Whatever happened to the Lib Dem surge?

Ever since the first exit poll last night had pundits and politicians scratching their heads and refusing to believe the figures, the mystery of Nick Clegg's disappearing voters has deepened. Greg Hurst in The Times has a theory: it was Clegg's willingness to talk about what might happen in the event of a hung Parliament:

This flurry of speculation meant that television clips of the Lib Dem leader were dominated by him talking about process, about horse-trading, about politics. For three or four days, voters saw him no longer articulating vision or speaking about policy, but talking like any other politician.

For Hurst, the early surge was followed by first a plateau and then a gentle drifting-off, until by the end the Lib Dems were back almost where they started. Some late polls, it's true, did show a marked decline in the party's support. Others, though, continued to show them neck and neck with Labour or even in a strong second place. And while, for me at least, Clegg's performances - in the debates and on the stump - had become tedious and repetitive by the end ("It doesn't have to be like this", first inspiring, eventually sounded wheedling, like a lover begging not to be dumped) polls continued to suggest that most people believed he had "won the debates". And that meant they simply had to vote for him, didn't it?

That, after all, was how the media had framed the election campaign. After initially appearing dumbfounded by the strength of the Nick the Obscure's showing in the debate, the commentariat collectively decided that this was now a three-horse race, that the old certainties were all up in the air, that this would be the election that finally broke the mould of British politics. We were in uncharted territory. Add your own cliché. The British people, the implication ran, were so superficial and easily swayed that a ninety-minute performance would and should overturn decades of political normality.

In fact, though there is a hung Parliament, the voting pattern for the three parties are quite similar to last time. Labour and the Tories merely changed places. Labour, of course, did catastrophically worse than in 2005, narrowly beating Michael Foot's performance in 1983. But the Tories performed at a similar level to Blair's result at the last election, and the Lib Dems were little changed. What made for the dramatically different shape of Parliament was the continuing distortion of the electoral system in Labour's favour. If Michael Howard had done as badly in 2005 as Brown did yesterday, the Tories would have gone down to a third successive landslide defeat. As it was, their narrow defeat in percentage terms left them with Parliamentary forces smaller than those commanded by Foot when he awoke to his party's virtual obliteration.

But I digress, slightly. The main point is that, despite all the talk of radical transformation, the two party system remains largely intact. In some ways this is puzzling: after all, thirty or forty years ago Labour and the Conservatives had mass memberships and deep roots, and for most voting was as much an expression of identity and social solidarity as it was of a careful consideration of the policies on offer. It's supposed to be different now. The leading figures of the three main parties are, in background, rhetoric and even policy, hard to distinguish, all pitching themselves to a narrow subset of floating voters. Whatever deep differences there may be between them, they present themselves to the electorate in a way that positively invites the cynical shrug of "they're all the same". Yet the old voting patterns persist - especially, perhaps, in the Labour strongholds of Scotland, Wales, industrial towns and areas with a heavy ethnic minority settlement. Nor does the Tory stranglehold on its safe seats in Southern England seem to have weakened substantially.

There's no obvious reason why the Lib Dems can't match either the Tories or Labour in terms of votes - or even seats - except habit and inertia. But then habit and inertia are strong forces. And for all Clegg's claims of newness, what was he really offering?

Electoral reform basically means more seats for Lib Dems, more opportunities for inter-party deals and stitch-ups with the political elites paying only lip-service to the will of the people. It doesn't mean more direct participation in politics from the mass of the population, even if it does mean "fairer" votes. (This election, incidentally, though cruel to the Lib Dems, produced a much "fairer" result than 2005, and one much more accurately reflective of the public mood. On both occasions, after all, no one party succeeded in attracting a decisive share of the vote.)

Other than that, the Lib Dem manifesto offered a basket of policies, some similar to those Labour was offering, some closer to Tory ideas, but all of them (like all the Tory and Labour policies) fairly middle of the road. There's nothing wrong with the Lib Dems, particularly, except that they have little different to offer beyond their claim to be different. So inertia and habit ordain that the duopoly survives.

What, then, of the Cleggmania? What of the surge? Was it, as many seem to think, a genuine phenomenon that burned itself out just before polling day made it into something real? I don't think so. I don't believe it ever happened at all.

Election campaigns rarely make much difference. They are media events, short-lived soap operas put on for the entertainment of voters who have already made up their minds, even if they don't know it yet. The party that "wins" the campaign may not win the election. That was true, for example, in 1992, when the Conservative victory took the pundits so much by surprise largely because of the widespread perception that Labour had won the campaign. It was true in 2005, too, when the Labour party, aided by a rigged electoral system, wons its last majority: Blair's campaign, by common consent, was dreadful. Here's the interesting thing, though: opinion polls during a campaign are often less reliable than those immediately before it. It's almost as if people asked during those carnivalesque weeks who they intend to vote for are answering a different question entirely: who do you think is running the better campaign? Inside the voting booth, however, the froth of the campaign lifts, and people vote in the way they were always going to.

The Clegg surge, then, was never going to be reflected in the final result, because it did not represent a real political phenomenon. Rather, it was an aesthetic judgement, an acknowledgement that Nick Clegg had put in the best performance. He won the campaign. He won, if you like, the audience prize. But that's a very different thing from winning the election. It's almost as though the public, the politicians and the media - the three actors in the democratic process - are engaged in a dance of mutual self-delusion, telling each other that the campaign matters, and that the stunts, the gaffes and, this time, the debates, are what decide the result. In fact, this election, like most elections, was over before it was even called.


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