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Interesting times in dear old Blighty

By Andy Mycock - posted Thursday, 6 May 2010

As the British general election enters its final days, politicians of all hues are frantically criss-crossing the country in a desperate attempt to convince to the electorate to turn-out and vote for them.

It would appear that the outcome of this election is likely to be to the closest in living memory for many Britons. However, considering this, it has been a rather dour and low-key affair in which party campaigns or policies have failed to energise the electorate and challenge the widespread sentiment that this is a ‘monochrome election’.

Therefore, for many, the sight of Gordon Brown, head in hands in a BBC radio studio, listening to himself describing pensioner Gillian Duffy as “a sort of bigoted woman that said she used to vote Labour” could well be its defining moment. The incident tapped into a broader narrative of distrust of politicians by the electorate. Levels of trust in the political system and politicians in the UK has declined significantly in recent years and the Parliamentary expenses scandals continue to provoke strong emotions.


Many suspect that politicians only engage with the electorate at election time and that they act differently in public and private. But the seeminingly duplicitous nature of his comments have not proven “game-changing”; Brown’s public persona has been steadily eroded over a much longer period and events in Rochdale simply confirmed wide-held suspicions that he should not be trusted.

If “Bigotgate” has played significantly it is because it punctured the boredom of electoral campaigning fatigue. The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been involved in a “phoney war” which began in the autumn of 2007 when Gordon Brown lost his nerve and did not call an election that he would have most likely won. Since then, Brown together with David Cameron and Nick Clegg have been engaged in continual low-level political sparring that has seen policies shaped as much by the media as the perceived needs of the electorate. Though release of the party manifestos at the beginning of the formal election period might have provided an opportunity to aggregate many of these policies, many voters had already switched off.

But claims by each party that the raft of policies outlined coalesce into coherent political programmes underpinned by distinct ideological values are difficult to sustain. They are in reality fighting over the narrow political centre ground with little to distinguish between them. The crucial binary has proven the extent to which the state can be “rolled back” and how much the private sector and the citizenry of the UK should be entrusted with public service provision. Put simply, it is a battle between the “Big State” and the “Big Society” which consciously overlooks more pressing but potentially electorally-damaging electorate concerns regarding the scale and scope of public spending cuts and possible tax rises. The public are not easily fooled though and much of the political squabbling that fills the formal period of electioneering has been disdainfully disregarded. For many, the failure of all three main parties to articulate the scale of spending cuts, the election is merely the precursor to a more painful process of addressing the national debt. The only real choice between the parties is the speed of such radical cutbacks.

The legacy of the current election campaign could be significant for at least two reasons. First, the skittishness of the electorate has been reflected in the dramatic shifts in the political landscape during the past three weeks. Overly-optimistic predictions of an outright Conservative victory, based on strong polling returns over a period of three years, now seem misguided.

The failure of Cameron to “seal the deal” suggest reservations about the Conservatives persist in large parts of the country - particilarly the north of England and Scotland – and have raised awkward questions regarding the fragility of gains made as a result of the four-year “modernisation” of the party. Second, suggestions that the internet would provide the crucial battleground for the election have proven misguided. The old platform of television has revolutionised this election, with the inaugural leadership debates bringing personality politics to the fore and encouraging three-party politics that could have significant ramifications for the structure and style of British politics.

The combination of these two factors have been crucial in the rise of Nick Clegg, often viewed before this election as poor imitation of David Cameron – photogenic but lacking substance. His polished and engaging performance in the first of the TV debates saw support for the Liberal Democrats surge by about 10 per cent points in most polls, raising questions about Cameron’s leadership credentials and relegating Labour into third place. In the two subsequent television debates Clegg proved he was a politician capable of holding his own, ensuring that poll gains have been secured. This has provoked a sustained hostile campaign by the right-wing press, some of whom have questioned Clegg’s patriotic credentials by drawing attention to his Europhile views, his Russian and Dutch family origins, and even his Spanish wife.


“Cleggmania” has been founded on a narrative that claims the period of “two-party politics” is at end and that “real change” can only be secured through coalition politics.  He has argued that only the Liberal Democrats offer genuine reform of the British political system through the introduction of proportional representation and greater social fairness. But pertinent questions have been raised about a number of key policies on public spending, immigration and Europe. Moreover the extent to which Clegg should be viewed as a radical figure is open to query.

Like David Cameron, Clegg was educated at private school before reading Social Anthropology at Cambirdge. His performance in the leadership debates could be explained by his acting acting alongside Helena Bonham during his time at Cambridge. He could hardly be described as a “man of the people”.

His political rise has also followed a well-worn path. He has worked as a political researcher and lobbyist, and was a member of the European Parliament before being elected to the House of Commons in 2005. His rise within the Liberal Democrats has been dramatic and he became leader of the party in 2007. But prior to the TV debates, many within the Liberal Democrats had questioned his leadership credentials, particularly the impact – or lack thereof - on the electoral fortunes of the party. But he has undoubtedly seized his chance and Clegg’s success could make this election a significant moment in British political history.

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About the Author

Dr Andy Mycock is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Huddersfield. His teaching and research interests include citizenship and identity in post-empire states, with particular focus on the impact on government programmes of citizenship and history education in the UK and Russian Federation. His research has explored the "politics of Britishness", focusing in the legacy of empire and the impact of devolution, immigration and multiculturalism. He also interested in contemporary politics across the Commonwealth.

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