a real alternative? the nick clegg phenomenon

19 04 2010

by Sebastian Wright

Nick Clegg’s rise from shrinking violet of the political landscape to the ‘new Barack Obama’ (according to a Telegraph headline) can be attributed almost entirely to his performance in the the first British televised general election debate. With a foppish ‘I’m just a regular guy like you’ schtick that we have all been acquainted with since the early Blair,  Clegg’s only distinguishing rhetorical stance (we will get to substance in a minute) was his ‘I’m not like the other two’ line.

That apparently was enough to blow open the entire race. Albeit true that in terms of actual seats even Clegg’s phenomenal performance has not been enough to push the Liberal Democrats hypothetically beyond the 100 mark (compared to Labour who would still take around 280) in itself this has not dispelled the sense that Clegg has ‘shaken up’ the race. But the question is, surely, what and why are the media–and so it seems, the general population–getting so excited about this man?

On one level, there is an easy answer to this question. The most noteworthy feature of this general election has been widespread apathy to it. The television news and broadsheets have been doing all they can to whip up interest, but so far without a great deal of efficacy. After all, if both the Labour and Tories are both singing from the hymn sheet and both parties have declining natural constituencies, why should anyone really care who wins? In this sense the possibility of a hung parliament, with Clegg as the ‘king maker’ at least provides a new angle to inject a bit of life into the campaign. There is a widespread sense amongst the ’serious media’ that it is their duty during general elections to do all they can to inform, enlighten, and otherwise bludgeon the audience–that is, the electorate–into being  ’engaged’ with the democratic process. We should not be too cynical, then, about this just being an angle to sell more papers. Indeed, I doubt putting Clegg on the front cover really does improve circulation figures. No, what seems to be motivating the rise of Clegg is a sense of desperation amongst the liberal elite about a total disengagement with democratic, representative politics amongst the masses.

More perplexing, perhaps, is the apparent real impact Clegg’s performance has had among viewers. At 10 million viewers the elections debate had what by any contemporary television rating standards we could consider a decent audience. According to most polls Clegg won the debate. He also came off, apparently, as the most honest and most trustworthy of the three. Fine; fair enough; in a political climate in which all substantial disagreement about every meaningful matter have been permanently pushed to one side, being telegenic is ok. But what about policy?

Policy radicals?

‘Change that Works for You. Building a Fairer Britain’ is the Liberal Democrats awe inspiring slogan. ‘Building a Fairer Britain’–well, that at least fits in with their meek social democratic reformism–but ‘Change that Works for You’ what on earth does that mean? Who doesn’t want change to work, and exactly who is the ‘you’ they are appealing to: everyone, no-one? Their Manifesto might help unpick this riddle:

At the root of Britain’s problems today is the failure to distribute power fairly between people. Political power has been hoarded by politicians and civil servants; economic power has been hoarded by big businesses. Both kinds of power have been stripped from ordinary citizens, leaving us with a fragile society marked by inequality, environmental degradation and boombust economics. If government merely tinkers at the edges – the Labour and Conservative approach – Britain’s problems will not be solved. We can change this only with radical action.

The Liberal Democrat philosophy is built on a simple ambition: to distribute power fairly among people. From that goal of fairness spring the four priorities which form the backbone of this manifesto. Each will redistribute power of a different kind, be it economic, social, political or financial. Each will change Britain for the better.

Those four changes are spelt out in detail in this manifesto. They will make Britain the fair country people want it to be. They are:

  • Fair taxes that put money back in your pocket.
  • A fair chance for every child.
  • A fair future, creating jobs by making Britain greener.
  • A fair deal for you from politicians.

