UK Election: Has Clegg Hung 'em?

The first party leaders TV debate created a historic opening for the Liberal Democrats and maybe - just maybe - the beginning of the end of Britain's old regime
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
17 April 2010

Nick Clegg’s breakthrough was stunning. It was not so much what he said (although in an enervating exchange on immigration at least he said there is "good immigration") as the way he said it and the aura he radiated. The other two were locked in their spin-doctored brains, he spoke directly to camera and to the public. To us! More important still, while the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition were men of their machines, Clegg spoke out as if he is a confident member of the public, like one of us.

Until today, the fact that they are politicians who, more or less, put principle before power has been a crippling weakness for the Lib Dems in the British system. But now political office has become so tainted that the two main contenders seem degraded rather than elevated by their closeness to No 10. Thus Paddy Ashdown, even though he was palpably the superior as a leader to John Major and Neil Kinnock when he was up against them, was prevented by the whole setup from even being seen even as their equal. Things are different for Ashdown’s heir. The fact that he is not close to office, far from working against Clegg, gives him a positive advantage over those who are. This is a measure of the crisis of the British state.

There were three reasons for Clegg’s success, which is what makes it so exciting. First, there was the personal opportunity offered by the debate format. This was the opportunity gifted to Clegg by Mandelson’s negotiation of the TV debates (why he did it is a delicious subject for further speculation). Clegg took it gloriously. TV debates are a strange kind of gladiatorial combat where confidence, height, manner, all count for far too much, as us ordinary, ugly mortals seek to be ruled by glamour, strength and wisdom. Clegg pulled it off. What exactly? The trick of being utterly political about appearing to be genuine and non-political. I am not accusing him of  cynicism. But his performance was not naïve, it was controlled. The moment I liked best - because I felt it was true - was when he said that "all my life" he’d opposed the rotten nature of the Westminster system.

Second, while the three-way debate made it possible for Clegg to present himself as the equal of the two main contenders (no small feat in itself); this became a reality because they both needed him. When Paddy Ashdown threw stones at their stately carriage of bipartisan monopoly power, they just bounced off. This time, Brown and Cameron were leaning out what has become a battered wagon of state trying to catch Clegg’s missiles for their own advantage. They wanted him both numerically, because of the ‘arithmetic’ of power in the Commons, and also psephologically they still want voters in the crucial marginals that he appeals to and represents. The paradox of leaders’ debates in a parliamentary system is that we cannot in fact vote directly for them. They may be presidential in format. But what we have in today’s UK is an elected monarchy whose throne is a compost heap of MPs. Had it been a contest for a directly elected president, the third party figure would have been ganged up on and scorned by the two bigger brutes fighting for straight votes. But when the very best that Labour can hope for is being the slightly bigger party in terms of seats on the basis of fewer popular votes and thus must rely on Liberal Democratic support to get back, and when the Tories need Liberal England to clinch their marginals, the system makes the Lib Dems the catch of the day. This allowed Clegg to be dismissive of Brown and Cameron while they had to grin and be nice back to him, lending him their stature in the process. First, he looked the part, second the two leaders agreed that he was the part. By becoming their equal he – and potentially Britain – gained the most.

The extraordinary fact that both Conservatives and Labour need the Liberal Democrats points to a deeper issue. The two big beasts are both losing - even though tactically neither have made mistakes over the last few weeks. I intend to write about the underlying reason for this later. The fundamental point can be signaled by saying that Brown and Cameron shared the same strategic catastrophe of deciding around 2006, as Blair stepped down, that they had to carry on from Blair in the way that Blair continued on from Thatcher, and not break from him. Which of them is Blair-plus or Blair-minus is beside the point. The public has had it up to here with Blairism, meaning the politics he personified  – dishonesty, celebrity, slickness, money-grubbing vacuity. The anger over the expenses crisis was not just about MPs but about the brazenly corrupt culture it displayed, which much of the public feel is best (meaning worst) represented by the former Prime Minister’s love of American power.

The financial meltdown, however, demolished the Blairite assumptions on which both Brown and Cameron had based their strategies. The crisis forced Brown finally to run against himself and appear to be different, a regulator and high taxer serious about appearing to make Britain 'fairer'. Blair could never have carried this off. While the crash ruined Cameron’s gamble that Blairism’s combination of free-market and public sector growth would carry on working.

The result was a paradox made visible last night. Neither can emerge as a leader called by history to deal with the multiple crisis we have. Brown banged on his ‘big theme’, saving the economy this year. He thereby traded on people’s fear for their jobs, especially of everyone like himself working in the public sector. And just about managed to present himself as a saviour from the consequences of high Blairism, who can take us  out of its valley of death even though he led us into it.

But while Brown did enough to rescue himself from his legacy to climb back from record low polls, Cameron is still struggling to reposition himself after the collapse of the Blairite bubble he hoped would lift him to office as the great man’s “heir”. Hence the closeness of the race.

The frustration felt by some is well captured by Alex Massie in his Spectator blog,  “time and time again Cameron declined to call Brown out”. At a tactical level it seems the Conservative spin doctors decided that as it was a presidential style debate Cameron should style himself presidentially. But this didn’t work and it allowed Brown to appear to know what he wanted to do while Cameron had neither a clear line of march out of the recession nor a clear sense of why he will be different (I suppose you could score one for his honesty on this) apart from the fact that he won’t be Brown.

