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Friday, 16 April 2010

So, what will change?

A big night last night. It feels like the morning after a cup final or even an election itself. Nick Clegg's team will perhaps feel as though they did win a cup final last night. Widely declared as the winner - for whatever reason - Clegg and the Lib Dems will be feeling high as kites this morning after last night's success. It could not have gone better.

Just take this morning's headlines. Long complaining of being squeezed out of the debate or overshadowed by events, not even the closure of the entire UK airspace bumped Clegg off the headlines. "Clegg comes of age" shouted the Telegraph. "Clegg smashes two-party system" claimed the Independent.

Make no mistake, last night's debate will have changed our politics. Leaders debates will always now be a feature of our General Elections. Many worried the debates would be too sterile. Lack of audience participation aside, they weren't sterile. They were a good cross between the organisation of American debates and the cut and thrust of PMQs.

The biggest change - and the reason why Nick Clegg did so well - was because last night was a glimpse of a bigger politics than the two-party system we've been saddled with for generations. Clegg was allowed to speak and not be heckled or jeered at by the unfairness of the House of Commons system. We saw a politics that wasn't just about a choice between Labour and the Conservatives. Three arguments as opposed to two was exciting. And you got the sense that Nick Clegg represented all those who wanted to break into the political system, to put their view across, be listened to and empowered to make a difference.

But it was just a glimpse. What will it change? In the first post debate poll, Sky had the Tories on 35%, Labour on 27% and the Lib Dems on 26%. At a general election, this would translate in to Labour losing 100 seats, Tories gaining 82 seats and the Lib Dems gaining 17. It would leave the Conservatives a whopping 38 seats short of an overall majority. It is crazy to think that, even if they gained more than a quarter of the percentage of the vote, the Lib Dems would still have less than a sixth of the MPs in the Commons. The most damaging aspects of two-party politics - in the electoral system - must surely be changed. Without doing so, we are short-changing the electorate. People don't vote Lib Dem because they think they won't get in - we need to reform the voting system so that it gives every party the chance for their percentage of the vote to be fairly reflected in the number of seats it has.

These debates need to act as the spur for real electoral reform. If a majority gave Clegg the win, it was probably as much a vote against two-party politics as it was a vote for Clegg. Bold government needs to ask the people whether it is time for a change to our electoral system as well as the government we select.

What else will change? The Lib Dems are certain to get a bounce from the debate. Clegg may feel sobered this morning by the fact that he still has two more to get through. But a win is a win, and the Lib Dems will generate momentum in the polls. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Lib Dems pushing 25 or 26% in the next poll. This would have a catastrophic effect on the Tories strategy to win their 118 marginal seats, 30 of which are Lib Dem held. They need all of them - and every increase in the Lib Dem vote puts Cameron's majority at risk. The Lib Dem's gains are likely to be at Labour's expense - and Labour could slip below 30% at the next poll.

Last night was fascinating. What is fascinating now is the effect of the debates on the polls. Last night appears to have made a Tory outright majority less likely. But the proof will be in the polls we get tonight - and whether Clegg can keep this effort up.

As for Brown? I can't remember one thing he said last night. Clearly in third place, he needs to make sure he doesn't slip to third in the overall polls too.

PREDICTION: Hung Parliament - Conservatives short by 10

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