The British General Election has been blown wide-open after two short weeks and two leaders debates. The contests have been game changers so far; what was a two-horse race between the Conservatives and Labour has been transformed by the performance of Nick Clegg and the concomitant bounce for the Liberal Democrats. Recent polls have the Liberals sandwiched between the ’parties of government’ on 30%. Clegg is taking support from Labour and the Tories and a hung parliament looks likely. David Miliband has called this rise in poll ratings an anti-politics wave; if so, it’s been surfed most bodaciously by Clegg and Co.
The party has a long history of course. Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George are names undergraduates have studied for decades; that’s the amazing story of the Liberal Democrats – they have their roots buried deep in the past. Their achievements and failures are part of political and constitutional history. The party’s ‘strange death’ was chronicled in Dangerfield’s eponymous book; yet they were re-born, nearly died again and just refused to go away. From the Thorpe era to the SDP-Liberal Alliance day, they moved from being a prop for minority governments to nearly stripping Labour of second place in 1983. The ‘merger’ in 1988 reunified the third force opposition in Britain.
The party has been proud of their pro-European leanings, civil libertarianism and local focus; they have always sought to define themselves as an independent, dissenting voice. Add in tax increases for extra education spending and you have a set a policies that a dynamic leader can really sell. The 1990s saw the Liberal Democrats professionalise the leadership and message. Paddy Ashdown provided a new drive and was crucial to their electoral breakthrough in 1992. This ease with the media was continued during Charles Kennedy’s term; the party took a clear stand against the Iraq war and tried to maintain the image of independence and integrity.
Nick Clegg came in as a national unknown following Menzies Campbell’s much-maligned leadership. We still don’t know a lot about him; a personable, ex-public schoolboy, seemingly dependent on the wise, old Vince Cable as his Shadow-Shadow Chancellor. The Tory Press has tried to dig up some dirt on Clegg and have found very little; yes he was a lobbyist, a Eurocrat and an MEP; many voters will be asking ‘And?…’. His performances in the TV debates allowed Clegg to present himself as the change agent, a incalculably valuable commodity in any election.
If the polls turn out to be correct, then the Liberal Democrats could end up with 80 or 90 seats. A government could not be formed without their co-operation; in all likelihood, it would be a coalition. Clegg must surely be tempted to achieve what Ashdown and Roy Jenkins couldn’t; a progressive alliance with Labour shutting the Tories out of government for a generation. A referendum on ending the iniquitous First Past the Post system has been promised by Labour; this would be a sine qua non for Liberal coalition involvement. Could they go in with a third placed Labour and a baying press saying Brown has no mandate? That’s a leadership question and will have been gamed and strategised in detail; if the Liberal Democrats want to implement policy, they could end up the mud-guard for a two-party government. But Clegg, like any politician, lives with the adage of no risk, no reward. The reward is clear; power. The risks, however, are enormous.