Here’s Exhibit A: Vince Cable’s closing remarks in the Channel 4 Ask the Chancellors debate last Monday night.
“The Labour government led us into this mess … The Tories presided over two big recessions in office, they wasted most of the North Sea oil revenue, they sold off the family silver on the cheap."
“Now they want to have another turn to get their noses in the trough and reward their rich backers. The Liberal Democrats are different. We got this crisis basically right. We are not beholden to either the super rich or militant unions.”
Neither Labour nor the Tories can be trusted. They’ve both let us down for years and they’re both in the pocket of vested interests.
And here’s Exhibit B: the new guerilla marketing campaign for “the Labservatives”, which accuses Labour and the Conservatives of being interchangeable, offering the same failed politics, more of the same
Both exhibits follow on from Nick’s conference speeches and the New Year’s message. The Lib Dems are using the archetype of “stopping the rot at the top”, inviting voters to cast a plague on both their houses – “they’re just as bad as each other”. This is the same narrative that the Liberals used in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1979 general election campaign, for instance, David Steel framed Labour and the Tories as “two Conservative parties", one a failed government, the other a reactionary alternative.
So, after all the angst about the Liberal Democrats’ need for a narrative, we’re replaying an old tune from the days of Jo Grimond, Jeremy Thorpe and David Steel. And, as Max Atkinson has pointed out, “they’re just as bad as each other” is the sort of “yah-boo” politics that Liberals and Liberal Democrats have always deplored.
That’s not quite the end of it though. These days, the party includes specific policies and issues in the story and makes it more positive. In 1997, the last time a government was on its way out, Paddy Ashdown told people that every vote the Lib Dems received, every seat the party won was a vote for real change. He told people what those changes were and looked and sounded like a man of action.
This time, Nick Clegg has his four reasons to vote for the Liberal Democrats. They have a common theme, fairness, but so far, the linking story, or archetype, is harder to see. And he still has to show how a third party could use greater political influence to turn those promises into a reality. Otherwise, the story won’t have a happy ending.