Politics has always been a game of egos and personalities, however much it should not be. Thatcher v Kinnock, Blair v Major, Obama v Romney and now Cameron v Miliband as the latest in a list of appealing face-offs. The more interesting study in contemporary British political leadership is not how much the two front runners in an arguably outdated First Past The Post system reflect their party’s fortunes, but to look beyond them, at the other two English party leaders who will very likely deny the latest pair an overall Parliamentary majority. It is also pertinent to this piece that the two leaders about to be discussed are now both vying for the right to be recognised as the third biggest party in British politics, notwithstanding the SNP under Nicola Sturgeon, and less so the Green Party under Natalie Bennett. Crucially, by proxy, the position of the two following leaders within Parliament following the General Election will have a large part in the direction taken on the European question.
Let us start with a leader and his party that is supposedly still one of the main three – Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats. Right now the party stands at less than 10% on every single recent poll, yet holds 56 seats in Parliament and in a clue as to their faith in gains rather than damage limitation, will contest at present less than 300 of 650 Parliamentary seats in May. The Liberal Democrats have always been viewed as the “none of the above” protest party, itself a symptom of two-party politics, and many are now of the view that since entering coalition, they have lost both that status and most of the electorate that comes with it. Add to this the recent Ofcom decision to award UKIP ‘main party’ status akin to that of the other three parties, and many undecided voters may well trade yellow for purple.
Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam constituency ironically shares its name with the university there, and there is considerable scope for it following much of the rest of the Sheffield-Labour heartland vote. That said, even if the understandably irate students there chose to vent their electoral rage, they actually only comprise 15% of the constituency electorate, assuming they are all registered (and willing) to vote. Clegg was always onto a bad start with his tuition fees U-turn; however subsequent actions, most notably his disastrous televised EU battle with Farage have since culminated in a decline evident in both polling and on the doorstep.
The Liberal Democrats will by most accounts do well to still possess half their seats on the morning of May 8th. This will still be enough to form a hypothetical coalition Clegg is only too happy to renew, but the more pertinent question is whether Cameron or Miliband will indeed wish to.
Cameron, if he is still leader of the Conservatives by then will need a trusted ally as Deputy, whilst on current polling Miliband is going to have the presumably more appealing choice of whomever the SNP nominate, thus leaving Clegg out in the cold, should he even hold Sheffield Hallam in the face of a strong Labour would-be coup.
In short, Clegg’s name has become synonymous with two outstanding issues in present day British politics; the wide ranging distrust of politicians (that Clegg epitomised with his coalition policy surrenders) and a blind loyalty to membership of the European Union that simply is not shared by the wider public (as shown by the results of both Farage-EU debates). It is for this reason that Clegg, and therefore the Liberal Democrats are now bordering on electoral irrelevance; rather than “none of the above”, it is more a case of “are they still one of the above”?
Next, let us consider (as virtually every adult in the UK already has) Nigel Farage of UKIP. On one hand, the most popular politician in Britain, who says what others dare not to put the Great back into Britain, on the other, a man who would single-handedly lead the country to economic ruin through dragging Britain into global isolation. Farage is without doubt different to the other prominent politicians in Britain, prima facie, in that he did not attend university at all, that he had a notable career in the commodity trading sector and that he firmly favours outright EU withdrawal, as opposed to some form of fantasised renegotiation that Cameron appears to believe can be achieved.
Farage, most would agree, is the reason above all that UKIP have gained the prominence it has. He was the man who not only annihilated the Deputy Prime Minister on television, but has also been able to present a genuine and unique challenge to both of the two biggest parties, right on their doorsteps.
This was demonstrated simultaneously on October 9th with the landslide victory in Tory Clacton along with the wafer-thin miss in Labour’s Heywood & Middleton. Indeed, one would draw the conclusion that it was Farage’s charisma and indeed his agenda that compelled Messrs Carswell and Reckless to join his crusade, and the Parliamentary victories that came with them.
Farage intends to contest South Thanet for his place in Parliament, and the bookmakers have him as their favourite, albeit narrowly. It falls of course within UKIP’s Kent heartland; where the demographic of largely white men, both older and lesser academically educated fully fit Farage’s target audience.
Farage, love him or loathe him, has several political achievements that cannot be understated. Perhaps the most important has been his ability to entwine the dual issues of EU membership, along with the condition of free EU movement. Being able to bring this to the public fore is profound; it has legitimised the immigration debate that for too long was utterly stifled in this country, as well as demonstrating the political subordination of Britain to an entity that is fundamentally suffering from a democratic deficit. This reaches out to a considerable segment of the electorate who remember a time when Britain was undoubtedly a very different nation with a very different outlook, a time where unfettered European immigration was unheard of, and thus understandably view it with great scepticism.
Farage has also importantly broken the system of two and a half party politics shown by the recent Ofcom decision as referred to before. Whatever one’s views of UKIP, surely more choice for the voter can only be a good thing, and thus this status gained for a party only started in 1993 is nothing short of monumental. UKIP, irrespective of broadcaster arrangements will enter the televised debates for the impending General Election as one of four major parties, and this status alone personifies the Messianic status that Farage holds amongst his followers.
In conclusion, Farage will in all probability gain his place in Parliament on May 8th. Dr Matthew Goodwin, the main authority on UKIP having authored a comprehensive book on the party certainly concludes as much on Twitter. For swinging voters indifferent to Farage’s unorthodox political approach, the idea of having an undeniably box office politician as a local MP could prove quite attractive, whilst the Conservatives will lose the incumbency effect and Labour’s candidate is a mere 24 years old. It is on this basis that the UKIP bubble will appear to do the opposite of burst and actually push on, with target seats like Great Grimsby and Heywood & Middleton indicating a very serious long term threat to the Labour Party in their own heartlands. Clacton and Rochester & Strood both showed an obvious dent to the Conservatives’ ability to retain those deserting for UKIP, and YouGov’s research provides a compelling insight into the damage UKIP are doing to the other would be governing party – every time Farage is pictured in a working man’s club with his pint and a laugh, Miliband will be haunted by a fundamental inability to do the same, something shared by his entire frontbench.
By Nicholas Godleman, Junior Writer for Daily Political View.