Monday, 19 April 2010

The Nick Clegg Factor

People said they have found the current UK parliamentary election campaign to be dull.  I suppose after the big changes that happened in the USA it must seem a little downbeat, not helped by the fact that people have been talking about the election for so long.  The Conservatives' haranguing of Prime Minister Gordon Brown to call the election may have backfired on all the parties as we feel we have been in the midst of the campaign already for six months if not longer.  To some degree, the mudanity of this campaign conceals how much of a crossroads we have reached in British politics.  Whichever party comes to power it is going to be tough for them as we attempt to clear up the mess in the economy left by the greedy bankers, who of course are already back to their old dangerous tricks, though it was nice to see Goldman Sachs, the leading investment bank in the USA being charged with fraud.  I do hope they suffer harsh penalties for their criminal behaviour, but as yet am not confident they will.  However, the key point in the UK is how we cope with the recession.  It is clear that both Labour and the Conservatives want to cut public expenditure, it is just an issue of in which areas and how fast.  What has become apparent from the speeches of David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader is that if he comes to power with a majority we will see economic policies of a harshness not witnessed in the UK since after the 1983 election. 

This will mean sustained high unemployment and a damage to British industry, let alone to those dependent on social welfare.  Such an approach will increase the divisions in society as people will look for easy scapegoats and will blame people from abroad or other parts of the UK.  This is already what many employers are looking for as they feel the 'whip' of unemployment to get long hours on insecure terms and bad conditions out of workers on frozen or depressed salaries has become too weak in recent years.  High unemployment, they feel, works in their behaviour.  Partly they are right, because given the UK has long been a low income economy and yet people have high levels of consumption based on credit, they can afford to reduce the domestic demand without impinging as heavily on domestic sales in the way you might expect to be the case.

Given the nature of the MPs who would come in with Cameron, we will see the House of Commons with an very elitist flavour with apparently 68 of these MPs coming straight from the banking sector that needs to be reined in.  Brown will have a challenge in restraining outrageous bank behaviour, but Cameron and his MPs will have no interest in even attempting to do this.  Like many people of my generation and even younger, we really fear a return to the 1980s which is not the big hair, cocktail glamour that it is portrayed as now, but millions of people suffering years of unemployment, low incomes and whole swathes of the UK simply being wastelands of boarded up shops and houses, as a result.  Thus, this is actually a very important election.  There is the other factor of preventing the rise of the racist BNP (British National Party) and their watered down equivalent UKIP (UK Independence Party), both of which seem perched on the edge of getting some representation and no doubt will locally in the areas with local elections on the same day as the general election.

Another factor which makes this election interesting is the possibility that it has suddenly become a three-party race.  That has not been the case, probably, since 1923 when the Conservatives had 234 seats, Labour 188 seats and the Liberals 183 seats.  The eclipsing of the Liberal Party by the Labour Party in the 1930s was very rapid.  The Liberals struggled with single figures of MPs in the 1950s.  Whilst holding the balance of power March 1977 - July 1978 when there was a minority Labour government in power (a minority government is one which does not have a majority of MPs over all the other parties combined in the House of Commons; it is usually still the largest party though).  The 1990s and 2000s saw a renaissance of the Liberal Democrats, the latest version of the Liberal Party, though Tony Blair's vast majority in 1997 meant that plans for having the Liberal Democrats in with Labour in the 'big tent' cabinet were shelved.  The Liberal Democrats rose from 20 MPs in 1992 to 46 in 1997 to 52 in 2001 to 62 in 2005.  This is more seats than any combination of Liberal parties has had since 1935.  Of course, they are still behind the Conservatives with 198 seats and Labour with 356 seats. 

The big change in how the Liberal Democrats were perceived following the debate between the leaders of the three main parties on 14th April 2010.  This was the first televised debate between the party leaders in British history and mimics closely the model used on US television first in 1960 and then intermittently afterwards.  There have been regular jokes since 2007 when Nick Clegg became Liberal Democrat party leader than he was 'unknown'.  To some degree this is because in our very media-conscious age all the part leaders simply look like different varieties of bank manager.   However, appearing on a programme watched by more than 9 million people and which has generated a lot of general media coverage since, has helped massively. Labour and the Conservatives have been pretty successful marginalising the Liberal Democrats and in turn they seem to have shifted steadily from being more radical than New Labour in 1997 to seeming like a pale version of the Conservatives, only really marked out by a pro-European Union stance.  Now with the recession they seem to be ready to embrace more radical solutions and whilst not back left of the Labour Party do seem to have some radicalism about them once again.  After the lame duck leadership of Charles Kennedy (1999-2006) and Menzies Campbell (2006-7), in part Clegg, slowly, seems to be capturing a little of dynamism of Paddy Ashdown, leader 1988-99.

