The Citizens’ Campaign: Time for Change

11:00 am - April 21st 2010

by Hobhouse    

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As the United Kingdom’s political laws dissolve into a volcanic sunrise, how do we start to make sense of this moment? Some may blame it on the ash-cloud, others on reality television. But the truth is that the history of the present is being written today: not by the politicians on our television screens, nor yet by shadowy forces, but by us, the British people. This chance doesn’t come along too often.

As Hobhouse for the next few weeks, I can call it as I see it. Anyone who swims around the delta of politics has loyalties; assumptions; even vows of omerta. This baggage has its place. But in moments of real change it can stop us from seeing or voting straight. So let’s ditch the baggage, and connect a few dots: from Cleggmania to the skin-shedders of the two-party system, from TV to a deeper electronic democracy — and the growing Citizens’ Campaign.

Conventional wisdom doesn’t take long to solidify. This is the TV election, it says. The leaders’ debates introduced Nick Clegg to the nation, and granted him the same podium as the big boys. 90 minutes of X-Factor reality TV changed everything and gave birth to Cleggmania.

I’m not so sure. Firstly, this election is about much more than the Liberal Democrats (of which more later.) And their big poll surge began before Nick Clegg won the first leaders’ debate on ITV (the ICM poll showing the Lib Dems on 27% was all but complete by then).

How do you make sense of that?

The only explanation I’ve come up with is this. We the people had been going through the motions, tuning out politics as usual for quite awhile – but early last week, the election broke through our jamming fields and got us thinking.

And many of us found that when we thought about it just a bit, we were far from thrilled by the choices on offer. A pair of parties who had both let us down before. Churning out hackneyed spin and untrustworthy homilies. Led, to be unkind, by an obsessive, violent hermit and an airbrushed Etonian car salesman.

Perhaps that’s when the buried dissatisfaction, from expenses to Iraq, started to rise. The finest blog comment of the election so far nails it (from Liberal Conspirator John Q Publican): this has been a long time coming. We started to cast around a little more, beyond our grudging habits of allegiance, abstention and see-saw swinging – and the Lib Dems jumped into contention before the debate.

Then the TV cameras came on in Manchester, where Nick’s low profile may ironically have proved an asset. Suddenly here was a new character on the stage – but more than that, the right new character, an X Factor that pre-dates Cowell. He robustly personified the longed-for change which felt out of reach, but at the same time his “transparency”, his negative capability, his intelligent and passionate ordinariness, opened up the space for people to follow their hearts and hopes for change.

The debate affected the 9.4 million who watched, of course. But its greatest effect was in the nationwide echo chamber of the media — and the millions of chance conversations this sparked, falling on fertile ears, just as the pre-debate ICM poll was released. This is when the Lib Dems started to go viral. There is something a little hysterical about it — the Princess Diana analogies are not all wrong. It’s the state we’re in. But the speed with which Nick Clegg’s win flipped the narrative of this election is testament to how weak and vulnerable the “Cameron coronation” story was. The real Great Ignored — the turbulent undercurrents of public dissatisfaction with politics as usual — proved stronger than anyone thought.

Now, turning to the skin-shedders of the two parties: Nick Clegg’s debate win was so clear partly because it was immediately recognised as such by the Labour spin operation – from Mandelson to Campbell and the rest.

That recognition was dramatic, however tactical it was. It might not have been offered so generously after the ICM results had been released. And it marked a wider trend. Some of the sharpest organisers, ideologues and innovators from Labour and the Conservatives alike have scented the winds of change blowing through the system, and they seem to like what they smell. This is true of the cunning and unscrupulous, but also of the principled (the line between the two is not always clear…).

It’s tragic watching Labour big beasts contort themselves into new shapes for a hung parliament and a progressive coalition while hacking away at the Lib Dems, stretching vainly for a Labour majority and sliding in the polls. Particularly so if you hold a membership card. Some of them have known they needed to make this shift for years, some have even chafed for it, but few seem to know how to do it. You can see how Ed Balls hates it.

Labour, Labour, Labour… they’re not finding the best notes to play so far, and they’re sliding painfully. The need for renewal has never looked clearer or more urgent. Whatever the final result, the Blair/Brown era is over.

