The Inevitable Rise of the Liberal Democrats

The Inevitable Rise of the Liberal Democrats

Martin Bright: The Inevitable Rise of England’s Liberal Democrats

There has been a degree of astonishment at the sudden surge of popularity for Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats, and its leader Nick Clegg. The first televised Prime Ministerial debate certainly threw the electoral cards in the air. Those watching from abroad could be forgiven for not having heard of Mr. Clegg or for finding him difficult to distinguish from David Cameron, the Conservative leader. The two men are both almost exactly the same age, both attended top notch public (i.e. private) schools and top notch universities. Both began their careers working for Conservative politics and both have spent most of their working lives in politics.

As it happens, Nick Clegg is a far more cosmopolitan character, with a good knowledge of several foreign languages, something that might disqualify him for high office in the United States, but should be an asset as the leader of a political party in Europe.

Clegg’s performance in last Thursday’s debate was accomplished, particularly in the way he outwitted Cameron by representing himself as the Obama-like voice for change. But it was not good enough to explain the leap in the polls from third to first place. The point is that voters have been looking for an excuse to vote Lib Dem for some time now. The number of seats in parliament for the third party has grown steadily over recent elections despite the fact that there was never any hope of their policy program being implemented.

This has not happened by accident. It was the result of a strategy developed by a man called Chris Rennard (now Lord Rennard), known as “God” in Lib Dem circles. (Rennard has only recently taken a back seat under Clegg’s leadership.) Rennard recognized that the party could build a base in the local governments of British cities as well as in its traditional rural heartlands–the southwest and Scotland. Little by little the party (despite the sneers of the major parties and Westminster journalists) took control of a series of local councils and used the base to begin the fight to win a series of parliamentary seats across the country.

As a result, the Liberal Democrats sucked support first from a demoralized Conservative Party and then from an overconfident Labour Party that had grown arrogant while in power. By stealth and sometimes very dirty local politics, they created something that should be impossible with “first-past-the-post”: a three-party system.

There have been false dawns for “breaking the mold” in British politics before, but we could be witnessing a genuinely transformational moment here.

Photo: Nick Clegg makes the Liberal Democrats’ Leader’s Speech (David Spender/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons 2.0)