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Big business as usual for Liberal Democrats
In the space of a week the LibDems' prospects were apparently transformed, following the first television debate between the main party leaders. Nick Clegg gazed with doe eyes into a camera, and suddenly his chances had undergone a metamorphosis! A YouGov poll put them on 33%, one point ahead of the Tories and four ahead of Labour.
The polls indicate how volatile this election has become, but this is partly because there is little difference between the programmes of the main parties. 75% of people polled by Populus said that there needs to be a change from Labour but only 34% said it is time to change to the Tories.
It is this space that the LibDems are exploiting, with the mantra that they represent 'change'. They haven't been in government since Ramsay MacDonald's national government in 1931. However even for people who hope they might be a change, a major hurdle for the LibDems is to convince them that they could actually win and therefore are worth voting for.
"We're different," Clegg has said time and time again. But at their last party conference Clegg and LibDem shadow chancellor Vince Cable called for savage cuts in public spending and argued that the public deficit should be repaid over five years rather than eight as Labour had proposed.
While Gordon Brown and David Cameron say that some parts of the public sector should be protected from the worst cuts, such as the NHS, Cable has said that there should be no ringfencing. Of course he is simply being a degree more open on this; there is no real political difference.
Vince Cable has been hailed by right wing papers like the Daily Mail as the best candidate for prime minister and by the Guardian as "one of our classiest politicians". A former chief economist of oil multinational Shell, following the 2008 banking crisis he gained a reputation for his economic analysis but he himself endorsed the policy of 'light regulation' of financial services in 1999, which contributed to the crash.
Clegg and Cable were two of the architects of the LibDems' 'orange' revolution, ending the party's image as the 'beer and sandals' brigade and implementing a right-wing, neoliberal programme. Clegg has been in Cable's shadow since becoming leader but the television debate has now enabled him to shine on the national media stage. But his policies differed only slightly from the Tories and New Labour.
The LibDems would pay off the public deficit by cutting 'waste' and bureaucracy in the NHS, in education and in the army (the latter to pay for better equipment in Afghanistan). They would cut tax credits and the child trust fund and cap pay rises at £400 for all public-sector workers for two years. In other words the same 'efficiency' savings (cuts) and other cuts. However Clegg has been able to mark a small difference by saying his party would scrap Trident and ID cards.
One glance at the LibDems' record in local government shows that they are no different to the other two parties when in power. In opposition they pose as tireless campaigners, photographed outside local hospitals and standing next to potholes. They pledge to defend services, but time and time again when they take control of a local council or share power they carry out cuts and privatisation. For instance in Leeds City Council, the LibDem-Tory coalition is slashing council workers' jobs and pay.
Will Clegg's popularity last? The Tories cite the example of Ross Perot, the maverick Dallas billionaire who ran as an independent in the 1992 US presidential election. He led the polls after the first television debate but subsequently declined to 19% by the time of the vote. Even if the LibDems maintain their current level of support, its geographical spread would result in a hung parliament and Clegg would be faced with his main dilemma.
If he forms a government with Labour then the party that pledged to be different is seen to keep the same party in power and he alienates the right wing of his party. If he goes into coalition with the Tories then he blows out of the water the idea that you can vote LibDem to keep the Tories out and he alienates the left wing of his party, which is likely to lead to a split with those who see the party as having a radical tradition.
As a result, Clegg isn't committing himself to either scenario at the moment.
The LibDems are for the time being moving onto the centre stage for the first time since the days of Lloyd George, mainly at the expense of the Tories. However, the policies of a future government which contains the LibDems will be 'big' business as usual.
In The Socialist 21 April 2010:
Youth fight for jobs
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party election campaign
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party features
Socialist Party workplace news