Lib-Dems push ahead | Voters desert Labour and Tories, says ICM poll

Voters desert Labour and Tories, says ICM poll | Special Reports | Guardian Unlimited Politics

The most recent ICM poll shows that the Cameron factor is failing, and the Brown factor is unlikely to do Labour any favours, according to the Guardian today. By contrast, support for Lib-Dems has risen ahead of next week’s council elections, and smaller parties are also set to benefit.

Looking at polls is, in some senses, a mug’s game, because the only poll that actually counts is the one where voters turn out and make their mark on a ballot (or do the same thing by post or through a proxy). We won’t have to wait long for that one.

But.

In another sense polls of this kind give us information which is broader and in some ways more useful than the real poll. Local elections are fought on local issues, and every party will take both comfort and discomfort from next week in surprising places. The ICM poll gives us a picture of the next general election.

It seems that the next general election is highly likely to give us a hung parliament. In the past this would have been seen as electoral disaster, but the lesson first of Scotland and now also of Wales is that hung parliaments can lead to extremely rich and rewarding government by partnership and consensus. What is more, the lesson is that this works when both partners are equal in government. Britain’s coalition misfortunes of the past have largely been a result of the tendency of larger partners to expect the smaller partners to be grateful for being allowed in government at all. The results were unstable, unsatisfying, and left both with a sour aftertaste. Scotland’s productive coalition has been based on equal say and equal influence — a recognition that both partners are necessary for the government to function. In this environment, good policy has (largely) flourished, and bad policy has floundered.

We should remember that the Liberal Democrats went into the first Scottish elections with two key aims — to abolish tuition fees, and to provide free long term care for the elderly. Before the election, Labour candidates effectively stated that, whatever happened, those two aims would certainly not succeed. However, once the coalition was formed, both policies were put through. The first term of the Scottish parliament was memorable for precisely three things it achieved. Two of them were these two Liberal Democrat policies. The third was the commencement of construction of the Scottish parliament building, which ultimately went vastly over budget and has prompted widespread criticism.

At this point nobody can say who the partners might be in a putative Westminster coalition. But the lesson of Scotland is that coalitions can work, and that it is the party with the best ideas and most consistent policies which will achieve its aim, not necessarily the party with the most seats.

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