When Nick Clegg beat Chris Huhne for the Liberal Democrat leadership it was the media face beating another one of those who had business experience. I admit that for a time until relatively recently I was thinking the wrong man had been chosen.
I did not watch all the debate of the three party leaders - I skipped Have I Got News for You but did watch Outnumbered, which is a genuinely engaging comedy and has actors in the making (Ramona Marquez is bound to be a talented actor for decades to come - she showed a deft touch of acting skill in how she tackled the child of Enid Blyton isolated by her damaged and self-obsessed mother while maintaining her own 'family values' public relations).
Nick Clegg simply obeyed the rules you see laid out in many walks of life. Remember names, they say in teaching. In being a radio disc jockey, talk as if you are speaking to one person. Use good eye contact - contrast his eye contact and Gordon Brown's (yes, I know, but eye contact is an act one can learn - and I'm no good at it). Look confident. At first I was thinking, 'Get your hand out of your pocket,' but contrasted his ease with himself and David Cameron's obvious nervousness. Cameron just was not sure how to present himself nor whether to attack or agree. But also Clegg knew his brief, and as of the last four or five elections the Liberal Democrats have focused on policies that they can summarise.
The other two are left with a problem now, and it is whether they should 'agree' with Nick Clegg, or go after him. It depends if they think they are still the main runners. My two oldest friends retain a visceral dislike of the Liberal Democrats/ Liberals despite the fact that they have the policies closest to their views. They still talk in terms of supporting who you have to support, like some football team, but then I never did football. In fact one has drifted off into minor parties because Labour became so right wing. I voted Conservative in 1979 and Labour in 1997 (because of the constituency I am in). Otherwise I am a social liberal. I am aware that the further decline in the tactical vote (of Lib Dem to Labour) could favour the Conservatives. But there are plenty of places where the Liberal Democrats are second, and there is nothing stopping a second volcano exploding into the atmosphere, if people get over old visceral attitudes.
It's not just that Nick Clegg was there, as one of the three, making himself known. He actually did the better job of presenting himself and the ideas.
I actually haven't written Gordon Brown off yet. Obviously someone else may have been a better presenter, but he might still use his gravitas. The problem is that a lot of the Labour vote hollowed out during Blair's rule, not just because of his deceptions regarding the Iraq war but also because he didn't take the Labour constituency along with him in government, with the one exception of the minimum wage. He gave a sufficient place for the Liberal Democrats to occupy and gain a political identity to his left that was policy based.
There was a curious part of that debate where Gordon Brown said how Nick Clegg agrees with him over reform of voting (really - the AV system?) and the House of Lords. Come on, everyone knows this has been a Liberal stance over the modern period. It is Gordon Brown who is the Johnny come lately on this one. He was also against political reform when Blair thought about it for a moment when he had a big tent idea for the broader left and libertarians, until Blair instead stole Conservative clothes over and again and became anti-libertarian (And thus hollowed out the Labour bedrock support; one reason why Hull has a Liberal Democrat council, for example, and who'd have thought that only twenty years ago?).
Will it make a difference? The Conservatives led the election in the first week. They made the issues and images and had business support over the National Insurance tax increase. The poll rating of a narrow lead didn't move. If the Liberal Democrats poll rating moves after this, then that will show the resistance still felt regarding the Conservatives and where people might want to put their votes.
In my constituency the Liberal Democrats are third but I just take the view if you want them then you vote for them, and that's how they become second or first. My vote is really theirs; it was only Labour's when the Tories had to be removed. Politics needs such a renewal in this country that it needs a volcano, and it will only come with something really different. The MP for this area represented people in terms of approaching ministers but always voted with the government. She is trying hard to retain her vote as a clean (in terms of the scandal, and she was clean), hardworking MP, and perhaps she might get re-elected, but whereas in 1997 I was part of the unofficial nationwide electoral pact to remove a disastrous government, I am now part of the fluidity of the current political situation. Anything can happen, locally and nationally. The problem is that our electoral system is like throwing dice, because you never know what creates what - and that's one reason why it should be changed - but the melt is such that an ambiguous House of Commons might just be the means to clean up and change politics even if that is before a second election under a different system, via a co-operating government (as in the devolved assemblies) that does the main and needed political and economic tasks that must begin for the future.
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