Cleggmania: the brutal unknowns for Labour
I saw Gordon Brown laugh today - not just smile but genuinely laugh in during a moment of confusion in a press conference. In fact Labour's whole machine, gathered at Bloomberg's HQ in London for an economy press briefing, seems to have lightened up. Two reasons:
First, as one senior Labour person put it to me: getting to the first weekend after the debates without Cameron establishing momentum and an unassailable lead was always going to be a result. They now feel they have done more than that.
Second: the impact of Cleggmania. Here's the brutal logic, as explained to me by a Labour strategist. There are about 35 Tory/Lib Dem marginals the Conservatives have to win to form a majority. Cleggmania makes that harder. There are, maximum, 15 Labour-Lib Dem marginals that could harm Labour (these are the party's calculations, of course, not mine).
Then there are "about 100" straight Lab-Cons marginals that will decide the election.
The way Labour's high command thinks about these seats is as follows:
a) Some of Cleggmania is coming from people who are naturally centre-right and would have voted Conservative, but now like the idea of Nick Clegg.
b) Some of Cleggmania is really Vincemania, and is coming from people who are naturally centre-left, who want PR, want to break up the banks etc.
In Labour-Tory marginals, for the past two elections, some Lib Dems have voted tactically against the Conservatives. But if this phenomenon were to stop, or be diluted, that changes the electoral calculus quite brutally for Labour.
There is a third part of the demographic that is difficult to quantify because it is new. My hunch, based on a number of conversations with party workers and pollsters, is that quite a bit of Cleggmania is coming from young, first-time voters who may not have voted before. If it's true the Lib Dems have "captured the anti-politics zeitgeist" then we are not talking about a swing but an injection of new force into the election.
Such new voters may not be in any mood to be told they are wasting their (first ever or long-disused) vote if they vote Lib Dem. And they may not be natural tactical voters either.
It's also clear that a part of the electorate is revelling in the possibility of a hung parliament; possibly because it a) blows apart the two-party consensus and b) is exactly what the banking industry keeps saying it doesn't want. A hung parliament, by this logic, punishes both the politicians and the bankers.
So Cleggmania does pose a problem for Labour. But what it also does is define their task quite brutally, in those 100 marginals. No-one in Labour would say it openly but they need to turn Cleggmania there into pro-Labour tactical voting. Do they know this? I can assure you that they do. What they do not know yet is what the political cost of this is going to be: what is the new offer they have to make, either to the Lib Dem front bench or the Lib Dem voting base.
You can be certain that this is on their minds.