According to ComRes and YouGov polls, far more Lib Dem voters would be happy (and far fewer unhappy) with a Lib-Lab arrangement in a hung parliament than with a Lib-Con arrangement.
So, in giving a bit more clarity about what he’d do in a certain type of hung parliament, Clegg has also given many of his own supporters a bizarre but real incentive not to vote for him. He told the BBC yesterday:
It is just preposterous the idea that if a party comes third in terms of the number of votes, it still has somehow the right to carry on squatting in No 10 and continuing to lay claim to having the prime minister.
A party which has come third… cannot then lay claim to providing the prime minister of this country.
And many recent polls do put Labour third in terms of votes. So, if that happens, Clegg will make sure Cameron becomes PM. Lib Dem voters who don’t want that thus have reason to stop Labour coming third. If they want to do that, their course of action will depend on the constituency they live in.
If it’s a competitive Lib Dem vs Tory race, then of course they should still vote Lib Dem. If it’s a competitive Labour-Tory race, they should vote Labour. Standard tactical voting drill so far.
But Clegg’s refusal to deal with a third-placed Labour changes everything else. Those who prefer a Lib-Lab government will need to push Labour’s vote up into second – and the Lib Dem vote down into third. Perverse, but that’s the situation Clegg has created.
In a safe seat – held by any party, with any other party a distant second – they should vote to boost Labour’s overall vote share.
And even in a competitive Lib-Lab seat, they now have reason to switch to Labour: one fewer Lib Dem MP would hardly alter the balance of power in whatever coalition, but fewer Labour votes will guarantee Cameron in power.
(Of course, Labour coming second in votes wouldn’t mean a Lib-Lab deal was certain; it would just create the possibility.)
So there we are. I doubt Clegg meant for this to happen, but this is the logic of what he’s said. Now you know why he’d been so keen to keep it vague. Luckily for him, this is hardly a line Labour can use in its campaign: ‘Vote for us so that you don’t push us into third place and then there’s a chance you can do a deal with us rather than the first-placed Tories’? Can’t quite see it…