I don’t know – you turn your back for a few weeks and what happens? they go and break the mould of British politics. Again. It sometimes feels like I went to sleep and woke up in 1983, the last time the Liberal Democrats – or rather the SDP-Liberal Alliance – were in mould-breaking form. Didn’t quite happen back then of course, even though they won 26% of the general election vote against Labour’s 28%. Our iniquitous electoral system awarded the SDP-Liberals just 23 seats against Labour’s 203 – showing just how the Westminster electoral system serves to keep the two big parties in power.
Will it be different this time? Well yes, I think it just could be – if only because of the loathing of so many British voters for the Westminster way of politics. The mood really is ugly out there; party workers on the doorsteps all testify to it. Voters are furious and desperate for a change; for a chance to kick at the whole corrupt, sclerotic and incestuous Westminster system. If the Libdems can surf this tide of resentment, then the mould could, perhaps, stay broken.
Of course, a lot hangs on Nick Clegg’s performance in tonight’s edition of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (you choose). Can Superclegg on Sky repeat his performance in last week’s ITV debate, which propelled the Libdems into a solid second place in most UK opinion polls ? Or could he turn out to be the Tim Henman of British politics? Well, it shouldn’t be too difficult for Clegg since his performance wasn’t actually all that strong last time, as he himself has conceded. The Liberal Democrat leader apparently had to console himself with a lonely cigarette after he left the ITV studio because he thought he’d lost.
It wasn’t Clegg’s delivery, which was competent but sub- Obama, but the fact that he wasn’t Brown or Cameron that was his real strength. Clegg seemed to many viewers to be the best available boot to use on the backsides of the big parties. The fact that he was new (to most people), less polished and even a little geeky was a positive advantage. People don’t want folletted smoothies or speak-your-stats machines any more. They want someone who sounds authentic, real, more ordinary, even a little confused. These are confusing times.
They probably liked the general sound of Clegg’s policies as well. Not renewing Trident, bashing bankers, scrapping the Lords – what’s not to like? Stricter rules on parliamentary expenses, fairer electoral system, scrapping the Barnett Formula (ok, we’ll draw a veil over that) abolishing Labour’s illiberal anti-terror laws, which make it potentially illegal to wear tee-shirts criticising Tony Blair. But I don’t believe it was really Liberal Democrat policies that made the difference – most people are too sophisticated these days to pay much attention to election manifestos which they assume are wish-lists or lies. They just want someone they think they can trust, or who might cause an upset. Someone who isn’t a product of Westminster; a politician who isn’t a politician.
And the great problem for Clegg tonight is that people are beginning to realise that a politician is exactly what he is. In fact, Clegg is a classic career politician – a former lobbyist and political bag-carrier who became an MEP before he stood for Westminster. We’ve learned a lot about Mr Clegg this week- that he’s half Russian, half Dutch; that Louis Theroux was his fag at Westminster school (allegedly); that the ex-Conservative minister Leon Brittan thought he was a natural Tory. Clegg it emerged, has claimed £84,000 on parliamentary expenses to do up his second home, including paying chaps to prune his fruit trees. According to the Daily Telegraph, he has been accepting donations into his personal bank account, a practice the former parliamentary standards commissioner, Sir Alistair Graham, has described as “irregular”.
Conservatives warn that he is a supporter of the euro who wants an amnesty for long-term illegal immigrants, and intends to release 60,000 prisoners. The Daily Mail claimed he’d compared Britain unfavourably to Germany under the Nazis. My own view is that this assault on Clegg’s political character largely misses the point. British voters are more liberal than politicians give them credit for. They don’t really hate Europe and immigrants; welfare scroungers or foreigners. British are generally decent moderate souls who want to hang bankers and politicians from the highest lampposts, but in a nice way.
David Cameron will certainly target Clegg’s europeanism and his unilateralism in tonight’s foreign affairs debate, as will Brown. But the most serious charge against Clegg is that a vote for him is really a vote for Brown or Cameron; that his destiny is to let the Tories or Labour back in. Clegg insists that he can ignore “desperate” Brown and crawling Cameron – but the electoral reality is that, on present showing, the Libdem leader will have to help one or the other into office even if Clegg doesn’t want a formal coalition. Indeed, the Libdems may have no choice but to allow Cameron the chance of forming a government, if only because the Tories will probably have the largest number of seats and it will seem perverse to keep Brown in power after his rejection at the polls. Recall how the Scottish Liberal Democrats found they just couldn’t keep their former coalition partner, Jack McConnell, in power in Holyrood in 2007 after Labour lost to the SNP.
It is of course grossly unfair that the Liberal Democrats should lose out just because their votes are evenly distributed across the country. If we had a fair system, it would be the Liberal Democrats who would be looking for third party support. If nothing else, this election should be the death knell for the First Past The Post electoral system, which has perpetuated the old party duopoly. I’m tempted to say that electoral reform alone is a good enough reason for voting Liberal Democrat in this election.
Why, even Alex Salmond, said as much in at the SNP manifesto launch when he urged voters to back the LibDems to ensure a ‘balanced parliament’. He meant in England, of course – in Scotland the latest Ipsos Mori poll puts the SNP ahead of the Scottish Libdems. But a lot of voters in Scotland are likely to draw the logical conclusion and vote Libdem in marginals like Edinburgh South or Aberdeen South. When Alex Salmond promised to deliver 20 seats in Scotland at the general election we didn’t realise he meant Liberal Democrats.