The 2010 United Kingdom General Election campaign was boring for a while but for me the first TV debate energised it beyond expectations. The media is concentrating at the moment on the personality aspects – and they are important. But I think that the possibility of the three main parties being within a few percentage points of one another on polling day is a huge boost to democracy. Surely if the outcome is uncertain more people will vote – and more will take an interest. The Conservatives wanted a quiet campaign where â€œDo you want five more years of Gordon Brown?â€ and repeating the â€œChangeâ€ mantra would do the job for them. Nick Clegg has burst this bubble and it wonâ€™t re-form! Now Dave has not only to sell change but he needs to say why the Tory brand of change is the right one for an elector to choose. He is no longer Obama (if he ever was) â€“ the danger is that he might now be seen as McCain!
I think that we did see the real David Cameron on the first debate. He looked very odd indeed – and that’s saying something when he was alongside Brown who, as Neil Kinnock has said, looks better on Radio. I canâ€™t quite put my finger on why Cameron looked so strange â€“ almost like an alien â€“ but no doubt the clever folks at Central Office are on the case. Cameronâ€™s voice was OK â€“ how has he managed to modulate away from the Eton accent? Quite an achievement. He didnâ€™t go for the throat at either Clegg or Brown and at times he got lost completely. His pre-drafted peroration at the end was excellent â€“ as a CV. But I doubt that it really worked with a very cynical electorate.
He made, in my view, two bad mistakes:
The â€œ40-year-old black manâ€ was an appalling description of the man he met in Plymouth. It throws together all non-Caucasians into one black pot. Far better to have identified where the man originally came from as a six-year-old (The West Indies? India? Somewhere else?) rather than just categorist him (vaguely) by his colour. The question was about immigration not about colour!
The â€œAs someone who has got two children, one of whom started at a state school in Londonâ€¦â€ was disingenuous. His daughter is at a Faith primary school in Kensington utterly unlike the vast majority of state schools that ordinary kids have to go to. And does anyone believe that when the time comes Arthur Elwen wonâ€™t go to Eton like Daddy? Of course not!
Clegg put a plague on both their houses his references to Labour and the Tories in the debate. His physical position on the left of the three party leaders on the stage allowed him to turn to the other two and sweep them together as â€œold politicsâ€ with the LibDems being the only offer of true change. This is seductively attractive â€“ especially to a new generation of voters brought up on the X Factor and Strule Come Dancing. Remember this younger electorate chose John Sergeant ahead of real dancers and refused to be told not to. They will have no compunction about choosing the LibDems and Clegg for similar reasons. Headlines like â€œCameron says itâ€™s a two horse raceâ€ (in “The Daily Â Telegraphâ€) donâ€™t help the Tories at all â€“ it sounds arrogant and it patently isnâ€™t true. Indeed for years it has been clear that the main thing that stands in the way of Cameron and government is the strength of the LibDems.
I first became interested in politics as a fifteen year-old at the time of the Orpington bye-election in 1962. Orpington promised that the old order could be shattered and it was very exciting at the time – but it didnâ€™t happen of course. Then in the early 1980s I became one of the first members of the SDP who similarly tried to break the mould. That didnâ€™t happen either. Now, for the first time potential mould-breaking may be happening during a General Election campaign. It may run out of steam and it may once again be a disappointment for those who want real change. But the chances of the mould being shattered for good are higher now than ever before in modern Britain. I hope that it happens.