Clegg, Obama & the new Lib Dem voters

by Stephen Tall on April 27, 2010

Cross-posted from the International Business Times:

Let’s be clear: the Obama-Clegg comparisons that a few (a very few) in the media have made are not designed to flatter. They have been peddled for two reasons. First, because journalists are lazy, and will grab for the easiest political analogy. And secondly because journalists from the rightwing press have been hoping to over-hype ‘Cleggmania’ to try and provoke a backlash.

But there is one single instance in which I think the comparison holds. The first TV debate was the equivalent of Obama’s victory in the Democratic primaries: the time when a new challenger was introduced to the public, exploded everyone’s assumed calculations of inevitability, and projected himself as the charismatic candidate of hope and change.

There is, of course, a difference in time-scale: Obama’s ‘rise without trace’ took place over 18 months, Clegg’s was compressed into 90 minutes. But the challenge for both after their initial whirlwind is similar. First, to withstand the inevitable attacks launched by consevative vested interests, especially in the media. And secondly to move beyond their image as insurgent repositories of anti-politics protest votes, and prove their fitness to govern.

How is Clegg faring against these two challenges? Oddly the media onslaught has been easiest (so far) to rebuff, assisted both by the clumsy over-the-topness of the rightwing press, and its satirical undercutting on the internet – Clegg himself has said the deluge of ironic #nickcleggsfault Twitter messages of support was one of the highlights of his campaign to date.

Despite the Mail/Sun/Telegraph’s attempts to rough him up, Clegg appeared poised and energetic in Thursday night’s debate on foreign affairs. He could never have hoped to repeat the surprise triumph of the first debate; though most polls concluded he won, the margin was much narrower. His task from now until polling day is to stick to his resolutely upbeat message, that Britain can change, can be fairer; but to combine that with a reassurance that he’s a man who can be trusted to govern responsibly if the Lib Dems find ourselves in a position of power.

The big test still remains: can Clegg and the Liberal Democrats convert the groundswell of goodwill into votes cast in the ballot box? Will the public desire for change defeat the fear of change?

The Lib Dem surge in the polls is geographically evenly spread, but is concentrated in particular among younger voters and those who previously have said they are least likely to vote. While Clegg is most popular among 18-24 year-olds, Cameron does best among older voters. In previous elections this would have given the Tories an automatic advantage.

But what if turnout – which has been stuck at around 60% for the last two elections – returns to the 1997 level of 70%, or even (though less likely) the 78% of 1992? If, as has been claimed, up to 750,000 voters have rushed to join the electoral register, what impact could this have on the general election result?

The truth is, we just don’t know. The Lib Dem surge could prove to be a ‘bubble’, borne aloft by the fickle intentions of those who in the end just won’t vote. But it might, just might, signal an election in which enthusiasm for a new kind of politics gains traction among those groups of voters who until now have felt disenfranchised by old-style politics. Whether it succeeds is now up to the voters. As Nick Clegg told us on Thursday, “You’re the boss”.