God, what a wonderfully gripping election campaign this has become. Even before the Leaders’ debates, it was full of fascination and intrigue . For once we actually had real policy differences . Should there be a National Insurance hike? Should we delay the budget cuts? And, as if selected by Central Casting, we had two party leaders who could hardly have seemed less alike. The glowering, fearsome bull and the smooth, twinkle toed matador. But, on this occasion there was real uncertainty over whose blood would be soaking the sand of the Plaza de Toros when the bullfight was done. We were all pulling the blankets up to our chins and settling down to enjoy the spectacle.
Then the Clegg bombshell. Well, perhaps not a bombshell in terms of surprise, (and I speak with the smug and irritating tone of a man who took full advantage of the bookies’ generous offering of 9/4 to back Nick Clegg in the first debate). It was always going to happen. Opinion poll after opinion poll in recent months has told us what any thinking person already knew. The public are fed up with the political establishment, sickened by what they see as its arrogance, greed, incompetence and, often, sheer petty nastiness. They wanted Clegg to win. Rightly or wrongly, they don’t see Clegg and his party as part of that world of sleaze and dishonesty. He could have stood on one leg reciting Eskimo Nell and half the people polled would have put their tick in his box. In fact, he performed smoothly and capably, avoiding obvious pitfalls and happily allowing his two opponents to set about the business of making each other look bad. (In fact, the Prime Minister needed little help. I have praised the Labour spinners in the past. But whoever told their Leader to turn aggressivc in the debates simply doesn’t understand what the country wants to see. Britain is now Love Actually Land. We don’t do nasty).
So, now some opinion polls actually have the Lib Dems in the lead! So what does this mean for British politics? Have the Libs “gone viral”? Should we be preparing ourselves for the reign of King Clegg?
Of course we are in the world of “Anything’s possible” now. And only an idiot will speak in absolutes. But the fact is, this is not a presidential election. Immediately after the debate, people felt inclined to give their vote to that nice Nick Clegg. And yes, they have a soft spot for Vince Cable, who could make a perfect Joe Biden to Clegg’s Obama. But that’s not the way our political system works. When it comes to the actual election day and they realise that Nick Clegg is not standing in their constituency, and their man (or woman) is still there in a distant third place, then reluctantly, bitterly, as they have before, they’ll shift their vote to whichever they dislike least of Labour and Tory, to keep the other one out.
Not everywhere, of course. And I do expect to see a storming improvement in the Lib Dem vote, and in their number of seats. But we are still , I believe, a long way from a Lib Dem government. And, I rather think that this improvement in their position will come mostly at the expense of Labour, splitting the anti Tory vote, though that advantage will be fairly marginal.
But what’s to be done? how can the “big two” resist the Lib Dem surge? How can they counter Clegg?
First, they must resist the temptation to “go after” Clegg. The public doesn’t want that. The polls immediately after the first debate showed that Gordon Brown lost votes every time he went on the attack. The Labour leader doesn’t need to convince anyone that he can be harsh, negative, aggressive, angry . In fact, it’s because they believe he’s so many of these things that great swathes of the British public have turned against him. Kicking Clegg is like kicking kittens. Don’t do it Gordon. It won’t look good.
Labour have to be careful about playing the “experience” card against the Lib Dems, too. When I first met Vince Cable it was at one of our Chelgate client dinners. He was there not as a politicians, but as one of the most able minds in the whole of Shell. His experience in business and the true realities of real-life economics would look pretty impressive matched up against almost any of the professional politicians on the front benches of the other two parties. If they want to talk of real experience, he can say, he has it. But, in truth, do they?
David Cameron has to be equally careful. His image constantly teeters on the brink of being “Bully of the Upper Sixth”. Perhaps Flashman’s best friend. You might imagine him reaching almost too enthusiastically for the cane: “Bend over you nasty little socialist”. As with most political caricatures, neither fair nor accurate , but successfully sketched onto the public consciousness by Labour’s able band of spinners. In some Tory circles there has been a knee-jerk reaction. They want to attack. They want to vent. They want to tell the world just what’s wrong with Clegg and his gang. But that’s carminative thinking. It may relieve pent up feelings. But it will do more damage to David Cameron than to Nick Clegg. Really, in politics, you mustn’t kick kittens.
That’s not to say that Cameron shouldn’t use anger, though. He does it rather well. And in the first debate he seemed disappointingly muted and muzzled. But that anger needs to be directed at injustice, deprivation, suffering. It’s still fine to slay dragons in this country. But not kittens.
So , if they can’t attack. what can they do? Certainly not try to smother Clegg with love. Gordon Brown’s overtures during the first debate really sounded a little weak and a little desperate. I’m told that “I agree with Nick” T-shirts were on sale on-line within minutes of the debate ending.
What Labour and Tories need now is what we call a “Third Voice” strategy. In any polarised debate, the most effective interventions are provided by “third voices”. That is, by third parties who are seen (often wrongly) as independent, or (equally often wrongly) particularly expert in some way. People discount the claims and counter claims of the principal protagonists. “They would say that, wouldn’t they”. So, they are swayed by third voices, whether they are footballers or university professors, pop stars or newspaper editors.
Labour and Conservatives now need to unleash their “third voice” hunting dogs. They must leave it to their hounds to rip the prey apart while the huntsmen stand back with clean hands and faintly shocked expressions. We have already seen the “Third Voice” strategy being deployed in this campaign with the battle of economists. Now it will need to intensify.
The most obvious third voice for either party will be the media who support them. The Sun must look up from savaging Labour at least long enough to chew the life out of the Lib Dems and their policies. The Mirror too must tell its readers about Calamity Clegg and what he would mean to good Labour-voting folk. The same goes for the rest of the Labour or Tory supporting media. They can do what Tory and Labour cannot do, must not be seen to do. They can rip that nice Mr Clegg apart.
It’s time for Gordon and David to unleash the hounds.