came with fearful predictions about what a hung parliament could mean for the economy.
Yet today the tone has changed. The focus shifts to Tory proposals on welfare reform which are praised and identified as Blairite, ‘a timely reminder…that policies matter’. One should remember that a fair number of Liberal Democrats favour such ‘Blairite’ policies too. Yes, Clegg’s popularity is still shrugged off as a fad, mere personality politics, but seen alongside an article by Danny Finkelstein which describes Clegg’s vision of his party as, ‘a middle-class revolt against the system, one that appeals to Tories as well as the Left’ it seems to begin to set out the case for a potential Lib-Con coalition. He calls the Lib Dem’s experienced councillors ‘pragmatists and people of power. They have learnt how to co-operate with others, and this includes Tories.’ In just a matter of days the Times has begun to take the Lib Dems seriously. Ridicule has given way to attempted seduction. I suppose the Lib Dems should be flattered.
The debate last Thursday gave the electorate a rare opportunity to see their potential Prime Ministers free from the distorting prism of a partisan press. The outcome is multifaceted. Above all, there is now a growing awareness of a shameful political system under which a party which comes third in the popular vote can win the most seats. But people are waking up to a realisation that our media had for years ignored a potential leader who clearly appeals to many people. Clegg’s rise is a breath of fresh air, yet it would be wrong to see this as the end of the two-party bias. Labour, despite being the party of government, are receiving far less coverage since they slipped into third. Yvette Cooper may not be the only one who feels like she’s been relegated to the second division.