Saturday, April 17, 2010

Cameron and Brown dismiss Clegg at their peril

These are extraordinary times, and extraordinary times mean extraordinary things get said, and so it is. I agree with Alastair Campbell. With official voting intention poll for today Sun from YouGov in, Campbell is absolute right when he says that the Lib Dems rise makes the election much more exciting because anything can happen.

Now of course, there will be those that dismiss the poll as "rogue". Others will note that it's a flash in the pan as a result as Clegg's performance in the debate on Thursday. The real question is whether the apparent momentum with the Lib Dems can be sustained. Unlike in previous elections though, they won't have to try to hold it for three weeks. Thanks to the debates, they have five day blocks in which they need to maintain the direction of travel towards them - and then hope that their man can perform in each debate like he did on Thursday. This makes the coming week exciting because it is now Clegg's to lose, not Cameron's.

The Tories and Labour seem to be tackling this uncharted water in very different ways though and both approaches are dangerous. On the one hand the Tories are dismissing Clegg by trying to reinforce that only they or Labour can actually win it - Clegg is the underdog. The thing is, whilst this is realistic about the electoral mathematics, Britain can be hopelessly romantic when it comes to loving the underdog. Having a strategy that effectively reminds everyone who that underdog is when you must get a swing from them to you for victory coud turn out to be quite a dangerous thing to do.

Labour's approach to this seems even more insane though. Gordon Brown and the Labour Party are campaigning on a platform that calls for "fair votes" at Westminster thorugh some sort of electoral reform. Yet last night, the instant official reaction from Labour was to boast that with the YouGov they would come thrid in the popular vote but still win the most seats in Parliament. Now, losing the popular vote, coming second but still winning power, as in 2005, flew... just. However, boasting that even if you come third you'll still win most seats whilst campaigning on an electoral reform agenda?

Would the infamous "court of public opinion" stand for that?

Were I advising the Lib Dems I'd be telling them to hammer this point home for the next few days and do whatever it took to mention it in the next debate. Remind the public that yes, you're the underdog, because that is a positive, by pointing out that Tories are just dismissing you as an also-ran before the gates have opened, and then drive home that Labour are actually relishing the fact they might turn out to be the the third most popular party on polling day, yet still win a majority - albeit it not overall - in the Commons.

As for the Tories and Labour? What they should really be doing is going on the attack against the Lib Dems. I know there's this traditional idea that you should, in a campaign, ignore opponents sometimes in order to not give them publicity, but the publicity is with them and the parties have no choice but to engage and destroy them as best they can. Trying to pretend that they don't matter, whether it be through arbitrary dismissal because of obscure electoral maths, or worse because hey, you're quite happy you can come third and still "win", will only solidify their position as the lovable underdog and probably get them more votes.

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