Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Short changed

Whatever happens for the rest of tonight, and over Friday, the frenzied final weeks of the election campaign have largely flattered to deceive. For all the bright yellow sunshine of the Liberal Democrats' false dawn, very little change has been seen - and is likely to be seen - to challenge the usual political suspects.

It's not really Nick Clegg's fault. Given a podium on national television three weeks in a row, the country warmed to the impassioned, reasoned and (frankly) MOR performance from the calm, clean cut new face of British politics. Three months ago, he wasn't even the foremost political party leader called Nick, and suddenly he was the second coming, the real alternative, the answer to years of Conservative and Labour gridlock.

For about 15 minutes. After Clegg's surprise popularity spike following the ITV debate - a bit like winning over undecided Sun readers - Cameron and Brown spent the next week drawing level with Clegg, offering him a seat at the top table, and then promptly dropped him from their gang the week after, when the two main party leaders locked horns in front of the biggest television audience yet.

And despite the continued public favour for Clegg and the Lib Dems, into the last week of campaigning the press followed Cameron and Brown instead, relentlessly. Unfortunate pictures of the Tory leader, unfortunate recordings of the Labour leader, it remained that Cameron and Brown drove the headlines, and spent the last days of the campaign prior to election day obliterating Nick Clegg's slowing hype-train.

What had given Clegg his spotlight was, it appeared, the sort of smooth-talking, persona-based party leadership that earned Cameron such derision not so many months before. All very well talking the talk, but where were the policies? It was on policy where Clegg lost his way in the third televised debate. His defence policy was attacked on all sides, his European stance washy. The immigration views, when pressed, was eyebrow-raising. A case of not enough, and much too late.

But the response at large to the familiar TV format - like a mix between The Weakest Link and Question Time - caused the overreaction. The glamour of the television screen, so instilled in American political history, yet so conflicting with the very different British system, widely misrepresented the strength of serious backing behind the Liberal Democrats that the impressed viewers seemed to be gushing forth. Anyone wholeheartedly convinced by the debates' influence over voter attitudes is going to be mightily let down come Friday morning.

As the night's gone on, the failure of the Lib Dems to obtain any ground on the major two parties augments the disappointingly small shift in the playing field at this election. While the hype surrounding 'Cleggmania' among the online column inches grew, none of it, it seems, has transferred into hard political evidence. And though the television debates may have engaged with a wider band of the electorate, increasing voter turnout and, it could be argued, furthering democracy, the only picture that remains now is one of slight confusion. The fresh start seemed a great idea in theory, but very little of it has been put into practice.

What change there is suggests a clear turn away from 13 years' hard Labour. It looks unlikely that there will be a majority victory for any party, but in the serious business of politics, the only shift worth checking will be just how wide a margin the Conservatives have gained over Labour. Their 'vote for change' campaign might be tainted by naysayers who affect to be unable to differentiate between the parties' policies, but by promoting future change, instead of warning of past problems, the Conservative party just might get their opportunity to start implementing it.

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