His ‘Big Society’ theme is a muddle, what’s big about having to run one’s own school? While Henry Porter has pointed out that Cameron has turned down the opportunity argued for by Dominic Grieve for a great repeal act to sweep away Labour’s database state. Why? It would have provided him with a popular and distinctive platform.  Given the constraints economically you’d have thought this would be a gift – to prove that in office a Cameron administration would not use the state like Brown and give an edge to the 'Big Society' theme. Instead, one suspects the baleful influence of Murdoch here. Yet again, Cameron's Blairism was showing. The surveillance and database state is an option he has retained. Perhaps his training would require this - the linkage between Big Society and Paranoid Society doesn't seem to have occurred to him. In short he seems two-faced: a control freak masked as a man of the people.

It was for this reason, perhaps, that international policy wonks scored the result as a Brown victory (which shows how much experts understand). However, it is worth noting that Cameron remains the most formidable candidate and showed he will be quite at ease if he gets into No 10. He has a genuine executive confidence which was on display. Clegg has yet to face this challenge. It’s a measure of a critically important advance for the Tories since the debacle of the John Major years. Only a short time ago Brown was able to declare that it was no time for “novices”. Though directed at Miliband as well, the barb stuck to Cameron. Now there is no doubt, he is a ‘born’ leader. Another contrast here is with Blair before 1997. He was desperate to win and utterly focused on doing so. But he was clearly very inexperienced and knew it whereas Cameron was a denizen of the Treasury in his twenties and is waiting to inherit. There is no doubt at all about his electability.

Cameron had the most to lose - and probably he lost most. He remains the favorite to win the election but he lost the chance to set out ‘Cameronism’ or a new direction. He failed to impose himself as the moderniser with a touch of steel who could provide the fresh leadership the county needs (excuse the clichés but that is what TV debates are – battles of the cliché). He may become prime minister, but it will be as an interim figure in all likelihood.

David Marquand has shrewdly tabbed Cameron as a ‘Whig Imperialist’. Unlike Thatcher he belongs to the main Conservative tradition of one-nation Toryism, genuinely seeking to include the ‘poorer’ sections of society while retaining a global union state. The problem is that he’s a Whig imperialist without an empire, with Scotland having its own government and Europe breathing down our necks. Alastair Stewart, the debate’s master of ceremonies, kept on reminding us that this or that question didn’t relate to Scotland, or Northern Ireland. It seems he wasn't able to say it directly, that the question would relate to England. The word, and the national question went unmentioned by the big three, who proceeded as if there isn’t a problem. Had Cameron called for a referendum on the EU’s Lisbon Treaty because he’d promised one, the whole debate would have been quite different and he would have become the anti-Establishment outsider promising the people their voice. Instead, as Anthony Painter wrote in his immediate responses, Cameron appeared “remarkably nestled in the old politics”. This gave Clegg his chance to be the real opposition and become the possessor of the ‘Yes, we can’ factor.

Some commentators are already comparing Clegg to Blair, as another young outsider promising change based merely on appearance. I think this is unfair. The Lib Dems stand for clear, structural changes, not least to the electoral system itself, should they have any influence on power. The key challenge they now face is that the two main parties will “train their big guns” on the Lib Dems to make them appear incredible and lightweight and frighten the people into defaulting back to the old regime. Here, both Clegg and his team and democrats across Britain should be saying more than that the Lib Dems can’t be worse than Labour or the Conservatives. The case against them both is stronger: despite their differences, the two parties that have dominated since 1945 present a threat to our democracy and have to be stopped (as I argued in last month's New Statesman).  

This is why the promise of a breakthrough by the Lib Dems is so welcome. How can it be best supported? The media will want to take possession of the promise of change by reinforcing the personification of the challenge. But what Clegg appealed to was a wider revulsion from the two main parties. he must try and keep the focus on the public he appealed to last night, not himself. If his party can stay open-minded it will win the right to head a wide coalition.

It would be a tragedy, for example, if a rise of support for the Lib Dems led to the defeat of Caroline Lucas in Brighton and let in the Labour candidate while preventing the Greens from gaining any representation in trhe Commons.

In the Question Time that immediately followed the leaders debate, David Dimbleby questioned whether it was possible to vote for a Hung Parliament. Hitherto, it was the unintended consequence of the results, not an outcome voters souight to choose. But now polls are showing a positive desire in the public to prevent one-party rule.Two days before the debate The Times reported, “The latest poll shows that 32 per cent of the public now hope for a hung parliament (as opposed to expecting one), against 28 per cent wanting a Tory majority and 22 per cent a Labour one”.

There is a real chance now of a hung parliament and even a hung parliament-plus, in which along with independents and SNP and Plaid, there could be a majority in the Commons that does not include either the Tory or Labour Party. When some of us launched Hang ‘em yesterday we said “We have got to renew democracy in Britain. They won't, so hang 'em until they do”. I thought it will take five to ten years. It could now be much sooner. It may be time to fan-up on facebook and start organising - and prepare for the backlash from the powers-that-be and their corporate friends. The breadth of argument now exploring and supporting a hung parliament is impressive, from Timothy Garton Ash at the Guardian to Simon Burrell at Ekklesia, it can be seen logged in on the facebook wall. It needs more inputs and help, it is time to turn from spectatorship to what Sunny Hundal at Liberal Conspiracy calls "infrastructure". Nick Clegg has opened up a rare opportunity, let's Hang 'em.

Thanks to OK team for quick help and Rosemary Bechler for some phrases.

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