For red, vote yellow. For blue, vote red. For yellow, vote blue. Got it?Simon Jenkins
HOW TO VOTE in next week’s general election is easy. If you want a Labour government, vote Liberal Democrat. If you want a Conservative government, vote Labour. If you want a Liberal Democrat government, vote Tory. Recite that every morning for a week.
The first maxim is no longer at issue. When a Labour traditionalist such as Brian Sedgemore calls it a day on Tony Blair and tells the Left to vote for Charles Kennedy, the earth moves a little. This is no wishy-washy social democrat or wild and woolly leftwinger. Mr Sedgemore is real Labour. To him Mr Blair’s party, or at least his Government, is no longer the movement he spent 27 years defending in Parliament and the country. This may be a token of his naivety, but he represents more than the bloody-minded tendency. He stands in Labour’s liberal mainstream.
Mr Sedgemore must have watched with despair as Mr Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats disappeared behind the fog of new Labour and emerged to its left. His core concerns, free higher education, a unified NHS, opposition to the war and a defence of civil liberty, are no longer Labour but Liberal Democrat causes. We could add support for more direct taxes, national and local, drug law reform and opposition to ID cards. For all Mr Kennedy’s vacillating in recent years, the Liberal Democrats are now the standard-bearers of left-wing integrity, a concept abandoned by Mr Blair. Mr Sedgemore is making the right move. Although a Liberal Democrat vote matters only in a small number of seats, a large popular vote will at least boost the party’s morale for next time.
If on the other hand you want a continuation of the present Conservative Government, vote Blair. Former Tories have been doing so for eight years. They should not shackle their hero Mr Blair by voting Conservative and thus running the risk of a hung Parliament. In such a Parliament the Liberal Democrats or the Labour Left could veto Mr Blair’s right-wing programme. This would endanger such policies as no higher taxes on incomes and lower ones on motoring and drinking. It would jeopardise more selective schools, more private hospitals, more prisons, a national police force and no change in the drugs laws.
Under Mr Blair conservatives have cheered as workfare has been introduced, welfare scroungers tackled and the incapacity racket threatened. Judges have been ordered to heel, more than even under Michael Howard’s time at the Home Office. Civil liberties have been eroded and liberal lawyers enraged, delighting the wildest Colonel Blimp. High-spending local councils have been capped. Mr Blair has even revived middle-class subsidies to house-buyers and freed land for property speculators.
The Prime Minister goes into this election a true Thatcherite. He has mimicked the lady’s buccaneering approach to foreign policy, with no fewer than four wars, in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Iraq. Under Mr Blair there seems no chance of Britain entering the euro. He is praying that French voters next month rescue him from a referendum on the dreaded European constitution. His biographers maintain that the original new Labour project was purely tactical, to avoid any policies that risked the party’s “electability”. What began as a tactic graduated to a strategy. It has now become a conviction.
The tactic worked. Former Tories voted Labour in droves in 1997 and again in 2001. John Major’s 1992 14 million vote vaporised down to 9.6 million in 1997. The Labour Party as such is now little more than a rump of Blair loyalists and career beneficiaries, an election machine for its leader. It is in reality the Blair party. Businessmen who have done well under this Government, not trade unionists or workers, wrote in support to The Financial Times this week. The party is more akin to Lloyd George’s Liberals after the Great War, a group holding the leader’s patronage coupon. Like Lloyd George, Mr Blair leads what might be called a “coalition of the Right”.
It is enticing to wonder whether we are about to see the strange death of Labour Britain, even in the party’s hour of triumph. British parties are clubs, not movements. Those that become prisoners of their leader have usually gone down to division and defeat. This applied not just to Lloyd George’s Liberals but also to the Tories under Churchill and again under Margaret Thatcher. The club does not long tolerate the cult of the individual. It loses its way in splits and choosing ill-judged successors. It develops an immune reaction to its own survival instinct.
By positioning Labour to the right of centre, Mr Blair moved onto territory that one day the Tories must reconquer. He assured himself a decade of ascendancy, but left a vacuum behind him. By keeping Gordon Brown on a leash he retained a sort of link to the party mainstream. But Mr Brown’s ambition has become a personality cult of its own. He is no healer of the party splits that are already emerging. The next Parliament will be dominated by the clash of these titans. Labour voters may get alienated and follow Mr Sedgemore, especially if the Liberal Democrats can replace Mr Kennedy with a more plausible leader. The SDP may well prove to have been no more than a realignment too soon.
Meanwhile those who want to see the Liberal Democrats a force in the land have only one option in all but existing Liberal Democrat seats. They must vote Tory and secure a hung Parliament. In 90 per cent of the most vulnerable Labour-held marginals, a Tory, not a Liberal Democrat, lies in second place. Even if this were reversed, a Liberal Democrat majority in the Commons is inconceivable. So in the overwhelming majority of Labour marginals Liberal Democrats must vote to send more Tories to the House of Commons. As Mr Sedgemore said yesterday, there is no realistic danger of Mr Howard going to Downing Street but there might be an outside chance of a stalemate.
Only in a hung Parliament will Mr Kennedy enjoy real power. That power will increase the closer that the total of Tory MPs gets to the Labour one. If so, the Liberal Democrats will have theoretical power to decide who should form a government and for how long. They will be able to demand policies for which they have campaigned at the election. They will have the option of joining a coalition on their own terms and be responsible for its success. Mr Kennedy might even become a Cabinet minister.
From being useless bystanders in the game of national politics, a dustbin for discontents, Liberal Democrats would become real players. Crucially they will be in a position to ally themselves with left-wingers on Labour’s back benches, forcing Mr Blair and Mr Brown back to the left. On current poll performance, a hung Parliament is the only way that the liberal ideology abandoned by Labour and Tories alike might revive in British politics.
I repeat, this requires Liberal Democrats to help to put enough Tories into the Commons to make their own party’s weight effective. Britain does not have direct election for its leader and voters cannot behave as if it did. Parties do not hold open primaries, as in the United States. If they did, Mr Blair would today be challenged not by Mr Howard and Mr Kennedy, but probably by Michael Portillo and Sir Menzies Campbell, a more exhilarating contest by far. But this is fantasy politics. In reality the only way to influence policy now will be through exploiting the leverage of party blocs in the House of Commons.
Mr Sedgemore claims to want Mr Blair’s nasal blood on his fist. So do a remarkable number of people on the Left, though not enough to make an impact in the polls. But if Mr Sedgemore means what he says, the blood must be real. He must demand tactical voting to give the Left negotiating strength in the new Parliament. He must do more than leave Labour and kiss hands with Mr Kennedy. He must vote for Mr Howard. All else is not serious. It is waffle.