The UK election campaign and its start has come with some real surprises:
1. The major parties agreed to live television debates
There had not been live television debates between the major party leaders before. They are usually demanded by the leaders of the opposition when poll numbers are unfavourable (and favoured -- at least lukewarmly -- by governments who need a poll boost). The combination of factors has never been right before. For example, while Tony Blair originally had called for live debates, this then ended where it became clear he held a large lead over John Major's Tories.
The conditions now? Well, Labour has been consistently down in the polls and the Conservatives have for some time been arguing for a debate. Self-interest with a few to gaining/increasing poll advantage seems to be a real factor. The Liberal Democrats and other parties have long called for such debates as well.
2. An interesting result in the "chancellor debate"
The Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat parties put forward their candidates to become the Chancellor of the Exchequer in a live television debate very recently. Those of you wondering "so did the Tories or Labour do best?" the answer is "neither": the clear winner of the night were the Liberal Democrats. Their Treasury Spokesman, Vince Cable, is currently perhaps the most popular politician in the UK.
3. An interesting result in the "prime ministerial debates"
The three major parties clashed again in the first of three prime ministerial debates. Again, the Liberal Democrats were the major winners with their leader, Nick Clegg, now enjoying popularity never seen since Winston Churchill.
I suspect this will continue. The next two debates are on foreign policy and the economy. The Liberal Democrats have positioned themselves beautifully as different, as real chance, as politics not as usual. On major issues they stand alone. For example, on expenses only the Liberal Democrats came out relatively unscathed. For another, only they opposed the war with Iraq. Again, only they opposed the introduction of student top up fees that increased costs to study at university. They also sit on popular sides on other issues. They agree with the Conservatives that we should not have Labour's ID card scheme rolled out. Yet, they also agree with Labour that now is not the time for draconian cuts in public spending for fear it might damage the recovery.
The results thus far are (after two debates) Lib Dem 2 and Con/Lab 0. Again, Lib Dems have pitched themselves well as the genuine alternative. I suspect talk of change and fair futures is the battle that they want.
4. Style over substance?
You know the political times have changed when Labour -- with Gordon Brown's line "you can airbrush your posters, but not your policies" against David Cameron -- and the Conservatives think that the Liberal Democrats have them beat on style. A third party superior . . . on style? Some say that the more the public learns about the party, the less popular they will become. Perhaps. This line was last recited by John McCain's campaign about Barack Obama. A precedent?
One surprise here is that this kind of commentary almost always comes from fellow political scientists -- erm, should they already know what the Lib Dem's policies are . . . ?
A second surprise is that perhaps one result of the expenses scandal is that the public is genuinely fed up with politics as usual. They may not accept Labour Party promises for change given that they have been in power for over a dozen years. Nor may they accept Conservative Party promises for change as, well, a party they have seen and known of before. All the more reason why we may have begun to see a new interest -- and a new level of genuine support -- for the Liberal Democrats.
My original prediction was that the Labour Party would win. This is not a projection of which party I would like to win, but a prediction of who I believe would win given the numbers. I believe this may still be the case, although I am warming up to the idea that a hung parliament being more likely rather than less likely if support to the Liberal Democrats continues.
A major political note: if there is a hung parliament, the Liberal Democrats may well hit the jackpot as they will almost certainly join with whichever party forms a majority -- although I think a Labour-Lib Dem coalition most likely (and workable).
Three party politics is back.