By contrast, the Obama-inspired tribunes of the Labour blogosphere, Anthony Painter and Alex Smith of LabourList, have both written important, honest paeans of praise to Cleggmania. They like these winds of change: they’ve felt them before. This is particularly courageous from Alex, who’s up against Lib Dems in the Islington council elections. But Anthony asks the real question for Labour. “This is a change election. There doesn’t seem to be any way of re-framing that. So what’s the change narrative?” Even Alastair Campbell’s post-debate musings had a touch of this honesty, before he took fright at the polls and re-discovered his baying partisan.

On the other side of the aisle, it only took populist-libertarian Tory cheerleader Guido Fawkes a day or two longer to start publicly revelling in the rise of Clegg and fantasising about a Liberal-Tory coalition.

True, the party faithful of ConservativeHome take the opposite view, as do many party spokespeople; and the camp of the nasty hit-men seems to be strengthening.

But David Cameron’s hastily re-arranged party political broadcast on Monday sent another skin-shedding message. As he doubled down on his “Big Society” story and did his best to ape Clegg, it felt like he was struggling to ride the same transforming and clarifying wave the Lib Dems have caught. You glimpse what the Tory party might start to look like if they had to forge a broader coalition — as they will if the voting system changes. This isn’t an inept campaign. It’s an existential crisis.

Still, Cameron’s offer to “join the government of Britain” and his claim to “blow apart the old way of doing things” are mostly spin. His localism, direct democracy and enthusiasm for civic services are real; but at root he wants a loyal supporters’ club, and a band of volunteers to do everything from coaching the kids to cleaning the toilets.

The British people don’t want to join in politics as usual. We don’t aspire to be ants rebuilding our country in the Cameroonian vision.

We want to change the government of Britain to its core.

That’s why a third factor — the growing tide of non-party campaigns around this election — is so fascinating and extraordinary.

Relatively speaking, the remarkable Lib Dem surge (which may yet recede) and Labour-Conservative skin-shedding are familiar ground.

But there’s a new Citizens’ Campaign out there in the country, and it’s bigger than anyone. Day after day in the polls, more people want to elect a parliament with no overall majority than support solo government by either of the main parties. Part of this is a hanging instinct, part is more deliberate and positive. By my count, well over two-thirds of a million citizens will be directly connected to this election through non-party internet movements pressing for a balanced outcome and a reforming parliament, and casting their votes for that. Vote for a Change are 50,000-strong, POWER2010 around the same – and the Rage Against the Machine Facebook campaign to vote Lib Dem is passing 120,000 members. This is far from the X Factor’s manufactured pap.

Now the heavyweights are limbering up: according to my inbox this week, the MoveOn-inspired 38 Degrees (125,000-strong) and Avaaz (380,000!) are both polling their UK members on such a direction. More on all of these another day, as their strategies coalesce. The “Hang ’em” New Statesman article and subsequent campaign aggressively opened the space, with support from commentators like Timothy Garton-Ash (a centrist voice that swing seats will listen to, and no stranger to velvet revolutions).

Hundreds of thousands more are reading the progressive blogs, where this debate is taking off, and using Twitter — where instant reaction for everyone has broken some of the media’s lock on the narrative. This internet wave may feel chaotic, but in an election where 100,000 votes can determine the outcome, it could have a huge impact. Let’s see if the media start paying attention.

Arguably, the Lib Dem surge is part of the Citizens’ Campaign and not vice versa. This Campaign is only starting to go viral. But it taps the public energy perhaps more directly than any of the parties can. And all this provides a powerful counterforce to the tabloid barons who are pouring poison and fear in the ears of the electorate in an attempt to stop this wave. They know how much this transformation threatens the strange and deformed vision of Britain which they’ve been carving out for decades, and they’re playing dirty – but they don’t own this country, and it’s time they found that out.

It’s anyone’s guess where all this goes next. It depends on what we all do — from party campaigners to bloggers, from journalists to citizens. The second TV debate, on foreign policy, could break or re-energise the Clegg momentum. (His policies on Iraq, Afghanistan and yesterday, his frank talk on the end of the special relationship will resonate from the inner cities to the shires –the toxin of Europe runs deep, but is not yet impervious to refreshing common sense).

But just for a moment, let’s raise our sights and see what this election is really about: a cleansing surge of energy to change the way we run this country.

Let’s make sure we tell that story of hope positively, with passion and open hearts and ideas for what to change on the other side of this decisive vote.

And above all, let’s not bottle it. We won’t get a better chance to forge a twenty-first century democracy and a twenty-first century Britain — or to cast off the undead millstone of our imperial past.

Speak again soon.

