A Pint of Bitter: British Election Campaign Week 1 – Lib Dem Clegg wins first TV debate

I wouldn’t say there was election fever in Britain; most of the election campaign’s first week has been uninspiring, dull stuff without real controversy or passion. That may be because the two big parties both have such visible weaknesses (Gordon Brown, for Labour; most things except David Cameron, for the Conservatives); it may be because of the general mood of quiet, surly anger against politicians not entirely caused by the expenses scandal of last year, but very much sharpened by it. It may be that this election will turn out in the end to be truly dramatic, but that the drama will begin only after the votes have been counted – that is my suspicion. In fact, though, general elections usually begin like this, with a sluggish yawn. At some point we forget the dull ache all over and fever breaks out. Perhaps that’s now happened after Thursday’s debate. More of that below.

Sarah Teather and Vince Cable with Brent activists | Liberal Democrats | Creative Commons

But first, the manifestos. Traditionally in the first week of the campaign each party issues a manifesto – a book or booklet outlining what its programme will be for the next Parliament. What it would do in government, in other words. Manifestos are mysterious things, hugely varying in length and style, and anyway not much read by voters. It used to be that you had to buy them, if you were interested (by law the parties had to sell them; they couldn’t give them away), so no one other than political geeks ever did. And manifestos only tell you so much: a party is in no way bound to carry out its manifesto pledges, and is likely to do many more things, if it gets power, than are contained in its pages. Look at Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 manifesto, for instance – you’ll find no mention of the privatisation agenda that became so important a component of Thatcherism, except for the suggestion of a partial sale of one small organisation. If you’re interested in British political history, you can read old manifestos here. Another interesting website is The Straight Choice, which has now collected and archived over a thousand British election leaflets.

David Cameron | Conservative Party | Creative Commons

This time, manifestos are online. Labour’s, much mocked for it Maoist imagery, promises to secure the fragile economic recovery, and to protect front-line public services, and to deliver constitutional reform including change to the electoral system and even work towards a written constitution. The Conservative Manifesto invites us to “join the government” and pledges to stop Labour’s planned national insurance rise for employers – a kind of payroll tax and to cut the deficit more quickly, while protecting the National Health Service. It promises tougher rules on immigration and a radically different approach on Europe, changing the law to protect the British constitution from EU encroachment. The Liberal Democrats promise fair taxes – including removing all those earning under ï¿¡10,000 a year from tax altogether – and, as they always do, substantial constitutional change including a move to proportional representation.

leaflets I've been sent in Brent Central

Locally, there’s not massive evidence of campaigning yet, at least in my part of London: Brent Central constituency is a rare Labour-LibDem marginal where two current MPs – Labour’s Dawn Butler and the LibDem Sarah Teather, who has the advantage of being one of her side’s most televised faces – fight each other because boundary changes have extinguished their existing seats. There have been a few leaflets, mainly from the LibDems, and there are a few posters around – but nothing at all from the Conservatives, which reflects the highly targeted way all the parties campaign these days. All the declared candidates for Brent Central are listed here, by the way. The leaders have as usual been touring the country wildly in what seems the most “presidential” campaign yet in the UK. This is a development many British people are depressed by: we want politics to be about parties and issues rather than about personalities, or at least we say we do. But somehow, election by election, the focus on the style and personalities of the leaders, and even of their wives, continues inexorably.

Which brings me to last night’s debate between the leaders – a truly historic moment in British politics, since we’ve never had such a thing before, a fact that may amaze Americans and Europeans for whom this sort of thing has long been a fixture. Why has it never happened before? Perhaps precisely because of our traditional preference for seeing politics as a team sport. More importantly, there’s never been agreement before now because it’s never been in the interests of all the party leaders to take part. Conventional wisdom here has been that whoever is in the lead can only lose from a debate: Tony Blair for instance avoided a debate in every election he fought, because he was streets ahead and had nothing to gain. This time, though, things are different. Gordon Brown wanted a debate because he is, or was, so far behind, needed to gamble on a game-changer and, more cynically, want to neutralise the Conservatives’ ability to outspend him in the campaign by focusing the whole election on the equalising format of television. The question is why David Cameron, who was so far ahead, agreed; I think the answer must be that, since he personally is by far his party’s strongest asset and Gordon Brown is by far Labour’s biggest problem, he was happy to make the election a man-to-man contest.

the very first UK TV leaders' election debate

But to comply with the requirement to achieve balance the broadcasters has to include the LibDem leader Nick Clegg – and last night he was the clear winner. You can watch the full 90 minute debate here. Clegg relaxed into the format much more quickly than did the other two, an impression that I think stuck in viewer’s minds even as the other men got into their strides. Although at times he hesitated and looked to his notes, he also on occasion managed to communicate to the audience in front of him and at home much more effectively than his opponents.

The strategy of the others was intriguing: David Cameron steered clear of strong attacks on Gordon Brown, his own polls apparently having told him that goes down badly with voters. But he’ll surely have to revise that before the next debate, having seemed relatively ineffectual in the face of Gordon Brown’s reasonably effective combativeness. He only really impressed in the way you might have expected from such a normally capable public performer right at the end with his prepared speech – though Frank Luntz, the American pollster who’s been hired by the Sun, has been saying this morning he felt that speech came over as too personal and “American” for British voters’ tastes. Brown certainly didn’t land the kind of blow he was hoping for – most people think he didn’t shine. But he’ll be delighted not to have been beaten by Cameron, and that Clegg has done so well. It might not help his candidate here in Brent, but the normal conventional wisdom here (which might not hold quite as usual this time, it should be said) is that LibDem success hurts the Tories more than it does Labour; plus, he’ll be hoping for tactical votes from those in Labour-Tory marginals who are attracted to Clegg (hence his keenness to tell us he “agrees with Nick”).

I think this debate has shaken up the campaign considerably. It wasn’t hugely exciting, but in imposing Nick Clegg so firmly on the scene, it may well shift votes. Clegg is already the most powerful liberal in Britain since Lloyd George. If he can perform as well as this in the next two debates, and avoids blunders, he could achieve his party’s most serious breakthrough yet and have a decisive influence in or over the next government. Remember, too, that his economic spokesman Vince Cable is the most popular and trusted major politician in the country, so you can expect to see them together as often as the LibDems can possibly manage it. A hung Parliament – where no party has a majority – was a real possibility even before last night. Now, it looks like the most likely outcome. And that could change Britain for good.

Just three weeks to go…

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  1. avatar says

    I was surprised to see immigration be the first topic of discussion during the debate. As far as that is concerned, I’m with Labour on this. A Tory quota is unworkable when only 20% of new immigrants come from outside of the EU and they already have to meet huge requirements. The Lib Dems idea behind ‘regional immigration’ is absurd and I’m sure would be against EU regulations for the free movement of peoples – it’s also horrifying to think that I’d be stuck where I moved when I was finally able to move to the UK. Gordon is right – and I hope people believe him – the points based system IS keeping people out and reducing the number of immigrants.