Labour’s press conference this morning was hosted by Douglas Alexander, who is more impressive in the flesh than on television, and Ed Balls, who in middle-age looks ever more jowly and liverish, like Wackford Squeers after a hard day’s flogging. I asked an obvious question: Why shouldn’t centre-left voters support Clegg rather than Brown?
After a brief mumble about social justice, the answer came that a vote for Clegg could let in Cameron. The man from the Press Association pointed out that Labour was simultaneously claiming that the Lib Dem surge was helping them beat the Conservatives in marginal seats, and then saying that people shouldn’t vote Lib Dem for fear of aiding the Conservatives. We’ll see which argument is right on 7 May. But I was struck by the complete absence of idealism behind the “Labour is the lesser of two evils” pitch.
Comparisons between Clegg and Obama are ludicrous of course. But there is no doubt that the progressive middle classes have been electrified by the Lib Dems. The energy and the optimism are all on their side, while Labour seems exhausted, all passion spent. If an editor were to ask, I could make a good case against backing Clegg. In domestic policy, the Lib Dems are the party of the middle class. Their tax cuts, assuming that Vince Cable could afford them, which he couldn’t, would help those in the £20-£40,000 bracket rather than those at the bottom of the heap. In foreign policy they are a Fortress Europe if not quite a Little England party. If you doubt me look at how they behaved over Iraq. They opposed the war, for good reasons, but then offered no support to Iraqis who were being blown apart by al Qaeda and wanted something better after 35 years of tyranny. Some of the best qualities of liberal England are in the Liberal Democrats, but the party retains, indeed encourages, the worst sanctimonious habits of my class. It is unsurpassed in its ability to dress-up selfishness in the language of self-righteousness.
But you get no moral or ideological arguments from Labour against a party which wants to replace it as the main centre-left opposition just the smug assumption that leftish voters must vote for them, an arrogance which is matched by a similar smugness on the Tory side.
There are two troubles with the “you must vote for us because we are lesser of two evils” argument now that we are in a three-party contest.
1. Given the current state of the polls, Nick Clegg could plausibly say that if enough people voted Lib Dem, they wouldn’t be voting to put David Cameron into Downing Street or Gordon Brown into Downing Street but to put – er – Nick Clegg in Downing Street.
2. You can’t hold the voters hostage indefinitely. In democracies, the electorate is meant to hold politicians to account, not the other way round. Yet for decades, both the main parties have told wavering supporters that they have no choice but to vote for them. Sooner or later voters are bound to turn round and say that they don’t want to vote for evil in any of its forms and that they will support whichever party they damn well want.
That moment may be upon us.
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