It is often said, and assumed, that oppositions don’t win elections, but governments lose them. This time, given the great unpopularity of the current prime minister Mr Brown, many thought it was for Mr Cameron to lose. That was until Mr Clegg came up and trumped everyone in the first television debate. There are two more debates to come, and there are many more days of campaigning, so things can yet change. However, opinion polls have dashed the Conservative and Labour hopes that sudden and dramatic increase in support for Mr Clegg and the Liberal Democrats prove to be short-lived. A hung parliament is quite likely.
Whoever is devising the plan for the Liberal Democrats has done a remarkable job in completely outflanking the Tories. By bracketing the Tories together with Labour as ‘old parties’ doing ‘old politics’, the Liberal Democrats neutralized the Tory narrative of change. The Liberal Democrat narrative of change is that the Conservatives no longer represent change as such, and true change can only be achieved by abandoning both Labour and the Tories.
By attaching figures, tables and numbers to their manifesto, the Liberal Democrats can claim that they have costed their policies properly, which stands in contrast to the Tories’ inability to explain whither the 6 billion pounds in cutting waste. Not ring-fencing health and education, the Liberal Democrat figures look more realistic and flexible.
There are a few big eye-catching policies in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, such as scrapping the like-for-like replacement for the Trident. This fits neatly into the new-versus-old politics: the Trident is a relic from the Cold War.
The new politics which the Liberal Democrats advocate is more consensual in nature, not adversarial as currently stands. Or as Mr Clegg may say, putting people before party politics. They are looking beyond this election, but British politics after electoral reform of some sorts, where single-party governments will be an oddity and coalition governments the norm. A nightmarish scenario will arise if the Tories have a larger share of the vote, but fewer seats than Labour, and the Liberal Democrats vastly under-represented. If this were to happen, a swift electoral reform would be unavoidable.
The Conservatives need to see off the Liberal Democrat challenge, if they were to form the next government on their own. It would probably be unwise to attack the Liberal Democrats on the economy, fiscal policies, immigration, Europe and competence. Mr Osborne is yet to appear convincing alongside Mr Darling and Dr Cable. And the vagueness of the ‘savings’ the Tories will find makes the party vulnerable to counter-attacks. If the Tories go hard on immigration, then it may lead to the charge of the same old nasty Tories. Europe may bring more headache to the Conservatives, because of internal faultlines, and their association with other very right-wing parties in the European parliament. Finally, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to ignore the Liberal Democrats, since the ‘real’ contest is between the Tories and Labour, or to question the comeptence of the Liberal Democrats. That would be a matter for the voters to decide.
The Tories need a narrative, and actually they have one already: big society. That may be the central message the party can offer to the British electorate, and distinguish the Conservatives from others, instead of an election narrative based on change or attacking Labour. Inclusive and empowering the citizen and communities, if somewhat vague in concrete proposals, the idea of ‘big society’ sends out a positive message.