Many things are uncertain over the coming days. Will there be a hung parliament? Will Labour finish third? Will Cameron pull it off at the last? Are the Liberal Democrats on the brink of a role in government? How would a coalition government look? How would electoral reform change the way our political process takes place? These are all good questions about the coming ‘change’, and I am in the uncomfortable position of having the answers to none of them.
That’s the thing about change generally – deep down most of us don’t really like it. We’re suspicious of it, we tend to wonder why things can’t stay as they are and, if change is forced upon us, we worry about how we will be affected by the new way of doing things.
Even the most casual observer will have noticed that ‘change’ has been the most over-used word of the 2010 General Election (the candidates’ homage to the 2008 Obama campaign) but each of the three main parties have a very different view of what that word means.
The Tories seem to think it simply means a change back to their way of doing things. They view the period since 1997 as an aberration, an electoral mistake that ushered in an era of ‘political correctness’, ‘elf ‘n’ safety’ and ‘feminazism’. Not for them the touchy-feely, faux-empathy of the Blair sofa government years – people must be governed, not related to.
But, as far as the Tories are concerned, by far the worst thing about the last thirteen years is that they haven’t been in charge. The sole purpose of the 2010 Tory campaign is, in their eyes, to put that right. This is the arrogance born of their long eighteen year stint in charge under Thatcher and Major, and the programme for government they offer this time appears little more than a reheating of their 1980s persona but with a slightly less shrill tone. We have the über-vacuous “Big Society” (essentially “rolling back the state” and hoping the slack is picked up by volunteers); the ageless Tory passion for shifting the emphasis of taxation away from the wealthy and (through indirect means, such as an inevitable hike in VAT) back onto the less well-off; a thinly hidden agenda of dismantling public services; moralising, meaningless and prescriptive nonsense about marriage.
Simply turning the clock back doesn’t look much like change from where I’m standing.
Of course the reform the Conservatives will have absolutely no truck with is a move to a fair voting system. Liberal Democrats have long believed in an electoral system where everyone’s vote counts, as opposed to the current medieval system where the votes of only a few thousand electors in marginal constituencies decide who governs us. Funnily enough, the Tories – as beneficiaries of the system – see no need to interfere with the current arrangements. They dishonestly peddle the argument that with first-past-the-post you can “throw a government out” while ignoring the obvious point that making everyone’s vote count would do more than anything else to engage people in the political life of the country. Perhaps David Cameron’s attitude to renewal is best summed up in this week’s (superb) Observer editorial: “He defines change in politics as the old system preserved – but run by the Tories”.
Labour’s claims of renewal are left sounding all the more hollow after thirteen years of failure and missed opportunity. To be fair to Labour, there is much that they can be proud of (the minimum wage, for example) but their 2010 campaign seemingly consists of pointing to the things they did well and scaremongering about any change to their way of doing things. Their death bed conversion to partial electoral reform only serves to highlight their failure to fulfill their 1997 promise (which I voted for at the time) to hold a referendum on proportional representation. Instead their term of government has been stained with authoritarianism (ID cards, detention without trial) and illegal foreign wars. To try to claim now that their’s really is a progressive philosophy is frankly laughable.
The only real change on offer in this election comes from the Liberal Democrats. The theme that runs through everything is fairness – a fairer tax system, a fresh look at education, a genuine commitment to the environment, a Freedom Bill to restore and protect civil liberties, an honest dialogue about immigration (as opposed to the hysterical dogwhistling of Labour and the Tories) and proper, meaningful reform of the political system.
Predictably the Tory press have waded in to this wide-open election with unprecedented levels of bile being heaped on Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats and any notion of a hung parliament. The Sun, the Daily Mail, The Telegraph et al may have had their say, but there are signs too that they have had their day. Murdoch, in particular, knows that if the Tories don’t get in then he and his media empire will be cast adrift for the first time in a generation – another change worth voting for.
The truth is that the crisis at the heart of the government and the financial system is such that we need people to work together to put it right. Labour and the Conservatives have each taken turns to run the economy over the last sixty-five years, and this is where it’s led us. The old ways haven’t worked – it’s time for a fresh look, a new approach.
It takes courage to change, but change is what this country needs. We need to take a bold step towards real change at the ballot box this Thursday. The Tories can’t offer anything other than a return to an even older way of doing things than that offered by an exhausted Labour Party. There’s only one way to make a real difference this week: vote Liberal Democrat.