Wednesday, April 21, 2010

People don’t want a government

For months, David Cameron has been telling the public to “vote for change”. Oops.

One reason the Lib Dems are doing so well is that a lot of people don’t really want a government.

Normally, although we in fact elect (half) a parliament, but we think as though we’re electing a government – at least, Labour and Tory supporters generally vote with this in mind. Lib Dem and minor party voters know that their lot won’t take power, so many more of them vote to promote a pressure group, or endorse an idea, or make a statement about their political identity.

But what are the prospects for government now? We’re regularly told that there are years of nasty tax and spending decisions ahead, whoever’s in charge, and it’s understandable if a lot of us prefer not to think about the details.

And the two normal contenders for government have borne most of the anger at the expenses scandal. What’s more, this affair has made people take a keener interest in the Commons as a group of representatives rather than as the body that produces a government.

So there’s less interest than usual in who forms the government, and for voters who take this view, the only way to get something meaningful from the election is to vote on other grounds. With Nick Clegg’s attention-grabbing debate performance as a pretext, people have rushed to an option that seems to let them do something different.

It looks as though this general election, for more people than ever before, will be – call it what you will – a protest vote, a demand for something else, a frustrated cry of ‘not in my name’.

If this is true, then attacking the Lib Dems as not credible to govern will miss the point. And arguing that in these tough times we do need a government with a clear plan will just make people suspect more pain to come. The best way to clear the air of this orange ash – from an eruption that, although unexpected, had been building up for some time* – is to convince people that Clegg and his party are just ordinary politicians.

* I am now the millionth commentator to use a volcano metaphor for Lib Dem poll ratings, and as such am required to commit ritual suicide.

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