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What are we to make of Nick Clegg who now holds the banner of the Liberal Democrats in Britain? The historian Max Hastings in The Daily Mail (Apr 28) is dismissive. ‘It would be foolish to expect honesty from Nick Clegg and his party,’ he suggests, as they will only hope to force ‘proportional representation on whichever party is willing to cut a deal with them.’ The major political parties have suddenly realised that Clegg has become an unavoidable force in British politics, a potential spoiler of the balance of power in a country that, Benjamin Disraeli claimed, had no love for coalitions. A clue is gathered, at least from Labour, in the opinions of the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. Reaction towards Clegg is based on a form of ‘anti-politics’, a sweet, relieving meal for those impoverished by corrupt, and dull politics.
The attack is orthodox, tried, and worn: anti-politics, Milliband wants to assure the electorate, is no substitute for government policy. ‘Anti-politics is fine for opposition, but it is not sufficient for government. There is a market for anti-politics, due to the sickening expenses scandal, but it is not a basis for running a country’ (Guardian, Apr 23). Stay warming the benches of the opposition, rather than the seats of government, suggest the very political Milliband.
Cameron has made similar remarks – that Clegg is in danger of promoting a ‘holier than thou’ attitude, the saint whose halo shines with idealistic authority in the House of Commons. Politics is a grubby business, and cleanliness is hardly desirable in this field. Clegg is, without doubt, gathering steam for the very reason that he comes with a certain squeaky clean disposition, however disingenuous it might actually be.
Labour’s position on this has been a touch more fluid, despite a firming up of positions heading into the final days of the election. Lord Adonis was even complimentary in parts, paying tribute to the Clegg factor and similarities between the parties. Such flattery is presumably meant to get the beleaguered Labour party some leverage when it comes to forming that most unusual creature of British politics: a coalition. That potential reality cannot be dismissed. Labour is now falling behind in the three-cornered contest, finding itself languishing in third place in various polls. The political exterminator is being readied to sweep the party that was brought into office under the leadership of Tony Blair in 1997.
Voters are also given a paternalistic warning: don’t be ‘tactical’ about preferences. Don’t make protest votes to punish otherwise favoured parties who have strayed from their allotted grounds. From Labour’s perspective, the tactical vote might spell doom for them, given the tight contest in some 100 key Tory-Labour marginals. But the Tories will be concerned that those ‘Essex voters’ – the political force of the ‘Basildon man’, will actually return to them as they did to Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s. And the numbers in this group of low-earning workers are a formidable force: some 14 million, many in households with total incomes of £27,000. Polling by the Resolution Foundation has found a 11-point lead in favour of the Lib Dems amongst voters in that group (The Independent, Apr 28), a development that may critically impair Cameron’s chances for a secure victory.
The true winner in the last stages of this curious election battle will be Clegg, who has managed in recent times, and certainly in the debates, to look more telegenic and exploit the power, with all its frivolousness and guile, of the camera. Voters, for so long disappointed, are now waiting to be astonished again. Cameron’s charm, as former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Lord Ashdown, suggested, was duly ‘leached away’ to Clegg before British television sets. At times, both Cameron and Prime Minister Gordon Brown seemed bemused, even stunned by their more energetic opponent. Clegg is making yards on the issue of fairness. Direct elections to the House of Lords is desired. Tax reform is required. Inequalities have to be righted. Political spending, and spending by politicians, has to be scrutinised.
In truth, there is not much separating the parties – other than Clegg. Whether Cameron is able to net those Basildon men will be something Tories will be fearful off. What will be even more worrying will be what the winner inherits: the onerous task, the institute of Fiscal Studies has suggested, of making the deepest public spending cuts in 30 years. On that score, all the leaders have been, and continue to be, reticent.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org