Foggy, Compo and Clegg: Ramblings on the Prime Ministerial Debate

April 17, 2010

The Polls are full of them: the news that the Lib Dems seem to have done well out of the first televised debate. The phrase of the debate seemed to be “I agree with Nick” – and if the Lib Dems can’t find a way of turning that into an advertising campaign then they’re missing out. You can just see it: “They agree with Nick. Show you do too and vote Lib Dem on 6th May.”

Meanwhile most commentators seem to think that it looks likely to be a Hung Parliament, with the likelihood being that the Lib Dems would hold the balance of power – unless the gap is small enough to allow an unlikely deal with the likes of Plaid Cymru and the SNP. The polls however ultimately are at best a very rough indication and the only one that will count will be the main election itself.

Part of the problem for the Lib Dems is that they struggle to turn people saying that they would support them into actual voters. The perception in some ways is that unless you’re somewhere that the Lib Dems are the only viable alternative to one of the main parties, then all you are doing is effectively wasting your vote. This is one of the reasons that the Lib Dems are so hot on electoral reform: they feel that if every vote does actually count, people will feel that they can vote for the Lib Dems rather than just vote against the one they don’t like.

They have a point, but then again the Lib Dems can’t really afford to be sniffy about tactical voting; reviewing some of the 1997 Election Coverage recently (mainly to see Peter Snow’s fabled Landslide Indicator) revealed that there were a number of constituencies where a Lib Dem MP was elected partly through tactical votes from Labour voters who saw them as having the better chance of unseating the local Conservative.

The questions “Who do you support” and “Who will you vote for” are entirely different propositions, and while those involved in Poll Design will no doubt be doing their best to reflect this, by the time it reaches the public these subtle distinctions are often lost.

The overall campaign is already seeming to show some trends from the parties. Lib Dems seem to be trying to put out a positive message and make themselves the party for those who don’t really want to vote for the major parties – of whom there are plenty; Labour seem to be arguing that they will recover some of their socialist cred by making “a future fair for all” while making occasional swipes at David Cameron. The Conservative campaign so far seems to be based on personal attacks on Gordon Brown – I have seen several billboard ads with pictures of a smiling Brown, with words effectively saying “He’s responsible for a mess, don’t vote him in again” with the Conservative name in very small type underneath. It’s a bit like the WC Fields thing of not voting for somebody, but voting against the other guy. It could yet backfire on the Conservatives; Clegg is doing his utmost to provide another viable option, meaning that a vote against Labour will not automatically be a vote for them.

Who will win? I haven’t a clue. And that potentially gives us the most interesting election to watch since 1992: the question since then has not been who, but how many – this time around, the uncertainty is genuine.