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:

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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.

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7 thoughts on “Guest Post: from a young swing voter

  1. Interesting post, much better than the Times article on welfare reform which it links to, which is total and utter drivel.

    It is not a new idea for private and voluntary providers to help unemployed people into work – this has happened for years and was massively expanded by Gordon Brown. Clearly the ‘timely reminder that policies matter’ doesn’t actually extend to the Times hiring journalists who know anything about what they are writing about.

  2. I’ve got to say, there’s nothing like a general election to remind you (a) Labour are alright and (b) the Tories are w**kers. Labour policy and record on unemployment benefit*, gay rights and immigration isn’t too bad. It’s just a shame they’re wrong about everything else.

    *Benefit that is. Again, it’s a shame they can’t generate growth (and therefore non-public sector jobs) to save themselves.

  3. “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.”

    I don’t think anyone is seriously suggesting that a close race in itself will effect change, much less a TV debate. The significance lies in the Lib Dems’ longstanding commitment to electoral reform, which would mean the end of the two-party system, and the fact that they’re now in a position of greater strength.

  4. “Labour, despite being the party of government, are receiving far less coverage since they slipped into third.”

    Let’s not get carried away, Gibbo my son. It’s been….6 days since Cleggmania took over. Labour has been getting less coverage because Clegg has been hogging the lime light due to novelty factor as much as anything. We need more than a week to determine whether this is going to last.

    And incidentally, media coverage is not the same as long-term electoral sustainability, party infrastructure, finance, membership and entrenchment. Labour is broke now, but the Unions will come through for it, and despite running a lof of councils (where Lib Dems are often fond of being authoritarian right-wingers when it suits, somewhat out of step with left-‘o-centre Vince and Nice Guy Nick) the LibDems don’t have the long-standing network that Labour does.

    Yes, electoral reform could change things radically. But one week of doing well in the polls and getting some newspaper profiles is not the same as permanent shift in the balance of power. Apart from Clegg and Cable, who do the Lib Dems have to offer? David Laws? Chris Huhne? They’re competent MPs and good spokespeople – but the talent pool is shallow (interestingly enough, so is the Conservatives, but due to their deep entrenchment they are going nowhere).

    The Lib Dems are also benefiting from a general disillusionment with politics. But as they become part of the mainstream and become familiar, they will incur the same disdain as the “Labservatives” or whatever funny name Nick’s thought up this week.

    It’s just far too early to call the end on Labour. Remember 1983? Almost an equal share of the vote – and a fraction of the seats. Don’t be counting your chickens. And don’t be voting Lib Dem just because Giles tells you to. He’s a cranky liberal, don’t forget.

    1. Post from a young swing voter …. response from an equally young, will never swing in his long life, voter …

      “media coverage is not the same as long-term electoral sustainability, party infrastructure, finance, membership and entrenchment.”

      No doubt a lot of what you say about durability has some sense to it. Labour has that union thing, that beautifully democratic idea that if you are in a union, you can find yourself supporting just one of the political parties. That will continue to count. But I think you have ignored much of what is interesting in Tom’s post. Media momentum effects are genuinely interesting, particularly when seen from the inside. Suddenly the people who know Lib Dems can find it much easier to be listened to by journalists, spoken to by fundraisers, given attention and respect by other politicians, and so on. This generates lasting momentum. Look at how much money Policy Exchange were able to raise for . …. what exactly? ‘being close to the Conservatives’. And enormous IPPR, whose researcher base has fallen 20% in a year – because being known to be close to Milliband and Hewitt loses currency quickly

      The momentum effects of the next few weeks may have effects that last a while, for those reasons, notwithstanding vital issues of electoral reform. And what people read and absorb during an election campaign lasts too – that is the only time most sane people think about politics – and a good thing too.

