Saving the duopoly.

In the world of left-leaning journalism there’s a new obsession – that New Labour must come second in the popular vote, at all costs.

Today in the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland even goes as far as to claim that a Labour surge would be in the best interests of those who want electoral reform..

“It is, I know, a paradox that the best chance of realising Lib Dem dreams is for Labour to do well next week. But that is the insane reality of our system. It’s back, one last time, to those 1997 tactics. If you live in a Tory-Lib Dem marginal, vote Lib Dem. But if the battle for your seat is between Labour and Tory – or even between Labour and Lib Dem – it has to be a vote for Labour. Otherwise the best chance of change in a generation will have slipped through our fingers.”

So let’s examine this ‘paradox”.

Jonathan Freedland wants us to make New Labour the second party in terms of votes, as a way of realising Lib Dem dreams in a hung parliament – how about 35% Tory, 30% Labour and 25% Lib Dem? Will that do? That would translate to 288 Labour seats, 259 Tory seats and 74 Liberals.

So, Liberal dreams will be realised by remaining the third party, squeezed by the electoral system? Is he sure?

Meanwhile, New Labour would be touching distance of an overall majority – something that they could achieve with as little as a third of the vote. In these circumstances does he think that New Labour, the biggest winners from FPTP will be offering reform? It doesn’t seem likely….

For the last two years a Tory victory was pretty much a certainty – faced with a choice between the devil they know, and the devil they don’t know, people were going to vote in Cameron. None of the New Labour press’s dire warnings about the horrors in store under the Tories made any difference – people wanted shot of New Labour.

As the election campaign gathered steam, the cries were the same – electing a Tory Government would be a betrayal of the poor, the vulnerable, the old and the sick – but we weren’t listening. We just wanted shot of New Labour.

So when Nick Clegg came along and in one day did what New Labour had failed to do in two years – threaten the sure-fire Tory majority, you would have thought that all of those defenders of the poor, the vulnerable, the old and the sick, would have been delighted that the danger was receding….

…er not exactly.

Why not? If the aim was to save people from the Tories – who a month ago were odds on for a healthy majority – then this was a god-send, wasn’t it?

Apparently not.

So what exactly is going on here? Why has party tribalism trumped the interests of those who these writers claim to be protecting. If the Lib Dems can stop the Tory victory by coming second in the popular vote, what does it matter if Labour come third – they would still be second in terms of seats?

I think that the game has changed – it’s no longer about stopping the Tories, so much as about protecting the duopoly of power held by the two biggest parties. New Labour wants to stop the Tories – they don’t want the Lib Dems to do it – and when push comes to shove, they would rather see a Tory victory, than a change in the system.

If the Lib Dems come second in the popular vote, then the dynamic will change, even though New Labour will win more seats. If New Labour come second in the popular vote, then it’s back to the same old politics, with the third party squeezed out.

But there’s a danger. If they succeed in whittling away Lib Dem support before the election, thus persuading voters that a Lib Dem vote is a wasted vote, where will those voters go? Will they fall back into the hands of New Labour? Why should they?

If the Lib Dem vote is squeezed, we will be back to business as usual – that is, back to where we were a month ago, with the Tories winning an absolute majority. In 2010 fear of another Brown Government trumps fear of the Tories every time – that’s why they were leading every poll.

Push the Lib Dems into third place, and the Tories will win. Jonathan Freedland’s assumption that Lib Dem support will flow to New Labour is pure fantasy – if voters are faced with a simple choice between a New Labour Government and a Tory Government, it will be the Tories.

So what’s the game? Where are New Labour’s priorities?

I think that the decision has been taken that if Labour can’t win outright, and can’t be the senior partner in a coalition, they would rather go into old-fashioned opposition to the Tories than risk a shake-up of the system, or any change to the voting method. They’ve calculated that they would be better off waiting their turn for absolute power, rather than risk the unknowns of multi-party politics.

And what about the poor, the vulnarable, the old and the sick? What about the millions of people who are going to suffer under a Tory Government?

Well, it was never really about them, was it?


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