The Shadow Chancellor, writing in The Times today, insists that the Tories represent real change and are not simply “chasing the polls”. Such a claim seems unwise, given that the article announces a change in the direction of the Opposition’s strategy made as a result of recent Labour gains. The Conservatives, Osborne says, will no longer shirk from attacking Gordon Brown’s record in favour of announcing policy as they have done so far this year. In the same breath he insists this election is not about doing away with a tired government but “real change”. This “real change” will focus on six main areas; cutting the deficit, the NHS, family, school reform, cleaning up Westminster and boosting enterprise.
These are the battle grounds the Tories have chosen to fight the election on. In my opinion, despite the non-stop policy announcements, David Cameron and his team have not got across to voters exactly how they will bring change in these areas. In particular the Tories talked tough on the deficit, announced some initial policies and then backtracked when the polls twitched, mimicking Labour rhetoric about protecting the recovery and avoiding “swingeing cuts”. Today an Emergency Budget was promised, but the real plan for slicing Britain’s debt is unlikely to emerge until after the election, if indeed there is one. More worrying however is that if these are a Conservative government’s priorities then what place do issues like Afghanistan, energy security and climate change have on the agenda? There is also a definite lack of excitement, radicalism or idealism about such targets. David Cameron has previously talked passionately on changing government to empower people and cutting back the state but there is no great focus on this in Tory campaigning. To use a sporting analogy, the Conservatives are sitting back and playing it safe, hoping to make it to full time still in the lead.
Such a cautious approach gives other parties hope. Labour are fighting back and the election looks set to be closer than it might’ve been. However the Shadow Chancellor is right about one thing in his article today and that is that voters are fed up with Gordon Brown. Realistically it is straight choice from the dire Scot dirtied by power and the fresh Etonian. The Liberal Democrats refuse to take sides between the two big boys and Nick Clegg has ruled out participating in a coalition should there be a hung parliament. This is a mistake. The leader of Britain’s third party should not dismiss such an immense opportunity to break the political status quo and implement changes that couldn’t be considered under normal circumstances. In other words the Lib Dems should not rule themselves out of a position in which they could pick and choose the policy priorities of government and introduce fairer representation that might seal the party’s return to the mainstream.
TV debates loom for party leaders for the first time in a British General Election campaign. Nick Clegg should feel blessed to have a podium at these events. I believe it is right that he does, but unless he has a message worthy of the opportunity including the Lib Dems will simply be a token gesture. He has to strive to strike a balance between idealism and realism. He should acknowledge his party’s place rather than pretending to be something he isn’t, but recognise the opportunities afforded him by such an underdog status. It allows him to be franker with the public about policy, something the Lib Dems do quite well via Vince Cable. However it also allows his party’s vision to be more ambitious and less diluted by the demands placed upon the parties who have something to lose.
This election is the first for a while in which doom and gloom reign over optimism. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour feel able to promise it and both have awkwardly tried to find a balance, resulting in a message that is neither uplifting or honest. The Lib Dems can be the party who present the current crises as opportunities for rebuilding Britain on stronger foundations. They already have radical tax policies that would really do something about fairness but they need to go further. To do this they must recognise the splits in their own party, caused by two types of Liberal; the state interventionist who resembles old Labour and the hands off, small state intellectual closer to the Tories. Rather than a weakness a fusion of policies that appeal to both types of Liberal would be an enormous strength, providing appeal across the electorate and in areas neglected by the main parties. To an extent this might mean controversial compromise, for example on energy policy. Currently the Lib Dems wish to avoid the “rush” to nuclear to tackle climate change. However a stable supply is needed alongside renewables and for the party to recognise this would be a massive signal to the nation that the Liberals intend to achieve their idealistic goals.
If Nick Clegg wants to be he can be the first Liberal leader in a long time to exercise genuine power. He is foolish to rule out a coalition. In the past the country has had a coalition at times of financial hardship, war and political scandal. Today all these things are challenges as well as climate change, an issue that needs unprecedented action to bypass a population that will never be unanimous. Even William Hague, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, said on the Andrew Marr show recently that climate change should be acted upon if there is even the slightest chance the evidence is correct. This is the correct approach but sadly a Conservative government, or a Labour one, would not feel able to take the radical steps necessary to make a significant reduction in emissions. A coalition however would be able to introduce policies for the long term good of the country. The Lib Dems can unleash a political shockwave over the next few months that will decide the election and the nation’s future. If they do not play their hand the game will continue to be played without them.