An odd thought occurred to me tonight for the first time. One of the great 'what if?' questions of British politics is what would have happened had the SDP-Liberal Alliance managed to do only very slightly better in 1983, and had overhauled Labour in the popular vote - the point being that such a breakthrough would have been purely psychological, because Labour would still have been miles ahead in terms of seats, and would still have been designated the 'official opposition'. There are two schools of thought - David Owen for one thought it would have made very little difference, as there was too much of a vested interest amongst the media in perpetuating the two-horse Labour-Tory battle. But there were many others who took a different view, and felt that there would have been huge moral pressure on the broadcasters in particular to recognise the Alliance as the 'real' opposition, thus offering them a launching-pad to leave Labour behind and start challenging the Tories for power in future elections.
Sounds superficially plausible, but you very quickly start to recognise the flaws in the theory when you apply it to current circumstances. Once again, we're in a situation where Labour appear to be in danger of slipping to third in the popular vote, but this time the first-past-the-post voting system shows every sign of getting them off the hook not merely by keeping them in second place in terms of seats, but potentially even by keeping them in first place. With the best will in the world, it's very hard to see how the media could treat the Conservatives as the 'moral' government and the Liberal Democrats as the 'moral' opposition to that government, when presented with the reality of the 'moral' third party forming a minority government, or leading a coalition. However, the good news is that at that point, the public will inevitably wake up to the utter affront to democracy the voting system has just presented them with, and will surely be moved to demand something be done about it at last.
Mind you, you'd have thought a 'majority' government being elected in 2005 on 35% of the vote might already have been enough to pull off that particular trick, but apparently not. (He said wearily...)