A logical progression

With Clegg and the Lib Dems pointing the way to progressive, three-party politics, Cameron seems to

During the third and final televised leaders' debate, on 29 April, a well-placed Labour chum sent me a text message. In it, he remarked wryly: "Progressive politics may have taken a step backwards tonight." He was referring, I assume, to Gordon Brown's description of a potential Conservative-Liberal Democrat alliance as a "coalition of cuts".

Well, you pays your monies and you takes your choices. For my part, I have noticed little, either in the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto or in its presentation by Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and others, to support the Prime Minister's assertion: we have not departed fundamentally from that Gladstonian dictum on British Liberalism - to combine "conscience and reform".

Indeed, when I listen to this Labour Prime Minister extolling the virtues of a 50p top rate of tax on the highest earners, I allow myself a small smile. I spent the entire 2005 campaign - when both the money and the accompanying choices were more plentiful - at the receiving end of Brown's withering dismissal of a Lib Dem policy precisely to that effect.

While such a policy in itself could never have helped avert the banking crisis or the global recession, it would at least have given us five successive years of an emblematically more fair-minded approach to income taxation, five years' experience of sharing out the fruits from more benign economic circumstances in a more socially just fashion. That might just have helped make today's task of public persuasion more achievable.

First there were two . . .

It was not to be then, but now the case for lifting those at the far end of the income spectrum - people earning below £10,000 per annum - becomes an ever-pressing priority, not least because these are the ones who are likely to experience the sharp end of public expenditure cuts. That telling reality must not be allowed to go overlooked. Even more telling were the concerted attacks on two Liberal Democrat policies - on Europe and on immigration - from both the Labour and the Tory leaders during that final debate. Those exchanges were probably even more dispiriting for progressively minded Lab­our voters such as my texting friend.

The three televised leaders' debates, spread across the middle fortnight of the campaign, were curious affairs. They led to far more light being cast on the main party leaders than in the past, and yet - perhaps because of the excessive strictures within which they had to be conducted - they failed to generate much more luminosity for those whom all three men are seeking to lead.

Take the future spending-cuts agenda, for example. Discussion of this topic has not gone beyond the self-imposed parameters laid down by the party manifestos (with the Institute for Fiscal Studies at least crediting the Liberal Democrats for being more forthcoming than either of the other two). And because the detail has been lacking, you have the largely unchallenged contradiction: an increasingly desperate Prime Minister lashing out at some imaginary Lib Dem-Con plot on public expenditure, while lining up on the more right-wing side of the
divide on other issues. To voters, it must all seem very perplexing.

We are likely to have to get used to the idea of our party politics being less tramlined and tribal, and far more multipolar into the future. Whatever may happen to the current voting system following this general election result, its credibility certainly has not survived the experience of the campaign. As we head towards polling day, the most broken thing is not British society, but the two-party political system that increasingly fails to mirror the electoral wishes of the public.

That is all for another day. As things stand, whatever the arithmetical and subsequent political outcome of this election, there is going to be a great need for the voices of social conscience, justice and reform to be heard in the next House of Commons. And it will not be enough merely to rail against the inevitable constraints that are going to be imposed on the public purse. Instead, we will have to hold the long-overdue intelligent debate about "big-ticket" priorities which is so badly needed.

Clegg-lite

The next Comprehensive Spending Review - when the new government decides how much money should be spent on schools, hospitals and other public services - should be an event worth watching. But unlike in its previous incarnations, it should be carried out in the near-full gaze of the public.

Here is an early test for a renewed Commons and its more democratically based system of select committees. Will parliament be diminished, or strengthened?

Meanwhile, it is somewhat foolish of Brown to portray the Liberal Democrats as David Cameron's public-spending poodles. Indeed, another curiosity of this campaign is the way in which expectations have been turned on their heads - it has been Cameron who has found himself "Clegg-lite" when it comes to political change. Former Labour voters appear to have been taking note and may yet switch allegiance.

Which is why, in its closing stages, this general election campaign is becoming more of a struggle between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, with Labour lagging behind. It is Clegg and the Liberal Democrats who are advancing a progressive alternative. It is sad that the Prime Minister seems unable to acknowledge or accommodate that new reality.

Charles Kennedy is MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber and was leader of the Liberal Democrats from 1999-2006