A volcano exploded, spreading chocking black smoke across the scene. Beams of light, from a cathode tube, darted through the billowing clouds. A TV screen for the British Isles. Three white middle-aged men. Only one could win. In the X-Factor election of 2010, the volcano was in British politics, and they named it Cleggamania.
Ever since the science of polling had been born, no one had seen anything like it. The Liberal Democrats surged 50% following the first 90 minute screening of the X-Factor debates. Some said he was in the lead.
A new political star was born. But in the polling day that followed, they ended up with fewer seats than previous. What went wrong with Cleggamania?
In the Cowley Street HQ, the Lib Dem support staff were confused by the polls. Their canvas returns were not detecting the surge. What the pollsters were recording was not what was happening in the target seats.
In the same way that news was telling us of the volcanic ash heading our way from Iceland, all we could see was clear blue sky. Cleggamania was in the news, but didn’t seem real. In fact, it was happening, but everywhere that the Lib Dems were not campaigning.
Cleggamania was the excitement of people who don’t normally follow politics, who don’t normally vote and who have no Lib Dem exposure in their constituency.
As the smoke of the Cleggamania craze billowed across the country, the party didn’t know how to react. All their literature was designed to raise the party’s profile. Now they were now fighting a different campaign.
Meanwhile, their grass roots campaigners were dispersing. The X-Factor election had gone to their heads. Rather than descending on the target seats, they began to insist they could win their own constituencies.
They became thin on the ground in all the places that mattered, deluded that the magic of Cleggamania had finally given them the breakthrough. They believed that the Liberal Democrats were finally going to win.
In the same way that stars are born, under the altruistic gaze of Simon Cowell, only to fade before the day is out, it all ended in tears. Cleggamania was never real. It was just a TV show.
The Lib Dem HQ had poured their resources into 100 target seats, 30 of which they already held. But then came polling day. They ended the campaign with fewer seats than they started. Cleggamania was all an illusion.
Photo by David Spencer
Rennardism is the name the Lib Dems gave their strategy. After Lord Rennard, the mastermind behind their “incremental targeting” strategy. One bloke takes a council seat. His mates come out and they take the neighbouring seat, then the next. Then one of them goes for the parliamentary prize. That’s the strategy.
Their campaigning was ruthless. Conduct a survey and discover an issue. A broken bus-stop, or a dilapidated park bench. Make it a campaign and promise the people everything tomorrow.
This was local campaigning at its most grass roots and where ever they were successful, they attracted the Lib Dems activists, who moved like a flock of starlings, cross country, to where ever the new target seat had been named.
But by 2008 the incremental strategy had stalled. The other parties were onto them and their tactics. It was getting tough out there.
The Lib Dems deposed their drunken leader and put in a posh bloke, then got rid of him and put in a young bloke, Clegg, but still they were falling in the polls. They were doing better when the drunk was in charge.
There must be an answer. They had to make that break from the side-lines to the mainstream of British politics. Then came the break; the X-Factor election. Then came the disappointment at the polls. Then came the misery of coalition politics.
It’s difficult to imagine the disintegration of the Liberals; they’ve been around for so long. But that’s what it’s come to. They have failed in their objectives.
The failure is not their own fault. They existed as an alternative to the British Class system, so well represented by Labour and the Tories. But the class system has faded till it barely exists in modern British society.
Their party is made up of a peculiar mix. The left of the party is far to the left of Labour, yet the right is where two thirds of their seats exist. There is no coherence in the politics of this party and there’s little point in being the underdog, when all reasonable chance of ever succeeding has faded.
Nick Clegg has become so close to David Cameron you’d think they were brothers. Meanwhile, the Lib Dem candidates that failed to find a seat in the last election are co-operating with Labour policy review.
It looks as if they’re breaking apart. Nothing will happen while Labour continues to tread water. The Lib Dems are settled into a wait-and-see posture.
They have no optimism. They are likely to get slaughtered in the council elections in May. The outlook for them is bleak, but still they wait and see. Still they wait and see.