Rumblings and stumblings in September; The tipping point; One man's progressive is another man's ...; Going forward
One Monday, back in September, I was at home reading our family's paper of choice, The Times. Inside it Nick Clegg had a guest column, scheduled to coincide with the start of the Liberal Democrat Autumn conference and the publication of a pamphlet, by Clegg, titled The Liberal Moment. In it, the leader of the third party argued for a change, writing:
'in the same way that Labour eclipsed a tired Liberal Party almost a century ago, the Liberal Democrats now offer a new rallying point for a resurgent progressive movement in Britain, replacing Labour as the dominant force of progressive politics' (The Times, Sept 17, 2009)
Despite this optimism the conference turned out to be rather rough. Clegg had to defend his coarse proclamation that 'savage cuts' were needed to tackle the deficit and then risked a backlash from the Lib Dem's strong student base when the possibility of scrapping the flagship policy to abolish tuition fees was floated. Even Vince Cable, so popular amongst party activists, was criticised for a lack of consultation before announcing his well-intentioned, yet sketchy, plans for a mansion tax. Despite the bruising, at the end of the week Clegg, undeterred, declared he wanted the top job, he wanted to be Prime Minister. The media reacted in predictably skeptical fashion. After all, it was like watching a 10-year old boy with little coordination, struggle to kick a ball round a field before turning to tell you he's going to play for England when he's older.
Now, with less than three weeks to go to the general election, Clegg's ambitious statement seems less like a ten year old's fanciful dream and more like Bobby Zamora's hopes of going to the World Cup. It's unlikely that Clegg will become PM as it is that the Fulham striker will be off to South Africa, but both look a lot more plausible than they did back in September. Whilst Zamora's goals have cut down European giants Juventus and quarter-final opponents Wolfsburg, Clegg has been cutting into the poll leads of the traditional heavyweights of British politics. And it all started with last week's much-hyped debate.
Clegg didn't do anything special in the debate. He spoke directly to both the audience in the room and at home whilst trying to paint the Lib Dems as, not only the party to succeed Labour as the leading progressive force in this country, but also, as opposed to the Conservatives, the leading force for change. All four polls conducted immediately after the debate finished deemed this a winning strategy, creating a media frenzy that rumbled through Friday and Saturday before erupting on Sunday. First off The Mail on Sunday produced a poll placing the Lib Dems top for the first time in over a century before the usually astute Sunday Times declared the new kid on the block nearly as popular as some guy called Churchill. Cleggmania was here.
It certainly shook the opposition leaders into action as the surge of the party in yellow placed target seats around the country in danger. Brown and Cameron came to a rare moment of agreement that scrutiny must be upped on Liberal Democrat policy while Cameron made a last-minute change to Monday's party political broadcast, replacing an attack on New Labour's time in office with a vacuous, presidential style advert for himself. As Cameron seeks to keep his hopes of an overall majority alive, Brown has started making overtures to the Liberal Democrats leader, seeing a Lib-Lab coalition as a way of returning him to 10 Downing Street. Clegg is yet to bite, dismissing Brown today as a 'desperate politician'. This has led to the mooting in some corners of a coalition in which the removal of the hapless Scot is the dealbreaker, paving the way to PM for one of the many waiting in line for Brown's departure. Whilst more appetising than half a decade of Cameron and chums, five more years with New Labour at the helm of British politics hardly enlivens the taste buds. But, were a coalition to be formed, it must be asked to what extent would the Liberals lead Britain towards a more progressive future?
Cleggmania is a bubble that has been inflated by all sections of the media over the past week, yet to say that it represents 'a new rallying point for a resurgent progressive movement in Britain' is a far cry from the truth. The Liberal Democrats are looking to pursue the ruthless cuts advocated by both other parties whilst policies such as the abolition of tuition fees and the raising of the income tax threshold to £10,000, though more progressive than the Tories and Labour, will predominantly benefit the middle class. The lack of discourse on Afghanistan makes it easy to forget the country is at war, yet when it is mentioned Clegg sings very much from the same hymn sheet as Brown and Cameron. A pledge for a phased withdrawal would not only be the sensible and popular choice but also likely bring the backing of a major national newspaper in The Independent. The choice of Liberal Democrat slogan for this General Election says a lot about the lack of diversity amongst the three main parties. 'Change that works for you/Building a fairer Britain' acts simply as a compound of the Tories 'Vote for Change' and Labour's 'A future fair for all'.
The Lib Dems will get my vote on May 6th. Not because of the last week but because, out of the dearth of left-wing candidates running in York Outer, they lie closest to my beliefs. Nationally, Brown and Cameron have two weeks and two debates to stick a pin in the Clegg Bubble that has expanded beyond all expectations since last Thursday. Expect too see a sustained attack from both sides on the issue of Trident in the foreign affairs debate tomorrow and a continued level of scrutiny right through to election day. Whilst the last week's hysteria has gone somewhat overboard, I hope they don't succeed. With a hung parliament we can perhaps see some form of progressive politics restored in Britain, but I hold no delusions as to the extent we are likely to get.