The outcome of the forthcoming British General Election on May 6th seemed a formality just 10 days ago. David Cameron’s Conservatives had been well ahead in the polls for a long time and looked a safe bet to gain a working majority. The only issue was how large that majority would be. The Labour Party was running well behind, with the Liberal Democrats even further adrift, whilst the backdrop of recession, public spending cuts and a static property market appeared to offer little to get excited about. That all changed with the first ever televised debate between the three main party leaders on 15th April. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, previously seen as an inexperienced lightweight who had been largely invisible in the campaign, came out of the debate the clear winner, sending the polls, Gordon Brown and David Cameron into a tailspin.
On 6th April the BBC’s averaged ‘poll of polls’ showed the Conservatives on 39%, Labour at 31% and Lib Dems way behind on just 19%. But five days after the first televised debate, the same averaged poll had the Conservatives on 33%, Labour on 28% and the Lib Dems in second place on 30%. An astonishing turnaround in such a short period. How did Clegg do it? Well, he did give a very naturalistic performance in the debate and was able to skilfully present his party as offering something genuinely new compared to the other two ‘dinosaur parties’ of British politics. Brown gave some detailed answers and offered more substantive content, but his presentation was widely seen as poor, failing to properly engage with the audience. Cameron was surprisingly nervous, failed to match Brown’s detail and substance and, crucially, seemed unable to deflect Clegg’s interpretation of the Conservatives as part of the old, failed politics. Given the enormous amount of discussion on how this would be the first British ‘Internet election’ where blogs, tweets and viral campaigns would dominate, it is ironic that it took just 90 minutes of good, old-fashioned television to transform the whole campaign. And with two more TV debates to come, there’s plenty of scope for more twists and turns yet. [Watch the first debate here.]
However, Clegg’s good performance only struck a chord due to the underlying fragility of voting intentions as reflected in the polls, and which can be attributed to continuing public outrage at revelations from the MPs expense claims debacle. The attitude of ‘a plague on all your houses’ has led to a softening of people’s commitment to the two main parties and a subsequent openness to alternative messages. In particular, Clegg was able to present himself as something new, a force for change, and that apparently rare thing, an ‘honest politician’ who tells it like it is. In part this was due to the fact that he had previously been quite invisible to most voters who wouldn’t even have recognized him as the leader of a major political party. To them, he really was a breath of fresh air, though whether he will still look that way on 6th May is another matter. Apparently, 90 minutes is now a long time in British politics.
The main loser has been David Cameron’s Tories. Avoiding detailed policy announcements, talking in vague generalities and bashing Gordon Brown worked well initially and, in a two-party system, only the Conservatives could realistically suggest they could become the next government. But as the election got closer, this should have been bolstered with a raft of much more detailed policies to firm up the Tory message. That just didn’t happen. Hence, in the TV debate David was hopelessly outmanoeuvred by Clegg, who hammered home the message that he had no idea what the Conservatives stood for any more. Strategies that worked in a dyadic relationship (two parties) now look outmoded as we move into a genuinely triadic one (three parties). As Georg Simmel (one of the first German sociologists) observed, a three-party relationship offers possibilities for new alliances, shifting allegiances and a kind of fluidity that simply cannot exist within a dyad. For example, although they are bitter enemies, the dyad of Labour and Conservatives at Westminster also produces that place’s atmosphere of an ‘insiders only’ club, something that many blame for expenses claims abuses. Given the Lib Dem challenge to the Labour–Conservative dominance, we can now expect to see Labour and the Tories reframing their main messages as the campaign moves on.
This election, perhaps more than most, has focused on the very vague and, you may think, quite empty notion of ‘change’. The parties have clearly taken a leaf from Barack Obama’s campaign in the USA which used the slogan ‘change we can believe in’. The Conservatives’ slogan is ‘Vote for Change’; Clegg and the Lib Dems use ‘change that works for you’; whilst the incumbent Brown’s Labour Party has ‘a future fair for all’. Well, it makes little sense for the party that’s been in power for 13 years to campaign for change now does it? But what do such vacuous slogans mean? What change? Change of what, for what reason and how? [You can see a discussion here.]
The use of general notions of fairness, justice, progress or change in election campaigns aims to tap into what Vilfredo Pareto (a turn-of-the-century Italian economist and sociologist) called ‘residues’ – those stable and unchanging, deep-seated sentiments that lie beneath the surface of rational debate. Pareto calls the rational arguments and explanations ‘derivations’. Hence, in the struggle for political power in democracies, politicians create derivations (arguments about the need for change or stability, for example) which appeal to basic human residues or ‘instincts’ in order to attract mass support. In the present economic and political climate, therefore, it makes perfect sense to go on endlessly about the need for change even if you don’t explain in any detail what such change might amount to. And this is David’s new problem. Nick Clegg, not Cameron, is now seen as embodying this most important element of the campaign and, whilst that continues, we are heading for a hung or ‘balanced’ parliament and a period of triadic rather than dyadic politics.
Chapter 22 on politics contains much relevant material on elections and political parties and is the logical place to start, especially pp. 988-92. British party politics can be found on pp. 1003-6. Democracy and its spread cross the world are covered on pp. 992-9 along with a Box on the Internet as a democratizing force. The impact and use of media is then included on pp. 725-44.