Monday, 22 March 2010
Is Nick Clegg the new Barack Obama?
The first time I heard of the Liberal Democrats was during the run up to the ’97 election. There were those big posters of the party leaders in the Tube stations and I remember asking my mum who they were. She told seven-year-old me about John Major and Tony Blair (he was the "good guy" back then), but when I asked her about Paddy Ashdown in the middle she said: “They're the Liberal Democrats, no one really votes for them.”
And she was right. Despite having Paddy's face splashed all over the Underground, the Lib Dems got only 16.8% of the vote in that election. The following year I would leave the country for a decade and return assuming the “middle of the road” party was just as insignificant as it had been before. Yet in the intervening years, the Lib Dems had raised their votes to 18.2% and then to 22%. If the figure rises exponentially we are looking at the very least at a hung parliament this May.
But does this mean that the Nick Clegg actually has a chance at being Prime Minister? There is certainly a lot of hype surrounding the possibility. With recent announcements that he will take part in the UK’s first televised “prime ministerial” debates, it’s not hard to make a case for a Lib Dem vote no longer being a wasted one.
Re-winding couple of years to the US primaries I can remember the “is it really possible?” excitement that fueled every political discussion in the world. If I had had a say, I would have voted for Hillary Clinton as leader of the Democrats. Not because I like her policies, her hair, her husband or the thought of an ex-president’s wife being the new Mrs President. But because I thought that America was not ready for Barack Obama, and that by nominating him, I would have been giving the Republicans the election.
I have learned my lesson. And I like to think that so has the rest of the electorate. In Nick Clegg’s party conference speech last week he consistently hammered “change” and “yes we can”; told sweet little anecdotes about his children; and attempted a slightly higher than average number of jokes. Is this Obama all over again?
The parallels are undeniable: young, arguably naïve promises of “new politics”, Clegg's tax reform to Obama's health reform, the impassioned speeches about a new political system... But is the UK ready to do away with the old and in with the slightly younger and better looking?
Today Obama's emblematic health reform bill was passed by the US House of Representatives, making medical coverage available to 32 million Americans in a drastic shake-up of the system which previously denied health care to those who couldn't afford it. This landmark event seemed almost as unlikely two years ago as the US people voting in a black president.
But will Nick Clegg's tax reform have quite the same emotional impact? He is definitely trying to make it his trademark and he's doing it very well. He's taken “change” and made it “work for you”. As far as I'm concerned this is a great campaign, albeit an unoriginal one. He is articulate, honest, enthusiastic and fresh-faced, and the people like him.
There is no denying that the British public is as disenchanted with politics as it is disengaged, yet it seems like there has never been a better time for the Lib Dems. While Labour is busy slating Cameron and the Tories are busy slating Brown, I'd say to them both: “Look out Old Politics. There's a new kid in town.”