[ Editor’s note: this originally appeared in a slightly shorter form as a comment on Though Cowards Flinch. ]
Disclaimer: I am not associated with the LibDems. They are too much Democrat, not enough Liberal for me to join them. However, I’m an historian by training, and learned my politics in the third world, so I can spot a bankrupt political oligarchy sustained by the vested interests of a corrupt plutocracy and a deliberately fraudulent media as well as the man on the Clapham omnibus. And I’ve been saying so on the internet since a hell of a long time before #leadersdebate.
“Cleggmania” (what is it with ‘manias’ in the UK media? Couldn’t we just have some alliteration, like ‘Liberal Lurch’ or ‘Democratic Deluge?) Everyone seems to have caught a case of the Private Wilsons: “COUNTRY GONE MAD !!@!11! How can such a political shift come from just 90 minutes of television? We’re ALL DOOOOOOOOOMEDcaptainmainwaring”. Well, it’s been 180 minutes now and the world hasn’t ended.
This remarkable media story is being characterised as “some kind of sudden mass movement of emotion” (my emphasis). Boris Johnson’s view goes further: when the electorate turn against the Establishment, the problem is clearly that we’ve got the wrong sort of voters, what?
This is not sudden to anyone not blinkered by tribalism and industrial-era thinking. Cameron is, famously, a lightweight and Osborne was in hiding until after the second debate: the assumption that it was “their turn” is the only reason the Conservatives looked set to win at this election. This tidal shift in public politics has been building on a steady curve since Hyde Park 2003 and the resignation speech of Robin Cook. Since the death of Ian Tomlinson and the fall of Michael Martin, it’s been obvious that most of the country didn’t like the arrogance of “taking turns”. And everything I have seen, including Johann Hari’s masterful description of Britain’s left-liberal but disenfranchised majority, suggests that this is only a shift in the media’s perception of our politics. It does not seem to represent a change in the opinion of the electorate, beyond their answer to the question: “Can the LibDems win?”
Customers in my pub (which is in Hackney) who’ve voted Labour every election since the 60s, have been complaining about how there are no real options any more ever since Labour turned into hysterical authoritarians. The Tories are only running to the right because Labour have parked their tanks on Thatcher’s lawn; once the Smiler was gone to the lecture circuit and to Do God internationally, the country finally noticed that the New Labour experiment was quite simple. Hypothesis: we’ll get more seats if we move the Labour party away from the politics of labour and into the arms of the mill owners. 1997: hypothesis proved.
The expenses scandal left most of the country not, as people keep trying to say, anti-politics but anti-politician. We’re looking at potentially the highest voter turnout since WWI and an immense flood of non-partisan, issue- and policy-based activism. That’s not anti-political, Mr. Cameron. The oligarchy haven’t seen it for so very, very long that they had genuinely forgotten what a working political economy even looks like.
* * *
Every Lab/Con front-bencher has spoken to a national audience of over 10 million multiple times. No Liberal Democrat leader had done so in the history of the party. Why are people shocked by the public’s reaction? The era of TV-dominated politics began exactly 50 years ago with the Nixon-Kennedy debate. So, shutting one party out of the media narrative and minimising their TV exposure results in their profile being so low that they’re unelectable? Of course it results in that, that’s precisely why they’ve been doing it.
Many Tory commentators have pointed out that it was a fatal mistake to allow Clegg to look like an equal. They’re right. It was ethically and morally correct, and very, very long overdue, but there is no question that it was a mistake.
What the debates have done, the only thing the first debate did, was expose the Liberal platform of ‘we’re not the other guys’ to the public at large, rather than only to the clattering classes. 64% of those polled actively want a hung parliament, want no party to be able to ram through bad, stupid laws for partisan or electoral advantage. Finally, those people have a home for their vote.
People have been saying “Why can’t we kick ‘em both out?” in increasingly loud voices ever since they discovered that their MPs were not only institutionally corrupt, but also shamlessly arrogant and entitled. All that has happened now is that the people in question discovered that they can, and it’s been a bloody long time coming.