The British General Election campaign has been sprung wide open by the first television debate between the main party leaders that was held last Thursday. The second debate – on foreign affairs – is to be held tomorrow in Bristol, and is going to be televised live by Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News channel. The relevance of the Murdoch ownership extends only as far as his British newspapers’ support for the Conservatives; as far as I know the TV debates have to be unbiased (whatever that means in practice). I will have another go at analysing the respective parties on foreign affairs for you.
Last week threw up a large shock in as much as the Liberal Democrat leader – by most exit polls – wiped the floor with his Conservative and Labour opponents. Brown fared much worse than Cameron (with whom the Lib-Dem leader, Nick Clegg shares many attributes). Brown has since spent the week saying that whilst he might have lost the debate, this was a campaign that will be determined by substance (he being the substantial character, the other two merely PR creations).
And whilst some of the subsequent polls have raised eyebrows (one in the Sunday Mail had the Liberal Democrats ahead by one point, with Labour in third), there does seem to have been something of a shift in public sentiment. The biggest casualty of a three way deadheat across the country will be the British electoral system which will not sustain Labour winning 270 seats, the Conservatives 230 and Lib-Dems 110 on exactly the same percentage of votes cast (approximate seats…).
Anyhow, several things struck me. The first was that this may represent an anti-politics reaction – the expenses debacle in the British Parliament may have spurred a genuine desire in the British public to kick the main parties as hard as they can, and the Lib-Dems are a safer place than either the British National Party (a marginal far right party), and the UK Independence Party (whose claim to fame will be unseating the Speaker in his Buckingham seat in several weeks time – the convention runs that no-one opposes the speaker, but he isn’t the most popular Parliamentarian….). The second thing that occurred to me was that unlike most British political leaders (who’ve been around since the dawn of time in the popular imagination – even Cameron was around on Black Wednesday in 1992, as the Chancellor’s special advisor), Clegg is almost totally unknown and so his competent performance on the television had an almost Obama effect of wowing the public. It seems in politics, it’s better the devil you don’t know!
I think there’s also something almost intangible about ‘sentiment’ or ‘momentum’ in social phenomena like politics, war, sport, and economics. Market sentiment is often used to describe causal effects in economics – whether traders ‘believe’ that a stock is over- or under-valued, for example. In sport, scoring several quick goals or taking several quick wickets removes all the lethargy from the legs, and creates its own momentum. I think the same can be said about war too – you kinda just know when things are going well. And in politics, the momentum given by last week’s television debate seems curiously real. Equally, if Clegg or any of his team has a real Kinnock, then he might find himself on the very wrong end of the momentum equation.
Tomorrow night will also be interesting for what Brown and Cameron have decided to do about Clegg (and note that there are now some seriously bellicose noises around the Conservatives about having ever allowed Clegg equal billing on a national stage). They will almost certainly decide to attack him on the Lib-Dems policy of not replacing Trident – the spin on this has been that the Lib-Dems are unilateralists, but they appear to be multilateralists, and have not ruled out keeping nuclear weapons on cruise missiles; the less secure, but cheaper, way of delivering a nuclear arsenal. In becoming the central point around which Brown and Cameron are now operating, Clegg’s opposition to the Iraq war may also play well for him. Labour now need to hope for an implosion in one of the other two parties, whilst the Conservatives need to find a way back to being the centre of attention. Their instincts will tell them to batter the Lib-Dems on Europe and immigration, but they need to peg themselves to that middle ground and keep looking credible. This is a war divided into four weekly segments, but ‘events, dear boy, events’… and never in my lifetime has non-violent electoral politics looked like the cut and thrust of a war gaming board.