Posted by Tania Kindersley.
(Health warning: long political post.)
Exhausted by the wave of Cleggmania sweeping the country, I took the weekend off. I tried to think of diverting things, like daffodils and the first tiny white blossoms on my philadelphus. I even made chicken soup, for God's sake. But all the time, like a small rodent scratching at the skirting board, a tiny voice in my brain was trying to work out exactly what it was about the Liberal Democrats that disturbs me so.
I should love the Lib Dems. They are all for the kind of progressive policies that warm my battered old bleeding heart. I remember, years ago, getting very excited about the SDP, and not just because of David Owen's saturnine looks and delightfully drawling speaking style. I am a Labour voter who has grown horribly disillusioned with Gordon Brown; surely lovely shiny Nick should be my first port of call? Surely I should want to do the Pasa Doble with dear old uncle Vince?
It's a visceral thing, I am ashamed to admit. I pride myself on empiricism and reason. I have even read the damn manifesto, which almost killed me. Some of the policies I agree with, some I don't, which is pretty much the case with all three parties. I like the idea of taking those earning less than £10,000 out of income tax, although the £10 billion in government efficiencies and savings that will pay for half of it is left rather vague. (The vagueness is also common to all three parties, so I can't really blame the Libs for that.) Smaller class sizes are always good, although again I am not certain where the money comes from. Oddly, some of the policies are very similar to those of the Tories: a commitment to localism, a determination to slash quangos, even an attack on bad IT systems and mad bureaucracy.
The big difference is the enduring commitment to the Euro. The Liberal Democrats are mad on Europe, even though both Clegg and Cable have had to admit that it would have been catastrophic for the economy if Britain was now tied to the single currency. Despite this, they confirm that they are still in favour of joining it when the time is right.
I cannot bear the little England knee-jerk reaction to the European Union. At the same time, I think that where we are is pretty much right, and the further integration of which the Lib Dems dream would not suit cussed old Blighty.
For all that, it is not the policies that are holding me back. It is the whiff of hypocrisy.
Hypocrisy in politics, I hear you cry. What next? Soundbites? Spin? Broken promises? Well, yes, but the point is that Mr Clegg won Britain's Got Political Talent by presenting himself as a pristine outsider, the keeper of the New Politics Flame, unlike anything we had ever seen before. He is up on the mountain top, pointing the way to the New Jerusalem. He is all honesty, all the time.
Except he is not. For starters, as I have pointed out before, he is promising things he knows he cannot deliver. He refuses even to discuss a hung parliament, when that is the best he can hope for, should his poll numbers hold. That is not new politics; if you were being stern, you could call it rank dishonesty. In his fudging of the question, he is traditional politics in action.
Honest Vince performed the exact same old politics when asked about the very first poster in the Liberal Democrat campaign, which told the alarmed electorate that it would pay £339 more a year in taxes under The Conservatives. The poster was illustrated with a huge bomb, to represent the potential explosion in VAT. This was predicated not on a Tory pledge to raise VAT, but because they have not ruled it out. When asked how he knew of the secret Tory plan to hike VAT rates, Cable said it was because previous Conservative governments have done so, neglecting to mention that thirteen years have passed since then. So it's a guess? pressed the dogged Jon Sopel. Upright Vince admitted that it was 'a prediction'. Finally, after a bit of running about the houses, he confessed that his very own party would not rule out a rise in VAT either.
So: the Liberal Democrats, those glorious transformers of old politics, were playing the oldest game in the book. Scare the voters with a claim based on a hunch rather than a fact, and do everything in your power to obfuscate the fact that your own policy is exactly the same.
I would not mind this so much if it was what it was. Everyone plays a few political games at election time, and usually the voters are smart enough to work out what is going on. But you really can't have it both ways. If you say that you are the only person in the living world who can end the game, you can't go on playing it yourself. You just can't. It is this hypocritical stance that makes me read the Liberal Democrat manifesto with a sceptical eye.
The other thing that bothers me is the gap between the rhetoric on the television and the behaviour on the ground. Lib Dems are famous for running dirty tricks in local and national election campaigns. It's such an old meme among the political classes that it hardly needs mentioning. It's one of those things like rain at Wimbledon; so stitched into the fabric of national life that you almost don't notice it.
These tactics are not horrendous high scandals. They usually involve small dishonesties, minor bendings of the rules, ad hominem attacks. In Durham, for instance, a Liberal Democrat contacted the Tory candidate to suggest running smears against the Roberta Blackman-Woods, who is standing for Labour. The Tory, to his credit, refused, and immediately contacted the local press. What was interesting was not so much the cheapness of the thing, but that no one was surprised.
In Wavertree, a similar act of pettiness was revealed when the Liberal Democrat tried to jump on the bandwagon of a campaign by the Shields family to get their son out of a Bulgarian prison. Pamphlets were sent out with prominent pictures of the family, used without their permission, despite the Lib Dem having had nothing to do with getting their son out of jail. The Shields were absolutely livid.
In Kingston, Liberal Democrat MPs launched an emotive campaign to Save the Kingston Hospital, which sounds like a marvellous idea until you discover that no one had any plans to close it down. In a lucky piece of right place, right time, The Mirror's Kevin McGuire happened to be on a train where the fellow who invented the fake story was bragging about it. Mr McGuire turned at once to Twitter: 'Train bloke now boasting hospital scare story cooked up at his kitchen table. Very proud of Facebook following.' Train bloke turned out to be Lib Dem activist, Dan Falchikov.
None of this is criminal, but it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. I am certain that neither of the other two parties are whiter than snow when fighting for votes. Early in the campaign, Labour sent out alarmist leaflets to cancer sufferers virtually insisting that a Tory government would kill them off. (Ironically, it was not a million miles away from the right-wing opposition to President Obama's healthcare bill, when unscrupulous politicians insisted it would kill grandma, and Sarah Palin cantered about talking of 'death panels'.) The Tories did a stupid poster trashing a Labour idea about paying for care for the elderly that was not even a policy yet.
The problem of it all is that the Lib Dems will swank about presenting themselves as the lovely, kind, new, fluffy party of the people. There has always been a whiff of holier than thou about them, but it is now in overdrive. If your central selling point is that you are new and clean and different, you can't just say that and expect it to be true by mere repetition, and to hell with the facts. The Lib Dems fight dirty, and they are not untainted by the expenses scandal or the matter of non-doms. Look at them for more than ten minutes, and you find that they are just as old politics as their opponents.
Should I mind so much about all this? I have a horrible, lurking feeling that the electorate is being conned. Perhaps it should not matter, and I should go back to the manifesto and vote on policies alone. But I cannot shake the conviction that, as I have written before, character matters. Call me old-fashioned, but hypocritical posturing is not, in my book, a desirable personality trait.
Thank you for letting me get that off my chest. I shall not test your patience for so long again.
Tomorrow it will be all puppy dogs and butterflies:
Or perhaps a mystical contemplation of the loveliness of sheep, since it is the lambing season:
Or a salute to men who can really wear those old time fifties suits:
(Delightful photograph by Andrew Paynter.)
Or a consideration of the cloud of Icelandic ash that hovers over us all:
Or a tribute to the red telephone box, even if it did always smell slightly of pee:
Or really anything to take my mind off the fact that we are hurtling towards the unspeakable mess of a hung parliament all because someone was not that bad on television.