The UK election has been transformed into something very interesting—indeed, radically different—as a result of this past week’s televised debate between David Cameron (Conservatives), Gordon Brown (Labour) and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats). It needs to be said that this was the first televised debate between party leaders in a British election, and it’s another example of increased American political influence here. The whole thing was pushed by David Cameron and the media, who thought it was a great concept because the Americans have been using them for fifty years, and look how well that turned out. Anyway, it is true that Cameron was the most aggressive in pushing this concept, and it’s also true that Cameron now is probably regretting this hugely. Because Clegg emerged so much the clear winner in the debate that it has totally changed the complexion of the race, to the surprise of absolutely everyone, probably including Clegg himself. (In the picture above, it’s Clegg, Cameron and Brown from left to right, on one of the weirdest looking sets ever. Let’s not use this one again, ok?)
The results have been stunning. Prior to the debate on Thursday, the Lib Dems had been consistently hovering around 20% in the polls, with Labour at around 32% behind the Tories at around 38%, with both comfortably ahead of the Lib Dems. Since the debate, however, the Lib Dems have picked up anywhere between six to ten points in the polls, depending on the poll, mostly against the Tories, who are still ahead in most polls—except for the one where the Lib Dems actually have the lead (you can track all the polls here.) In fact, a remarkable story in The Times today has Clegg being the most popular party leader since Churchill, polling even ahead of Tony Blair at his strongest. This needs to be taken with a large grain of salt, I assume, but still, the scale of the change of sentiment here is breathtaking. Among other things, it reflects just how shallow some of the support for the Tories and Labour actually is—to a great extent, voters still aren’t comfortable that the Tories have moved beyond their bad old days, and it’s pretty clear that the prospect of another five years of Gordon Brown, along with such naiffs as Ed Balls and the Miliband brothers, still makes a number of people very uncomfortable.
The talking heads are still feeling pretty blindsided by all this, as well they should. No one, absolutely no one, saw this coming. Clegg is personable (unlike Brown, but like Cameron), quite intelligent and quick on his feet (like both Brown and Cameron), and unencumbered by anyone actually knowing who he is (unlike both Brown and Cameron) or what he stands for. But no matter how blindsided the media may feel, it’s probably nothing to how Cameron and Brown feel. Well, to be fair, Brown had to be dragged kicking and screaming to this, so he probably had some idea. Cameron, on the other hand, has been pushing for this for some time, against the consensus of a significant amount of the Tory party leadership, and they are probably feeling vindicated now. Because it’s clear that, if the election were to be held tomorrow, Cameron and the Tories would be doing significantly more poorly than expected prior to the debate. So Cameron is probably taking a lot of stick these days.
But there are two more of these coming along, this coming Thursday and the following Thursday, and you can bet that neither Cameron nor Brown will be surprised again. Nor will they be unwilling to attack more aggressively, something they distinctly were not in the first debate—in fact, it was more along the lines of who could be Clegg’s best friend. This next one is likely to be quite lively. But if Clegg holds his own during the next two debates, this will virtually guarantee a hung parliament, and will virtually guarantee that Clegg and his finance guy, Vince Cable, will be the kingmakers of who gets what. Which should at least bring us Vince Cable as Chancellor, which should be greeted with enthusiasm by everyone.
Now, just because the Lib Dems have picked up a bunch of points in the nationwide polls doesn’t automatically translate into electoral success. Britain has a parliamentary system, yes, but it’s not a proportional system the way, say, Germany is. The system here has the dramatic name of “First Past the Post,” which means whoever gets the most votes in any particular Parliamentary district is the one who gets to actually go sit in Parliament. And because of the various strengths of the different parties in different regions of the country, it now looks as if the recent strength of the Lib Dems actually translates into a much poorer performance by the Conservatives, and a much better performance by Labour (the BBC provides a handy little calculator to see how this works here). In fact, it may be that if current trends hold, Labour may end up with more seats than the Tories, a prospect that seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago. That’s because the strength that the Lib Dems has been picking up actually translates into picking up more seats in places where it looked as if the Tories would get them, but now won’t. So Labour hasn’t exactly been upset at the Lib Dems picking up a bunch of support. But it’s also conceivable that if this trend continues, it could start hurting Labour as well. So this weekend we’ve started seeing both Cameron and Brown stepping up their attacks on Clegg. Keep in mind that here you only vote for your MP, not who you want the Prime Minister to be.
Can Clegg actually pull in enough votes for the Lib Dems to win the election? Unlikely. But then again, the prospect of the Lib Dems running close to even with the Tories and Labour was pretty unlikely just a few days ago. This is getting interesting.