Nick Clegg Rocking British Election

Nick Clegg Campaign Photo

We’ve known for more than a year that Gordon Brown and his party were in trouble.  But the surprisingly strong performance of Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg in the first debate has changed the dynamic so much that Labour could come in third.

A new Guardian poll suggests Labour, which is polling at a mere 28%, "has not yet hit bedrock and could fall below 20%."

And it’s not because the Tories are suddenly popular.  Indeed, while they’re leading with 33% of the likely vote, they’re  "at the same level as the party achieved in the 2005 general election and would leave the party far off a majority."  Which, barring an exceedingly unlikely Conservative-Labour grand coalition, would leave Clegg and his LibDems in the enviable position as kingmaker.

As is usually the case when there’s the prospect of something novel happening in an election, the commentariat is positively giddy.

"Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader who until a few days ago was little known to voters, is now the most popular party leader since Winston Churchill,"  say Times correspondents Jonathan Oliver and David Smith.   The Guardian‘s Oliver Burkeman can’t decide: "Is Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg an Obama-style hero for our times, a Churchillian leader or a popular rebel in the mould of Che Guevara?"

Expat Andrew Sullivan, writing for The Atlantic, announced days ago that "Labour Is Headed For Oblivion."

Writing in Der Spiegel, Marco Evers sees Clegg’s rise as "unstoppable" and gushes that the outcome "could destroy Britain’s two-party system."

The rise of the election’s third man could bring fundamental change to British politics. A historic shift seems on the verge of taking place, and some are even predicting a crisis for the country’s unwritten constitution.

Until recently, Clegg’s nickname "Nick Who?" reflected the fact that few voters even knew who he was. But now he is already being compared to US President Barack Obama, due to Clegg’s magical gift for connecting with voters when he appears on television. According to the astonishing results of a poll taken after his first TV debate, Clegg received the highest approval ratings for a party leader since 1945, when then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill was basking in Britain’s victory over Hitler.

The Tories’ strategists, who were until recently confident of victory, are frantic. After 13 years in power, the Labour Party is finished, and its prime minister, Gordon Brown, is washed-up and unpopular. And now, ironically, the center-left Liberal Democrats, a party that for decades has carved out an unfortunate existence as a third party in a two-party system, could thwart an election win for Cameron. The British majority voting system has always made it difficult for the Liberal Democrats, because elections are not decided by a party’s share of the total vote, but exclusively by the number of constituencies won in a "first past the post" system.

And, many are speculating, and end to that system may be Clegg’s price for joining a Government.  But, as Evers notes, it might be self-forcing:

At the moment, it is not unlikely that the election could lead to a result that, though reached in a democratic fashion, would hardly seem democratic. The Labour Party could end up receiving the largest number of seats in parliament, despite winning the smallest number of votes of the three major parties.

It would be an embarrassment for a country that likes to claim it bestowed the gift of democracy on the world. Brown, even after losing the election, could be called upon to form the next government, with or without the participation of the Liberal Democrats.

On this side of the Pond, The American Conservative‘s Daniel Larison extols the virtues of coalition government.

In reality, coalition governments represent a broader cross-section of the electorate and include a greater variety of political perspectives than a majority government formed by one party. For that reason, they tend to be weaker and less effective governments, which makes them poor candidates for paving the way to despotism. The present British system rewards the major parties disproportionately because of the concentrated nature of their support and their established advantages as the two largest parties, even though at the present time the three largest parties apparently have almost equal levels of support from the electorate.


[I]n Britain it is the Liberal Democrats who are filling the role of the protest parties in the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and elsewhere. The current enthusiasm for the upstarts is the result of profound disgust and weariness with the major parties, just as we have seen all over Europe in the last ten years.

That may well be the case from the standpoint of the commonweal.  From the vantage of Nick Clegg, however, it’s not so clear. As the Guardian‘s Simon Jenkins so pithily puts it, "Next week he may be hanging a parliament, but from the moment he does, it will hang him."

Centre parties in coalitions rarely live long to tell the tale. Attempts at leverage over coalitions devastated the Liberals at Westminster throughout the 20th century and have since wrecked their fortunes in Scottish and Welsh parliaments. There is no reason why the 21st century should be different, however frantically political commentators want it make it so. The truth is that a kingmaker is never a king. Once in power kings acquire leverage of their own.

The most likely – but by no means certain – outcome of the election is a House of Commons in which the Conservatives have the most MPs, and the Liberal Democrats nowhere near as many as either them or Labour. Whatever Clegg said on Monday about it being "inexplicable" for a minority of popular votes to decide a government, this applies equally to him. British government is based not on popular votes but on the electoral college of parliament. That is the constitution. Those who want "every vote to count" should demand not proportional representation but a single national vote for a national leader, as in mainland Europe, with a separately elected assembly if they want one.

Clegg’s moment of power will be ecstatic but brief. He will experience two immediate horrors. As he struggles to decide who should be prime minister he will find the only "non-negotiable" item in his locker is one that both big parties are bound to reject: any form of proportional representation that will put them always in this position after each election, with the Liberal Democrats as sole electoral college. Clegg might win a referendum promise or some vague alternative vote in each constituency. But Labour and Conservative politicians are not thick. They are unlikely to commit suicide.

The other handicap is more serious. From the moment Clegg does make a deal on whatever basis, he is chained to delivering on it. That means whipping his own party in support of one or other party that his MPs have just fought bitterly at a general election – and may have to fight again soon.

Meanwhile, the Nation‘s Katrina vanden Heuvel takes to the pages of the Washington Post to argue that the United States should learn from the British example and open our process up to candidates from outside the two major parties.  "Clegg’s rise is inspiring for those of us on this side of the ocean who regularly rail against the ironclad consensus of excluded alternatives and managed expectations that are so familiar in America," she writes, observing, "the Lib Dems are also playing a valuable role by focusing the full glare of public attention on issues that Britain’s two mainstream parties have ignored for too long." 

But, of course, the United States has plenty of experience with third party candidates with Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, John Anderson, and George Wallace all mounting significant campaigns in recent memory.  In all cases, though, they were spoilers with no real chance to win — of those, only Wallace won any Electoral College votes. It’s arguable that Nader cost Al Gore,  who most Nader voters would have preferred to George W. Bush, the presidency.  Perot’s impact in 1992 is murkier, although the strange dynamic of his candidacy almost certainly helped Bill Clinton and hurt incumbent George H.W. Bush.

The polls are mixed as to the second choice of Clegg supporters.  Ideologically, one would think they’re much better aligned with Labour and Brown.  But, alas, Labour has governed since 1997 and Brown has never managed to garner the personal support of his predecessor, Tony Blair.   The Spectator‘s Alex Massie, meanwhile, predicts a coalition between the Tories and Lib Dems, which strikes me as most plausible given the numbers.

Regardless, it’s clear that Clegg won’t be Prime Minister, at least as a result of these elections.   But it’s a pretty safe but that, whatever coalition arrangement gets made next week, it won’t last the five years before the next mandatory election.   It’ll be interesting to see, then, whether Clegg will maintain his fresh appeal after having to toil in the dirty muck of actual policymaking.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. Photo credit: Getty Images.


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