With the election of Tony Blair to being prime minister in 1997 just before his 44th birthday has made youth appear at a premium in British politics. Brown is 59; Cameron is 43 and Clegg is three months younger.  Cameron is very much old fashioned elitist Conservative, his long-term friendship with the moronic Mayor of London, Boris Johnston, does not help.  Brown seems to have aged a great deal while in office, though is much younger than some prime ministers of the past; Winston Churchill first came to power in 1940 at the age of 66 and was in office in 1955; Margaret Thatcher was 54 when she came to power in 1979 and was still there until late 1990.  So, Clegg appeared to be of that youthful style that is currently in demand.  As the two other parties have effectively kept him out of the spotlight, I believe has actually now helped, because Clegg's party's ideas now seem fresh.  He also presents them in a clear and logical way.  This morning the first poll to put a Liberal Democrat in the lead to become prime minister, came out.  There has not been anthing like that since probably 1918-20.

The issue for the Liberal Democrats has always been that the first-past-the-post system in the UK never distributes seats evenly depending on the percentage of the vote the party receives.  The classic example was in the 1951 election when the Labour Party received more votes than in 1950 but received fewer seats.  At the 2005 election the Liberal Democrats got 22.1% of the vote (but 9.6% of the seats; back in 1992 they got 17.9% of the vote but only 3.1% of the seats), the Conservatives got 32.3% and Labour 35.3% of the vote.  On vote percentage division the Liberal Democrats would have got 144 seats; Conservatives 210 seats and Labour 230 seats, making a minority government.  This means that the Liberal Democrats need more than twice as many votes as the other parties to get a seat; the Conservatives lose out a little, but it is far simpler for Labour to get seats these days with them securing 126 seats more than they would have get through the proportional distribution.  This is why the Conservatives want to redraw the electoral boundaries.  The fact that the Liberal Democrats need to struggle harder to get seats, as a lot of their constituencies are in large rural areas on the periphery of the UK, opens them up to the allegation that a vote for them is a 'wasted' vote.  If people believed they could get into power, more people would vote for them.  This is one reason why the Liberal Democrats do well in local elections.  They control 65 local councils, and a total of 4,200 local, 21% of the seats from 25% of the votes, ahead of Labour.

Of course, the political parties know they can no longer ignore or easily dismiss Clegg and you have immediately seen Cameron say that Clegg would simply usher in more years of Labour.  Of course, even if Clegg went into a pact with a minority Labour government it could not be the same Labour government that it would be if it won a majority.  The Liberal Democrats would bring far more pro-European and electoral reform policies into the mix, something Cameron could not stomach if he had to work with the Liberal Democrats to gain power, especially since the Conservatives in the European Parliament abandoned fellow conservatives for a right-wing extremist bloc.  The Liberal Democrats would not tolerate the kind of cuts Cameron is envisaging.  He has positioned his party almost as far as he can from the Liberal Democrats, overly cocky that he would not have to work at all hard to get into power, it would be gifted him.

Thus, even if the public now likes Clegg, there is still a long way for his party to go to get the votes, let alone the seats to form a government.  As was highlighted on the BBC news over the weekend, with our current electoral system, even to achieve additional seats in double figures, and, for example, lift the Liberal Democrats up to 80 seats would need a swing of 6% against both the Conservatives and Labour in marginal seats.  However, there are a number of seats where the non-Conservative support is split between Labour and the Liberal Democrats almost equally and a shift in such seats would certainly make David Cameron's job a lot harder.  This is in contrast to both a year or so ago and the day the election was announced when it was assumed that the Conservatives would 'walk' into power.  Now they not only face a battle with Labour by the Liberal Democrats too.  Whilst it seems unlikely that the Liberal Democrats can win, a loss of seats for Labour and a smaller than previously expected gain for the Conservatives was already being considered, with the Liberal Democrats as powerbrokers for government, even before Clegg's successful television performance.  Baroness Shirley Williams a Liberal Democrat peer who was Paymaster General and Secretary of State for Education and Science in the Labour government when the Lib-Lab pact was in force in 1977-8 (she left the Labour Party in 1981 and was in the SDP and then Liberal Democrats), has said the Liberal Democrats would work with a minority government on an issue-by-issue basis rather than forming a pact with one party or the other.  Calls for a government of national unity are likely to fall on deaf ears especially as the Conservatives have re-embraced Thatcherite economic policies once more.

The price for Liberal Democrat support of course will be proportional representation, a policy embraced by Labour until it won massively in 1997.  As I have highlighted on this blog before: and  this would change the face of British politics forever.  Given the corruption among MPs we have seen this year that is probably necessary.  By potentially allowing in a far wider spectrum of parties more people would feel their voices were being heard.  Of course, it depends on the model as (West) Germany has had proportional representation since 1949 and yet only the SPD and CDU/CSU have dominated the governments for sixty years.  In Britain with a centre party almost already stronger than the FDP in Germany (93 out of 622 seats in the Bundestag) a three-party system under proportional representation would appear to become the norm.  Of course, extremist parties are likely to appear (though Germany has seen off extremists like the NPD and Republikaner parties through a minimum of 5% of the vote needed) but then that would challenge  the major parties to address the issues these parties raise; the same goes for the Green Party.

So, whilst we may already be weary of the election, 2010 is going to be a year in which we may see a more radical change than even the Conservatives are seeking and we finally see the face of British politics change for the first time in almost 90 years.

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