Here we have a mix of vague populist polices that look culled in equal measure from both Labour and the Tories. Power in distributed unequally (or unfairly, to adopt their even more timid vocabulary) and like everyone else they are going to put an end to that, apparently. To achieve these radical ends, they will end income taxation on the first ten thousand pounds earned. That all sounds very well, but how is this going to be paid for under a massive fiscal deficit? Chasing tax evasion at the top, and imposing a ‘mansion tax‘ on properties worth over two million are not likely to go far enough. All we are given in their manifesto is fairly predictable stuff about efficiency savings, better procurement and so forth, nothing that in any way obviates the fact that they, like the other parties would be compelled to cut massively and engage in extended job losses and wage repression policies to ensure the system’s stability. Even within the limited options of capitalist reformism there is nothing radical. Where hundreds of billions have been given in hand outs and loans to the banks, where monetary policy favours the City at the expense of ever dwindling manufacturing, none of these major systemic issues are addressed. As could be expected, what we rather have is some superficial tinkering at the edges.

On the level of foreign policy, the Lib Dems used to have some merits to speak of. They were the only major party to oppose the war against Iraq; and this alone led me to look somewhat favourably upon them for a while. However, all boldness on the foreign policy front has evaporated under the Clegg leadership. As their manifesto states:

New security threats are emerging, for which Britain’s armed forces are not yet fully equipped, whilst terrorists and organised criminals exploit international networks.

So in place of opposing military interventions we rather have a platform that has shifted to the altogether regressive position of criticising the government’s policy on the basis that they simply don’t equip their troops well enough. A closer look at the ‘Your World‘ section of their manifesto–’foreign policy’ must not sound friendly enough–exhibits an evasion in discussing such matters altogether. The section is crammed full of talk about climate change, which seems to be strategically used to crowd out delineating any of their policies on matters of war and peace. They retain a commitment to not renewing Trident; that’s about all that can be ascertained on their defense policy.

Clegg–the man, the phenomenon

A few words are probably also in order for discussing Clegg the man. Whilst he doesn’t seem a noxious character, it is also hardly incidental that the man comes from the upper echelons of the British elite. Educated at Westminster, some commentators have noted that he comes from a more cosmopolitan rival faction of the British ruling class to Cameron. He was a member of the Conservative Association at Cambridge University and went on to campaign for indigenous rights. Now, whilst we do not have the time to go into such matters here, it is the case that campaigning for ingenious rights (i.e. a cause far away from home) is something of a favourite of the kind of elite liberalism one finds in Britain. One can also observe, although correct me if wrong, that Clegg has had no links or any campaigning background in British working class causes in his entire life. So just as Prince William and Prince Harry can fly off to Africa to help the virtuous poor out there–in between tours of Afghanistan and living it up at London’s top nightclubs–Clegg’s background seems all too similar.

Other than that, there is not much to say really. The man has no obvious principles or ideas to speak of. Even his moment of youthful rebellion in his story of burning down the cactuses turned out to be made up. Here we simply have a career politician on auto-pilot. The fact that there is currently a Facebook Group called ‘We got Rage Against the Machine to #1, we can get the Lib Dems into office!‘ just goes to show that the desperation on the part of the media is matched by a desperation amongst young people also. With the ideological confusion at such a pitched state to equate a vote for a soulless pillar of the establishment like Nick Clegg as sticking it to the man, this just goes to show how much work Marxists and communists have to both spread their ideas and popularise genuinely radical alternatives.

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3 responses

19 04 2010
Red Mike

A good analysis of the debate, I don’t really think the media’s constant whipping up of elections is dependant too much on a belief in Liberal Democracy but rather a desire to show the next government how important and influential they can be, and so get a few benefits, News International is clearly all about this.

20 04 2010
Arthur Bough

I have also been interested to follow Dave Broder’s comments on the Workers Liberty website in respect of the “alternative” being provided by the AWL. I had commented myself to that debate, and even got Sacha Ishmail to respond to one of them. However, the AWL appear to be continuing in their Stalinist tactics of simply censoring any commenst that they find inconvenient. Having simply dleted one of those comments on one thread, they then deleted all of the comments on the other, including the one Sacha had replied to!

A prerequisite for any renovation in the labour Movement is free and honest debate, there continues to be as much chance of getting that out of the Stalinists at the AWL, as there was out of the 1930′s Comintern.

22 04 2010
Keith Granger

it should be noted that the polling data showed the libdem surge began prior to the tv debate, right after their manifesto launch, but the media does like to blow its own trumpet a bit.




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