(With the election looming and the debates in full swing, the popularity contest is on; and it appears that, once again, Britain is displaying symptoms of underdog-fever as Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats ride a surge in popularity. But are we falling into a trap?)
So the country has gone a bit Clegg-crazy since the debate on April 15, with reports indicating that his popularity is continuing to rise. I was invited to a Facebrook group today entitled: ‘We got Rage Against The Machine to #1, we can get the Lib Dems into office!’. As a first time voter I must admit I wasn’t much looking forward to choosing between the wares on offer come election day. Poor old down-and-out Gordon, who has shouldered Britain’s rage over some fairly gnarly situations, and who, if the media is to be believed (which, I am well aware it often isn’t), is single-handedly responsible for an age of economic crisis and disaster. All this has made for a very depressing political landscape over the last few years, and the Britons have become vehicles of bitter, bitter cynicism. And then Cameron comes along, taking us all for fools, thinking that we won’t see through his equally-cynical-just-in-a-different-way campaign of airbrushed pictures and bullying of Brown.
It is no secret that the election campaigns this year have taken on a far more Americanised stance, not just with the debates, but with the ‘celebritisation’ of potential PMs, and the Tories’ ‘Vote For Change’ unashamedly echoing the ‘Yes We Can’ which brought America to its knees of reverence not so long ago. However, Cameron appears to have (thankfully) misjudged the British public just slightly. His slogan photos were met with roars of mocking throughout the country, with spoofs popping up everywhere. His ‘Vote For Change’ now echoes rather hollowly, as we all begin to realise that the Conservatives may be a change from a regime we have become tired of, but they are most certainly not new, or radical, or inspiring.
And finally, as if out of the shadows like an angel of salvation, steps Nick Clegg, who as the leader of the Liberal Democrats has been rather overlooked by, well, everyone. In fact, it rather seemed that he was only being involved in the debate as a matter of slightly patronising democratic duty.
Cameron has actually sort of done a Cowell: become completely over-exposed and just pissed us all off with his cynicism and the idea that we are too stupid to notice what he’s doing. And suddenly Britain has begun to say, ‘Fuck you we won’t do what you tell us’1. Clegg is certainly positioning himself in the wise post as a bringer of Real Change, saying: ‘I can guarantee you that the Liberal Democrats will always, always campaign for, fight for and seek to deliver a genuine transformation in the politics of this country. It’s in our very blood as a party.’ He consistently emphasises his party’s forthright and dedicated ethos: ‘A vote for the Liberal Democrats is exactly what is says on the tin – it is a vote for the Liberal Democrats…It is a vote for our policy on fairer taxes, on schools, on a new approach to the economy on cleaning up politics, nothing more, nothing less.’
However, beware the dangers of idealisation: how much do we really know about the Lib Dems? Is everyone a bit too enchanted by the idea of a saviour?
Is it actually X-factor all over again? Where Britain resolutely votes for the underdog in a misplaced and slightly hysterical need to prove that we have both voice and heart, only to be disappointed (hence the reason why everybody voted for Rage and their all-clear message) when it turns out that the underdog was the underdog for a reason: they just weren’t as good, and were actually a little bit annoying.
X-factor analogies aside, we must not forget that these politicians-come-celebrities do represent parties and policies and a potential for 5 or more years of government. (Or a fixed 4 if we carry on heading American.) The Lib Dems have been thrown into the spotlight with quite collective surprise – are their policies up to that of the more established parties? In response to Clegg’s increasing popularity, Cameron and others have argued that the Liberal Democrats are an underdeveloped party, and trust in them would be like building a house on sand. (In fact, it may be worth mentioning that American polls continuously show that the American public have a great distrust of their government, with recent figures reaching as high as nearly 80%.)The BBC have reported that Cameron said plans for a selective amnesty for illegal immigrants were a ‘huge mistake’; and Brown said voters would ‘think twice’ about Lib Dem plans for child tax credits and Trident. Clegg, when confronted about this, did seem at times quite petulantly defensive, and even perhaps a little bewildered by it all. When asked if he was going to win, he shrugged modestly and said very little. Does modesty have a place in British politics? It is easy to see why we would want to choose a modest, honest man over a calculated political machine, and maybe it is exactly what Britain needs, a new found idealism in the face of such cynicism. It is certain that the country is in desperate need of a change, but does the quest for such idealism render us romantic fools?
One place where Clegg may well have found his niche, however, is with young voters: last election 75% of people under 21 voted Lib Dem. Five years on, and that’s five years more of 18 year olds who can now vote. Perhaps this is not quite the shocking turn of events it first seemed. He has absolutely grabbed this opportunity with both hands, telling the Observer: ‘I will be saying to young people that this is their chance to make a difference. It will be a message of hope, but also one of urgency. They can really affect this election campaign.’ Interestingly, this is very similar to Obama’s call-to-arms of young Americans, urging them not to waste their vote and to join his campaign. Figures issued last month by the Electoral Commission suggested that 56% of those under 25 and eligible to vote were not on the electoral roll. But since Clegg’s performance in the debate, there has been a huge surge in numbers, with 250,000 people registering online, of whom 40% were under 25.
And so now I wait, with a certain trepidation that this election may be more about Obama-emulating than change, but also certain that it is gripping all the same, and that this is exactly what Britain needs.