Can the ‘Clegg effect’ be a wedge for real change?

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
17 Apr 2010

In a media-constructed universe, hype is adrenalin - as Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg is discovering. But will a massive energy rush, like the one he is benefiting from in the aftermath of the UK’s first election Leaders’ Debate, really deliver an upsurge in votes for his party, or bring real change to an archaic voting and parliamentary system (which for many of us is the real issue)?

On BBC Radio 4’s irreverent but informative programme The Heckler (Saturday 17 April 2010) barrister, comedian and presenter Clive Anderson summed up the situation with what will probably be Question of the Day – at least as far as a sunny weekend is concerned: “Will Nick Clegg turn out to be Susan Boyle or Jedward?” he asked.

Comparing the outcome of the Leaders’ Debate (also billed the Prime Ministers’ Debate) with the fortunes of the highly successful loser of reality (sic!) telly programme ‘Britain's Got Talent’, or the ironically failed winners of ‘The X-factor’, works well on a number of levels. Image and perception is reality in a hyper-(post)modernised political environment still dominated by ‘big personalities’ and ‘big parties’.

But what of the kind of reality which is about actual deliverable outcomes?

The website Political Betting (http://www6.politicalbetting.com/) points out that current wagering on the ‘Clegg boost’ would indicate an extra 15 seats for the Lib Dems. But although local factors need to be taken into account to mitigate the blunt edge of the ‘universal swing’, the overall situation remains that a two or three per cent increase in support for the third party, which would be a decent achievement, will have very little impact in terms of seats, given the unfairness of the First-Past-the-Post voting system in terms of matching (or rather, not matching) support for winning actual constituencies.

The other issue is whether Mr Clegg can maintain his popularity. Bright political flares in the media explode and fade, and in the next two TV debates – which are captivating reporters and commentators because they provide such a rich stream of easy, speculative copy – the Lib Dem supremo will be a 'known quantity.' He will be under immense scrutiny from the press. Gordon Brown and David Cameron will be keen to undermine him, overtly or covertly. And the Tory and Labour 'rebuttal machines' will be keen to dismiss the Lib Dems’ policies as uncosted, vague, unsustainable… or all three.

In other words, the ‘battle’ (the dominant narrative revealingly remains one of combat, in spite of occasional genuflections towards a ‘new politics’) has several rounds to go, and the terms of engagement will keep changing.

From the perspective of people sceptical about the Lablibservative game, and those looking for real political reform, the hoped-for lasting effect of the evening-out process from the first TV debate is that it increases further the chances of a hung parliament (http://hang-em.com/) – which can be used as a wedge to push the non-reformers, the reluctant reformers and the rhetorical reformers towards the precipice of genuine change. That is the up-side.

In his article ‘Has Clegg Hung 'em?’ (http://www.opendemocracy.net/anthony-barnett/has-clegg-hung-em) for OurKingdom / openDemocracy, political reformer and analyst Anthony Barnett starts off by acknowledging that the factor in Nick Clegg’s “stunning” breakthrough “was not so much what he said (although in an enervating exchange on immigration at least he said there is "good immigration") as the way he said it and the aura he radiated. The other two were locked in their spin-doctored brains, he spoke directly to camera and to the public. To us.”

He then goes on to question the cynicism around the Lib Dems, while also acknowledging the mountain that has to be climbed if the system is to be changed and some of the aspirations they represent (for those who support other options and parties too) are to move into a position of being realisable.

Barnett concludes: “There is a real chance now of a hung parliament and even a hung parliament-plus, in which along with independents and SNP and Plaid, there could be a majority in the Commons that does not include either the Tory or Labour Party. When some of us launched Hang ‘em [this week] we said ‘We have got to renew democracy in Britain. They won't, so hang 'em until they do’. I thought it will take five to ten years. It could now be much sooner. It may be time to fan-up on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/hangparliament) and start organising - and prepare for the backlash from the powers-that-be and their corporate friends. The breadth of argument now exploring and supporting a hung parliament is impressive, from Timothy Garton Ash at the Guardian to Simon Barrow at Ekklesia, it can be seen logged in on the Facebook wall. It needs more inputs and help, it is time to turn from spectatorship to what Sunny Hundal at Liberal Conspiracy calls ‘infrastructure’. Nick Clegg has opened up a rare opportunity, let's Hang 'em (http://hang-em.com/).”

Obviously I agree with that. As a backer of Hang ’Em, I have a vested interest, you could say. But it is important that we do not kid ourselves. There may be much more to “the truth that sets us free” than facing the facts – but there can never be less. My honest estimate is that there is a genuine underlying political shift in this election, in spite of the (understandable) cynicism towards Westminster, the continuing lack of interest from a significant percentage of the population (let’s not forget that the minute twists and turns of ‘the debate’ are for political geeks) – and in spite of the fact that I am rather less sanguine about Mr Clegg and the Lib Dems in practice than Anthony seems to be. (Anthony is wise and perceptive though, so we must stay alive to the possibilities.)

The reformist Italian Euro-Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci is famous for his association with the idea of political hegemony (how to construct majorities for change across and beyond defined blocs) and for combining “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.” Now is a time for optimism of the will, which is why something like Hang ’Em is so important.

A hung parliament is (or could be) a lever for democratic change. And democracy is very important. It is important not because it can deliver universal salvation (Christians, especially, should beware of turning it into ‘the new religion’, or seeing it as a substitute for ‘new communities’ based on metanoia), but because it is a way of restraining unaccountable power and making us face up to the hopes, fears, possibilities and blockages of the demos, the people. The alternative is the hegemony of the market and monopoly power, and that way lies destruction and even more violence.

A broken democracy is a dangerous thing. That is why those who hold out for non-violence, social justice, hospitality towards ‘the stranger’, the elimination of poverty and the healing of the planet should seek to repair and improve it. Not because it will make human beings wiser or better. For that, which is also an inescapable part of recreating politics (and belief), something much, much deeper than ‘the Clegg effect’ is needed!

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia, and one of the instigator-supporters of the Hang ’Em campaign (http://hang-em.com/) for a reforming, hung parliament. His interview with the Lib Dem leader can be read here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11866

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