Somewhere between January and May 2010 the Lib Dems made the jump from being a party of local government to being perceived as a genuine possibility for national government. Soaring poll ratings for Clegg, Cable and Huhne indicated that a whole party hierarchy, rather than just isolated constituency MPs, were attracting supporters. Clegg seemed to understand that the voterbase at large was disconcerted not so much with Labour and Tory policy, as the hung parliament suggests, but more with the way that politics was carried out. People had grown tired with Blair’s rhetorical responses to questions on Iraq, and with Mandelson’s suave yet vacuous TV manner. Brown fell victim at Bigot-gate; Cameron too, the self-proclaimed moderniser, failed to distinguish himself from a disconnected political elite. But, for at least a brief period before the last election, there was a public perception that the Lib Dems were a party that genuinely wanted to reform the way we do politics.
Clegg’s proposal was perhaps different to the inevitable promises of reform that accompany any election campaign. Yes, on the one hand, iconic policies on tuition fees, income tax and immigration were held up as avenues of specific reform. But more than this reform was about an axiomatic re-evaluation of our political culture, as Clegg promised to bring the entire system of British politics up to date. The taglines of getting ‘young people’ into politics and ‘restoring trust’ between politicians and voters were articulated with such passion that people really believed in Clegg’s zeal. Not only did Clegg give such a poignant message of modernisation, but, standing between Brown and Cameron during the leadership debates, he mastered the modern mediums of political communication in the process. In contrast to Brown and Cameron, Clegg came across as genuine and spontaneous – both in terms of his message and his demeanour.
Now, alas, with Clegg in government, the spark has gone. This is a great shame. Specific policies aside, the simple fact is that by being part of the coalition Clegg is inadvertently propping up a political system that is only losing the engagement of young voters, let alone managing to modernise. In government with a party which fell victim to such pathetic slogans as ‘hug a hoodie’, and comparing unfavourably in the polls with an unpopular opposition, Clegg has lost all credibility as the voice of change. Perhaps he is a frustrated idealist succumbing to the realities of government. Perhaps he is simply incompetent. Either way, put aside specific Lib Dem policy failures: those on all sides should be concerned that Clegg’s broader message of reform in the political system is drowning as he flounders within that system.
And all this at a time when greater engagement with young people is so desperately needed, to displace a dialogue based on the tenets of rehearsed bullshit and image-mongering. Pre-scripted interviews and live tweeting during parliamentary inquiries smack of a political elite that is failing to adjust its attitude towards, and its use of, modern communication. As a non-Lib Dem I don’t care really care about reforming the House of Lords. I don’t really care about AV. But I do care very much that with the decline of Clegg we are losing a man who might have incurred central reform of political attitude amongst the elite. This is the true tragedy of Clegg’s fall from grace.