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Tuesday, April 27, 2010 

Hung parliaments and personality based campaigns.

If this general election has been all about personalities rather than policies, as an increasingly desperate Labour party spent much of the weekend and yesterday touring the self-same studios focusing on the personalities to make their point, then the biggest one of all also made his first major mistake of the campaign.

The reasons for why Nick Clegg first gave the impression that he wouldn't work with a Labour party that came third in the share of the vote, later clarifying and making clear that he instead couldn't do a deal with a Labour party where Gordon Brown continued as the prime minister were hardly ignoble. As a hung parliament looks increasingly likely as the rise in support for Clegg's party holds, and as tactical voters mull over just who to vote for in either an attempt to get Labour out or keep the Tories out, there was always a clamour and also a case for the Liberal Democrats to give an indication as to who they would go into a coalition with, what their conditions would be, and just who would potentially get or lose a specific job. The danger inherent in doing so however was that it made Nick Clegg look like he was already doing the cliched measuring up of curtains for 10 Downing Street, all on the back of nothing more than a short series of potentially dodgy opinion polls. By also giving the impression that he couldn't deal with a Labour party that came third, he doubtless turned off many of those fleeing to the party as a left alternative to Labour who would never countenance the Lib Dems jumping into bed with David Cameron.

Understandable as it was, surely what Clegg should be pushing for is to win outright, as outlandish as that still seems. While by all means think about and drop hints on just what you would do if the hung parliament becomes reality, the time for the actual decisions to be made and to categorically rule one party in or out is on May the 7th. It also provided both Labour and the Conservatives with a wonderful opportunity to score points, the Conservatives on how Clegg was already going to stitch up power behind the scenes in an unaccountable back-room deal, Labour with how a vote for Clegg would be by proxy a vote for Cameron.

As desirable as a hung parliament remains, especially as an alternative to a Tory majority and with the potential for proportional representation then to be brought in to put right the unfairness built into the current system, and as deeply unconvincing as the attacks on it by Cameron and sections of the right-wing press have been (today's page 3 girl was vexed by the very possibility) it's equally important not to fetishise it as a panacea. If it happens, it almost certainly is going to result in some appointments and deals which those currently so vociferously in support of it are going to find difficult to take. While it's nonsense that the markets will take fright, as they're convinced that regardless of what happens the cuts they'll demand will take place, it does run the risk of falling apart spectacularly, especially when we have so little recent experience of coalition government. A second election, which you have a sneaking suspicion that the Tories would love to be able to force in the event of them winning the largest number of seats, could yet be the ultimate result and is a depressing thing to behold, almost certainly to be fought around one issue with a derisory turnout to go with it.

Away from the surmising, isn't it curious how Labour are so convinced that if the broadcasters decided to focus on policies rather than three white men that they would suddenly be fighting a far more effective campaign? After all, hasn't that been Labour's campaign plan? Most of Brown's time has been focused, not on making speeches or policy launches, but on those homily, down to earth visits to community centres, workplaces or even supporter's houses, all thoroughly stage-managed, and all without any apparent real connection to winning votes. As one worker posed when questioned by Jonathan Freedland, "I can see what we got out of it, but what did he get out of it?" Even more curious is that the policies themselves are either so weak, so similar to that of the Conservatives or just a continuation of what we've already got used to. Labour's main plea for support, that they got all the decisions right on the recession is by the same standard, also the main reason not to support them: that it was the decision to bail out the banks in the particular way Brown and Darling did that created the massive deficit which so few of the parties have been prepared to talk about.

And as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has had to point out, no party has even begun to come anywhere near to explaining just where the cuts are going to have to fall and how deep to bring the deficit down to the levels promised over the life of a parliament. While Labour will take some of the blame, whether in power come May the 7th or not, and while the banks also will, it's going to be those administering the cuts that are going to have to take the most. As pointed out before and by so many others, this has always been an election that it might be better to lose, which only puts into perspective just how badly it seems all three main parties still want power, for whatever sake. The Liberal Democrats, despite often assumed having the most to gain from proportional representation, probably have the most to actually lose: after all, why vote Liberal Democrat in a system where protest votes and tactical voting are no longer necessary? The nightmare for those on the left is that after five years of austerity under a Lib-Lab coalition, with a proportional system now in place, the Tories romp home and form a government with support from UKIP and others which doesn't put a Cameron-type gloss on their policies. We might, after everything, still want to be careful what we wish for.

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