Saturday, April 17, 2010

Tories win battle of ideas - but Clegg wins battle of personalities

Whether you take the view that politics is essentially about the big issues facing the country, or whether you see it as merely a clash of egos, there has been plenty to chew on this week as the election battle continued to shape up.

The 'policies v personalities' dichotomy was perhaps most elegantly summed-up by Denis Healey, writing about his former colleague Roy Jenkins in his autobiography 'The Time of My Life.'

"He saw politics very much like Trollope, as the interplay of personalities seeking preferment, rather than, like me, as a conflict of principles and programmes about social and economic change," he wrote.

So while Healey doubtless saw the publication of the parties' manifestos as the key event of the last seven days, Jenkins would have been more likely to incline towards Thursday's TV debate between the three main party leaders.

First off, then, the manifestos. In a nutshell, Labour's was the dullest, the Lib Dems' the longest and most detailed, and the Tories' by far the cleverest.

That is not to say the Tories had all the best ideas. Some of them - such as allowing local people to sack failing police chiefs and headteachers - may well cause more problems than they solve.

But the point is, at least are they are ideas, and at least they are fresh.

By going big on the 'new localism,' Tory leader David Cameron may well succeed in capturing the 'anti politics' mood that has gripped the country ever since the MPs expenses debacle of last summer.

The absence of such an overarching vision or ‘big idea’ in the Labour document, by contrast, seemed to underline the view that the party needs a spell in opposition to renew itself.

That impression was scarcely dispelled by the TV debates, in which a greying, seemingly exhausted Prime Minister was forced to square up to two younger, more vigorous and more charismatic rivals.

Mr Brown could have tried to use his greater experience to advantage, but perhaps constrained by the format, he seemed oddly reluctant to attack his opponents.

For instance, instead of trying to engage intellectually with Mr Cameron's claims that Labour’s National Insurance rise is about wasting money rather than cutting the deficit, he should have told him to stop talking rubbish.

The opinion polls have already declared Nick Clegg the big winner of the debate, and I have to say that confirmed my own impression

He made a slight fool of himself by refusing to say whether he agreed with Mr Brown's plans for a referendum on the voting system when we all know he would love nothing more, but that aside, it was an assured performance from the Lib Dem leader.

His best moment came when he pointed out that both parties had blocked his plans to allow constituents to recall their MPs in the event of serious wrongdoing.

This idea has since appeared in one form or another in all three parties' manifestos - a perfect illustration of how the old, adversarial politics frustrates real progress.

So will Mr Clegg's 'victory' change the dynamics of the contest?

Well, one thing is certain. The Lib Dems can expect an onslaught from the 'big two' over the next few days such as they have never seen.

But though it is still early days, it is beginning to look as though the will of the public in this election may be to deny both of the two main parties an outright majority.

If so, it is just possible that this could be the election that finally changes the face of British politics for ever.

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Anonymous said...

In your dreams - Cameron was a disaster. He was trounced by Brown

Stephen Rouse said...

I wonder whether Clegg can pull off the same trick twice. Last week he had the advantage of novelty, and being able to exploit our over-familiarity with both Brown and Cameron. In the next two debates, there will be greater pressure on him to spell out what makes the Lib Dems distinctive, other than not being Labour or the Tories.
Disagree with our friend above that Cameron was a disaster - although accidentally declaring war on China was a bit unfortunate.

Anonymous said...

Strange, I rather thought that Clegg won the battle of ideas as well. Brown just looked as though he had been drinking snake oil...

Jeremy smyles said...

Cameron talks..and talks...and talks..and talks..and says nothing because he doesn't want us to know what's in store for us should he win.

It's quite possible Cameron could continue his vacuous speeches on 'TIME FOR A CHANGE' right up to election day and, soon after, be given the keys to number ten, then we'll find out what his plans are, and if the policies we already know about are an indication, it will be to form a HARD RIGHT WING government. For more comment see Jeremy Smyles' blog;