      I don’t see Tom’s post as such an attack on Labour by the way. But I think his point is sadly valid. What exactly are Labour going to say now? For me, Hopi Sen’s site – easily the most witty and yet interesting Labour site – is a fine illustration of this. His lighthearted suggestion that the bank levy might support some credit or other, for me, was a sort of illustration of just how stale the Labour approach now sounds – without for a moment taking away from the real good those credits may have done over the years.

      For the rest, I won’t answer this comment until May 8th ….

  5. “will never swing in his long life, voter …”

    Voted Lib Dem in 2005 (albeit tactically), voted Green in the last Euro Elections.

    “Suddenly the people who know Lib Dems can find it much easier to be listened to by journalists, spoken to by fundraisers, given attention and respect by other politicians, and so on. This generates lasting momentum.”

    Maybe. But you can’t make that call after 6 days. You may well be right – this could be a long-term breakthrough. But we don’t know yet.

    “Look at how much money Policy Exchange were able to raise for . …. what exactly? ‘being close to the Conservatives’. ”

    Well yes. Because the Conservatives are very entrenched, and ultimately aren’t going anywhere (unless, MAYBE, we get electoral reform). IPPR decrease has something to do with Hewitt etc, but i suspect there’s other factors and we’ll see what happens more long-term.

    “The momentum effects of the next few weeks may have effects that last a while, for those reasons, notwithstanding vital issues of electoral reform. And what people read and absorb during an election campaign lasts too – that is the only time most sane people think about politics – and a good thing too. ”

    Really? What I’m hearing on the doorsteps is not policy but personality. People absolutely hate Brown, and they’re suspiicious of Cameron. Clegg seems fresh and untainted – and he’s young and well-spoken. Get people talking about policy and they haven’t a clue – seriously they get Labour and Conservative policy confused, and generally don’t have a clue what Lib Dems want or think. That’s the peril with the leader’s debate – what you’ve got is Clegg momentum, not Lib Dem momentum. It’s going to take a lot more than one (or maybe even 3) TV appearances for the Lib Dems to get entrenched as a party contending for power. Again, it may well happen – I’m not predicting the future. But 6 days is far too soon to be declaring a new dawn in British politics.

    You’re right that Labour is stale and tired and out of ideas. I’m not entirely convinced that winning the next election (impossible anyway) or even getting a hung parliament is a particularly good long-term thing for Labour. But I still see the Lib Dems as an incredibly confused and unfocused party, marrying-up MPs and members (and sometimes policies) who are either Labour-lite but shied away from the party when it was going through its early-80s insanity phase, or are Tory-lite because they are effectively right-wingers but dislike all the snooty, xenophobic, Hooray Henry class nobishness that the Conservatives will never shift. For me that always created a very unstable organisation that didn’t know what it wanted to be – and that’s one reason that I ended up not having anything to do with the party after, y’know, working for a Lib Dem MP in Parliament for 6 months and doing a fair bit of work with other areas of the Westminster party. (And I’m not even going to get on to the shockingly on-the-hoof nature in which, say, Lib Dem thinking on Health is conducted, or the extent to which Vince Cable’s treasury team – notably all far, far to the right of him – calls for state-slashing, more privatisation or for hacking away at the NHS in discussions I’d have struggled to differentiate from Tory back-room thinking).

    p.s. on the Unions, for me there’s nothing necessarily anti-democratic about workers’ organisation being affiliated to a political party that is supposed to represent workers’ interests, at all. Though indeed not all Unions are Labour affiliated – some have gone much further to the left and even signed up with (deep breath) Respect. I mean look at it the other way around: what on earth would the point be in the Unions being affiliated to the Tories or, let’s face it, the Lib Dems? Though then again, the same question now applies to New Labour, which with its default private-sector-uber-alles attitude and its love of PFI has done remarkably little for the Unions over the past 13 years, which actually raises the question of why so many of them remain affiliated to the party and whether there’s anything more to it that tribal loyalty. Though none of that is anti-democratic.

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