If ever David Cameron was exposed it was last night, and boy did he look worried under the bright lights and scrutiny of the first ever UK election debate between the three contending Prime Ministerial candidates. The format was perfect for perforating through all the Conservative sound-bites and exposing the hollowness of their “Big Society” programme, and both Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown, in my opinion, demolished the Tory candidate at every turn. If it isn’t clear to you now that the Conservative programme is nothing more than empty and unworkable promises, arbitrary and compassionless punishments and stale and outdated rhetoric masquerading as something new, then you can’t have been paying attention. There is nothing new here in David Cameron’s Conservative Party that hasn’t been tried and discredited already in the 80s and 90s, and the entire 2010 Tory campaign just a shameless grab for power based on a manipulative and dishonest platform of old wine in new bottles. That said, there were some very sage words from Tom Clark in The Guardian today: "Amid the renewed excitement about breaking the mould, progressives would do well to remember that they will pay a high price if they forget the psephology of their own seat. They are desperate to smash an electoral system that forces them to choose between their heart and their head. But they will not succeed if they forget to follow their head in the meantime."
Along with what seems to be the majority of the country right now, I left the big debate last night thinking how nice it would be if Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats could actually win the General Election in three weeks time, and as someone who has voted Lib Dem in every General Election since I was old enough to vote, I began to ponder the possibility of actually voting with my heart on May 6th here in Selly Oak instead of holding my nose and voting tactically for Labour.
“I agree with Nick” is clearly the “I Like Ike” of our generation (at least until some hideous BNP supporter co-opts the phrase for the wrong Nick and puts it on a racist tee-shirt), and it amazes me that by simply being given some air-time in which to lay out the policies already available in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, the British public are finally waking up to the realization that this election is a legitimate three-horse race. The media last night were quick to say things like “in many ways the debate served to introduce Nick Clegg to the British people for the very first time” and the question I kept asking myself was: why? Why had the media done such a bad job up until now in portraying a central political party in our supposedly democratic country as somehow being outside the scope of electability despite their rising poll numbers each and every year? As recently as Monday, I watched Jeremy Paxman interviewing Clegg for the BBC, and he was basically ridiculing him for daring to believe he might actually become Prime Minister. It was disgusting, and I’m glad that this watershed moment has seemingly sky-rocketed the Liberal Democrats into contention and made the derisive and mocking commentators out there finally listen up.
However, as much as I would love to vote Lib Dem on May 6th, the fact of the matter remains that, in my local constituency, historically the Liberal Democrats have never even come close to winning a seat here. Indeed, whilst the leaflets and letters from Conservative, Nigel Dawkins are endless, and Labour’s Steve McCabe is sending out mail-outs and pressing the flesh all over town, our Lib Dem candidate has been highly conspicuous by his absence.
If I thought he had a hope in hell of winning here, I would vote for him, but right now it seems highly unlikely, no matter how well Nick Clegg did on TV last night, and this is an important point to remember for whatever constituency you may be voting in.
For a political party to win a General Election, they do not need to win every seat – they just have to win a majority of seats. If you think your local Lib Dem candidate could actually win the seat in your area, then you should do everything you can to make that happen if that is the outcome you wish for. But if you are living in a seat, like me, where a Lib Dem victory seems improbable, then there is absolutely no shame in voting Labour to keep the Tories out. Indeed, by keeping the eye on the prize – if either Labour or Liberal Democrats get in, they have both promised massive electoral reform; if both get a lot of votes but there is no clear majority, it is highly likely they will work together to form a coalition government – you make sure you avoid the worst of all scenarios: another George Bush moment.
For those who don’t remember, America in the year 2000 wasn’t a particularly inspiring place. Eight years of Bill Clinton hadn’t really given the country the massive social reform that had been hoped for on the left, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal had left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Meanwhile, on the right, some clown named George W Bush was seeking to fill the shoes vacated by his daddy just eight years before. Ralph Nader and the Green Party, therefore, thought it was high time to step in and try to force the issue of third party politics and offer the voting public a real alternative to political business as usual.
It was an admirable effort, and if I were registered to vote that year the chances are, I would have voted for them too. The problem was though, that with an uninspiring Democratic Party to vote for, many of those who would have voted Democrat voted Green instead because they were so disillusioned with the party, whilst those who would have voted Republican continued to vote for George Bush. What that meant in real terms was that the Greens still didn’t get enough votes for serious Presidential contention (because not enough new or swing voters signed up alongside the disillusioned Democrats), but as a result of the exodus towards the Greens, the Democrats lost a lot of their support. We all know what happened next: the Supreme Court made George W Bush President, and one of the key reasons this travesty occurred was because the difference in votes between the Republicans and Democrats was so slim.
Now, this isn’t to blame Ralph Nader, as many have done, as some kind of “spoiler” in that election – if the Democrats had wanted their Green Party votes back they shouldn’t have sold their supporters down the river and conceded so much to the Republicans during the Clinton years (sound familiar?) But it is a warning about voting with your heart instead of your head: if people like me on May 6th vote Liberal Democrat without being cognizant of the specific circumstances of the constituency in which they are voting, instead of shocking the world and getting the Lib Dem MP that they want, it is much more likely that they will split the Labour vote and return an unwanted Conservative to the seat. And that would be a terrible thing in our first-past-the-post, majority-take-all, electoral system.
This needn’t be seen as cynicism, nor as the claim that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is a wasted vote. It isn’t. I expect a lot of people to vote Lib Dem on May 6th and in a perfect world, they would even win. But it is an endorsement of voting smartly instead of stupidly. I agree with Nick as much as the next guy…but I agree with Gordon a hell of a lot more than I agree with David Cameron, and if it comes to a choice of risking a Cameron victory by taking an unwise gamble on Clegg, I think it’s far safer to stick every time.