Once they would have doubled up with laughter at the very thought. Now, it seems, many high-profile lefties are proud to say: “I’m going to vote Lib Dem.” As the small print of the parties’ manifestos sinks in (and despite the public ennui, they are all getting their core messages over), it is becoming increasingly clear that if you are looking for old Labour-style policies, and rather suspect that the Socialist Alliance is not going to sweep to power, the Liberal Democrat manifesto is the one for you.
On almost all the major issues, from taxation and public services to the environment and transport, the Lib Dems offer more progressive answers than Labour. Public spending? Yes! Civil liberties? Yes! Tax the rich? Yee-hah! They claim they can become the real opposition, pushing the Tories into third place. This is what the country has been crying out for, according to every leftist analysis.
If so, why aren’t we seeing a huge swing in the polling? Why isn’t old Labour bypassing the party en masse and taking Cheerful Charlie’s radical road? A few high-profile people are – take the New Statesman‘s own Nick Cohen, the novelist Jenny Diski (see page 16) and Germaine Greer (page 26). But there is no sign of a real shift. Indeed, reports from target seats speak of Labour staying firmer than the Lib Dems. Is it because there is no real yearning for an alternative to the left of Labour? But the SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales mop up a fair few votes between them. Is England so different? I doubt it. Is it because of tribalism, old loyalties and the incontrovertible fact that the Lib Dems themselves are just a bit too, well, airy-fairy for old Labour? Yes, certainly, a bit of that.
The fundamental reason, however much the left may dislike it, is Tony Blair. The Lib Dems are a scattered party, which has hitherto appealed to different kinds of people in different areas – the well-off middle classes here, the anti-Tory radicals there. Blair, having successfully driven the Tories to the right of sensible, is now doing the equivalent, on the left of the spectrum, to the Lib Dems.
Shortly after the 1997 election victory, Blair told Lib Dem leaders, in no uncertain terms, that he was going to have their ground. Yup, that great big scoop of terrain in the middle was going to be his, all his. The Lib Dems, he said, could either relinquish their little plot gracefully or stand with him in the centre. Well, as we all know now, Paddy Ashdown, then the leader of the Lib Dems, tried to join the gang, but was bullied out by the old Labourites (the likes of John Prescott). Ashdown’s successor, Charles Kennedy, had little choice but to occupy the space to the left of Labour. Yet in large parts of the country, he is appealing to basically right-wing voters. It is uncomfortable. It is not coherent. Voters, I suspect, have noticed. Nationally, the Lib Dems may be the public sector workers’ party. Locally, they are often very different.
But if old Labourites are not switching allegiances this time round, this still leaves a big question mark hanging over what will happen at the next election. For behind this rather dull campaign, a sensational shift is taking place in the whole structure of politics in this country. While everyone is yawning, a fundamental realignment of the political parties is happening.
When journalists who are not of a left-wing persuasion start to ask worriedly, “What about the workers?”, at a Labour election press conference, you know something is up. It happened on the day that Labour was proclaiming itself the party of business. “Yes,” said Tony Blair, “being close to business is a charge to which I plead guilty . . . ” Indeed, Blair’s instinctive hostility to the workers’ rights agenda articulated by the French prime minister, Lionel Jospin, along with scores of businessmen lining up to endorse Labour during this election campaign, are proof, if any were needed, that the party founded by the trade unions is no longer the party of the unions. Nor is it, as Ivor Crewe reports in this edition of the NS (page 19), any longer solely or even mainly the party of the working classes: barring an accident, Crewe expects the majority of the middle classes to vote Labour rather than Conservative on 7 June. So where does this leave the other parties?
Shrewd Labour MPs were arguing well before the campaign began that the Tories’ chief problem was that they had not yet had their 1983. They needed another smashing defeat that so traumatised and scared them, they would be forced to reform themselves into a more moderate party. On this reading, William Hague is less the Conservative answer to Neil Kinnock: he’s more their Michael Foot, hammering out the old music in the old way, as the new world passes by. The Conservatives have yet to produce their real reformers who might take them beyond Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps this means Michael Portillo, or somebody else whom we have barely heard of. Anyway, they seem to be out of the picture for a while. Blair may not be a great socialist, but he has proved to be a magnificent strategist. Once the election was won in 1997, his intention was to drive the Tories so far to the right that they seemed extremist and unelectable. With a bit of help from Hague, he has done just that.
So it is not surprising that Blair seems to be heading for a second landslide, perhaps even bigger than his first. But what happens when his vision of British politics is entrenched this summer? First, internal Labour Party politics becomes almost all-important – in particular, the Blair-Brown struggle, concentrated around the questions of Europe and the future power of the Treasury over the rest of the domestic agenda. Brown and Blair seem to be suggesting subtly different things about the EU, even at the height of the election campaign. The Chancellor talks about sovereignty and constitutional issues more readily, even if he then puts them to one side.
Brown would not, I feel sure, have raised the European question as openly and as lengthily as the Prime Minister did in his 25 May speech in Edinburgh, where he claimed that to be pro-European is patriotic. Brown is the guardian of the five economic tests and he wants to succeed Blair. Already, the obvious speculation has started. Is there a deal to be done? Will Brown give his go-ahead for the euro if he is promised the leadership in due course?
Talking about these things offends the spin-doctors and some ministers. Why can’t we talk about issues, not trivial battles between personalities? Yet, post-election, it looks as if the personal questions and the great issues of state will be intertwined as never before.
The opposition, meanwhile, will regroup. As the Tories try to sort out their own private grief, the real opposition will continue to move away from Westminster and towards special-interest groups – the unions, professional associations, business lobbies – and the media. Maybe a loose coalition of white-collar trade unions, respected professional voices in the health service, education and the criminal justice system, plus the Lib Dems, plus dissident Labour MPs, will give Blair a rougher time than he expects . . . and the public will side with the coalition, not the government.
For now, the voters enjoy little real choice. The Lib Dems are a long way from finding a coherent political philosophy that could steal back some of new Labour’s clothes. The Tories are nowhere. Blair stands on the very edge of a historic achievement – the redrawing of our political map. It will gain him the time he needs (he already has the taxes) to try to change public services for ever and maybe to get us irreversibly into Europe. But a natural balance will swing back against the centre left unless Blair shows that he understands both the dark and the bright sides of his win. New Labour needs an opposition. What form the new opposition takes will be one of the fascinating questions of the next parliament.