Nick Clegg isn’t the Messiah

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 29 April 2010

My first, and so far only, personal experience with Nick Clegg, the unlikely new superstar of British politics, happened back in May 2008. At the time, I was working for Policy Exchange, a think tank that prided itself on being the intellectual driving force behind David Cameron’s modernised Conservative Party.

On this spring day in 2008, the Liberal Democrat leader gave a key speech on his party’s new taxation policy to Policy Exchange. From this event, I remember that the then 41-year old Clegg looked just as boyish as he does on TV. He nervously read his speech from a carefully drafted manuscript, but the ensuing Q&A session revealed that he had not written it himself, or at least Clegg did not seem to know too many details of the policies he had just announced.

To the crowd of the usual two or three dozen Westminster journalists it hardly mattered. They probably had more interest in Clegg’s sex life than in his tax plans anyway (he had just admitted sexual relationships with ‘no more than 30’ women). It was a time when a Lib Dem leader’s personal affairs were infinitely more interesting than his policies because one thing was clear: the Lib Dems would never be in government.

Fast forward two years, and Clegg’s stunning performances in the first televised British election debates have excited the media and the electorate alike. Over the past two weeks, Clegg has been compared to both Churchill and Obama for his charisma and his ability to connect with people.

Now that everybody seems to see the Messiah in Clegg, I am asking myself what we overlooked in May 2008. Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us and opened the secrets of Lib Dem policy to us?

With apologies to Monty Python’s Life of Brian – Clegg is not the Messiah, he’s just a very likeable boy.

Clegg has not changed much over the past few years. What has changed, though, is the UK’s political landscape. The scandal over fraudulent expenses claims of hundreds of British parliamentarians was the tipping point for the country’s increasingly discredited political class. Clegg owes his new popularity to widespread contempt for the embodiments of the old system, Labour and the Conservatives. If Clegg’s Liberal Democrats succeed in this election, British politics will never be the same again.

To see the seismic shifts happening in front of our eyes, let us put them into perspective. In the 1951 election the big two parties – Labour and the Conservatives (with their then National Liberal ally) – won a combined 96.8 per cent of the votes and 97.9 per cent of the seats. Together, they received 27.7 million votes. Under such circumstances, a ‘first past the post’ electoral system produced stable parliamentary majorities (even if they sometimes did not coincide with the popular vote).

In today’s more diverse and pluralistic societies, it is getting harder for ‘big tent’ parties like Labour or the Conservatives to win a substantial share of the vote. Large parts of the public have turned their backs on politics altogether; the disillusionment with politics and politicians is palpable.

It is no wonder, then, that in Britain’s 2005 election the figures for Labour and the Conservatives were very different from Winston Churchill’s time. They only united 67.6 per cent of the voters, which at a mere 61.3 per cent turnout equalled 18.3 million people. Yet thanks to the electoral system, the ‘Labservatives’, as the Liberal Democrats mockingly call them, still managed to win 85.9 percent of the seats.

These numbers directly translate into a democratic deficit at the heart of British government. The Labour Party had a comfortable 60-seat majority in Parliament despite winning the votes of just over a fifth of the electorate. The boundaries of the constituencies and the distribution of the votes for the different parties meant that in effect it took 96,540 votes to elect one Liberal Democrat MP, whereas only 44,268 were needed for a Conservative MP and even fewer, 26,908 to be precise, for a Labour parliamentarian.

In this year’s election, a similar bias will be at work. However, Labour’s prospects after 13 years in government and with Gordon Brown as their unpopular leader are dire. The Tories, meanwhile, have failed to convince the public that they could be a credible alternative. David Cameron talks about change all the time but he still looks too much like part of the old political cartel.

Clegg has rightly identified this situation as his party’s great opportunity. When the other two parties were foolish enough to share a platform with him in the TV debates, they elevated Clegg to the status of an equal contender. He seized on it by positioning himself as the real change that most voters genuinely hope for.

The immediate result of Clegg’s success will not be change, but instead a deepening of Britain’s political crisis. If the popular vote now splits more or less equally in three ways it will be plain for everyone to see that Britain’s electoral system can no longer be considered fair. Even in case the Liberal Democrats narrowly won more votes than the other two parties did, they would still be marginalised in Parliament, condemning them to a junior partner in a possible coalition government.

The legitimacy of Britain’s next Parliament will be questioned from day one. Rectifying the electoral law to make it cater for the country’s new three party system will therefore be the Liberal Democrats’ non-negotiable condition for any potential coalition they might agree to.

The results of a new system of proportional representation would be far-reaching. If every vote counted the same, the two main parties would almost certainly lose their cartel-like grip on power. Discredited as they appear in the wake of the expenses scandal, they may even disappear altogether. The fate of Democrazia Cristiana, Italy’s dominant post-war party, should be a warning to both Labour and the Conservatives – after the uncovering of endemic corruption at the highest level of government, which left Italian voters disenchanted with their political leaders, it dissolved in the early 1990s.

If Clegg gets his way on electoral reform, his party would almost certainly have great influence on the future of Britain. It could hold the balance of power or even become the largest party. Given the fact that the Liberal Democrats were the first party to highlight the country’s public and private debt crisis, this may not be the worst thing to happen. Cutting the deficit is the most urgent task for the next government.

In fact, Clegg already hinted at the need for fiscal consolidation in his speech to Policy Exchange in May 2008. ‘We are not ready to accept the government’s proposed overall level of taxation, and will look in depth at whether it can, and should, be cut,” he said then and promised that “the Liberal Democrats will question every single penny of government spending’. This was at a time when both Labour and the Conservatives still believed in higher public spending and the Tories wouldn’t touch the issue of tax cuts for fear of looking too right-wing.

Even at the Policy Exchange event Nick Clegg looked at once fresher than Gordon Brown ever did and more authentic than Cameron ever tried to be. With the Liberal Democrats in government no longer a remote possibility, he is still no Messiah but it is time to take Clegg more seriously now.

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