I never thought Nick Clegg was going to change the political landscape of the UK all by himself. I never really thought this election would be a huge breakthrough for the Lib Dems. But I didn’t expect them to lose seats. No one–even the experts–who saw the BBC/ITV/Sky exit poll thought it was correct when it foretold a terrible disappointment for the Lib Dems. After ‘Cleggmania’ surely they would at least gain a few seats?
Depressingly, as the night wore on, the exit poll was proved to be correct. In fact it was even worse than it predicted. They lost five seats. Though their overall percentage share of the vote increased, it really achieved nothing at all for the party in its own right. So today we have the depressing analysis: the Lib Dems were style over substance; Nick Clegg might have charisma but the party doesn’t; the review of Trident, proposed ‘amnesty’ for illegal immigrants and pro-Europe stance put people off once they looked into Lib Dem policies; people didn’t trust a party who hadn’t prepared for government; the last week of their campaign was disappointing…the list goes on. There is undoubtedly an element of truth in these explanations. But I don’t think this analysis is either fair to the Lib Dems or the real story.
The disappearance of the Lib Dem surge is the triumph of the old politics, as Nick Clegg himself might have said. The last week of the campaign was marked by both the Labour Party and the Tories using the argument that a vote for the Lib Dems would let in your arch-enemy–either the Reds or the Blues depending on your point of view. Vote Lib Dem and be stuck with Gordon/vote Lib Dem and let the Tories back in…it’s enough to give a floating voter nightmares. And it worked. The Tories have been broadly successful and Labour didn’t do as badly as they might have done, coming a comfortable second.
The worrying thing is that, in most constituencies, the Lib Dem share of the vote didn’t even rise that much. In most places it can’t be said that the Tories got in because the left/liberal vote was split. People returned to the old parties, voting for one of the big two, because they were worried their voice wouldn’t be heard if they voted Lib Dem. For all the supposedly positive campaigning and sound bytes in favour of ‘change’, the strategy of both major parties in the final week was to exploit the old party battlelines, the old broken politics, the instinctive inherited loyalties. The Lib Dem disappointment is the final proof that politics in the UK is broken and must be fixed. The country voted for a hung parliament but, ironically, their return to two party politics may just stop the reforms so many have been calling for from getting through.
Of course all is not lost. Nick Clegg finds himself in the position he was always heading for, that of ‘kingmaker’. The Lib Dems have more influence now than ever before, despite the election result.
However, if they are to seize their chance at sharing power, it seems likely they will have to compromise on their demand for proportional representation. Nick Clegg today sent a message to party members stating “I repeat again my reassurance that whatever happens in the coming hours, days and weeks I will continue to argue not only for the greater fairness in British society, not only the greater responsibility in economic policy making, but also for the extensive real reforms we need to fix our broken political system.” Yet all David Cameron appears to be offering is a discussion of electoral reform. A committee is a very long way from a commitment. If Nick Clegg clings to his reforming instincts it could be a deal breaker. It would be political suicide to align himself with the (suddenly ready for electoral reform) Labour Party while Gordon Brown is still their leader. It therefore remains unclear what ability Clegg has to push for the reforms this country’s politics so badly needs.
It seems to be a given amongst the electorate at large that some sort of reform is needed. Most ordinary people interviewed by reporters apparently agree with that. They voted for a hung parliament because they claim to have lost faith in the old politics. Yet the result is still a product of the two-party first past the post system. The courage to vote for real change deserted many voters, terrified by the Labour and Conservative return to old-style campaigning, in the last days of the campaign. The hope of the Lib Dem surge just melted away.
Will the Lib Dems still be able to fight for reform? That is my one hope for the effect of their increased influence in a hung parliament, whoever they have to work with. Because this election has been a victory for the old politics and for negative campaigning. I hope with all my heart that this possibly once in a generation chance for change is not lost because, in the end, the old broken system still triumphed.
“…our electoral system is broken, it simply doesn’t reflect the hopes and aspirations of the British people.” (Nick Clegg 7/05/10)