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About the author
Hobhouse comes from a long line of pseudonymous pamphleteers and British progressives. It's better that way. Connect on Twitter: @hobhouse2010
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Elections2010 ,Lib-left future ,Our democracy ,The Left

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Reader comments

Well said

Very well said

Hear, hear!

Now..if only I could find a “Hang Parliament” poster for my window 🙂

Good thinking Galen. Has anyone seen some good posters in this vein? Or can someone design one? 😉

I haven’t found a “Hang Parliament”.. but during the search this one did make me laugh:

We need to ensure the popular will trumps the shoddy electoral system:

Galen10: are these guys doing a self-print window poster? If not, it occurs that it might be a good idea. You could suggest it to them 🙂

And to the OP: thank you for the hat-tip.

For those enamoured of Mr Clegg, there is also the “I agree with Nick” page:

Maybe if Gordon wore an “I agree with Nick” t-shirt at the next debate he might pick up a few points in the polls?

Well said!

Galen – is that you on facebook? The link takes you to someone called Andy.

You may ask to have that edited.


Oops..butter fingers! Thanks for the heads up. I’ll email Sunny.

Great post. Totally agree.

Without wishing to get pulled into the same debate as I seem to get into every single time, isn’t it something of a paradox to be saying that we should “raise our sights and see what this election is really about: a cleansing surge of energy to change the way we run this country” whenever power is almost certain to be handed from one corrupt, unaccountable elite to another corrupt, unaccountable elite?

I mean, far be it from me to strip the wind from anyone’s wings, but with the potential exception of electoral reform (and I’ll believe it when I see it), the Lib Dems aren’t a change in the way the country is run. That being the case, the three major parties, none of them a change in how the country is run, are still going to come out on top of the political system.

But even assuming that the Lib-Dems are a change, and assuming that electoral reform is about as exciting as it gets with regards changing how the country is run, isn’t it hyperbolic windbaggery of the highest order to declare what the election is about – and in such gushing terms – before any votes are cast or counted? Yes, we know people are angry at the political class etc…but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this is what the election is about.

Or have we forgotten the 2 million unemployed, the economic crisis and so on?

@ 13 Dave

I don’t think anyone actually underestimates the scale of the challenges ahead, or thinks that the bright sunny uplands of post May 6th Britian will suddenly look all that different. Before you rain on the parade too hard though….. and tho I accept that the LD’s are to a large extent still part of “da management”… there is still reason to hope.

Assuming a hung parliament comes about (particulalrly if it isn’t just by a few seats) it will be hard for either Labour or the Tories to soldier on as tho nowt much happened! For the first time in generations there is a REAL prospect of a change in the political system. The unknown is always rather frightening, and it is not without risks of it’s own, but can you honestly say that’s a worse prospect than more of the same?

Surely that’s what is behind people voting for a hung parliament?

People aren’t voting for a hung parliament. Yes, the polls say they favour it – which is bloody stupid all of itself, based on the history of hung British parliaments in times of economic crisis, though that’s another discussion – but it’s impossible to vote for a hung parliament. No one knows how everyone else will vote in a given constituency never mind across the nation as a whole, so no one can actively vote for a hung parliament. People are voting for the parties they want to see elected, or at least what they figure to be the least worst option – which is what happens every time. It just so happens that the numbers seem to point to higher disengagement and a more even spread in the vote.

This forms part of my point; people aren’t (can’t) consciously vote for a hung parliament – and what they are voting for, we have literally no way of knowing. We can speculate why one party gains and another party loses, but you may as well read tea leaves.

Which brings me back to my original thesis: isn’t it a bit silly to declare what the election is about? If the Tories win an outright majority are we suddenly going to give up on reform, because the people have spoken on the issue? Hardly. We’ll keep fighting the good fight. So really the election is about what every election is about; competing issues which don’t fit squarely into any partisan camp, about which people may or may not be well informed or moved by, and which may or may not correlated to how people vote.

And I haven’t even begun on the cynicism with which I regard your statement, “Let’s make sure we tell that story of hope positively, with passion and open hearts and ideas for what to change on the other side of this decisive vote.” From where I’m standing, and presuming you’re not a cabinet or shadow cabinet member in disguise, what will change has little to do with what we want and more to do with political expediency and the ever-constant demands which the capitalist class places on our political system.

That little which is dictated by either political opportunism in the guise of populism or genuine long-held principles for reform – such as, to be fair, the Lib-Dems and PR – will be emasculated by its filtration first through the environment of Westminster, then through the media and armies of spin lined up by the rival camps. We watched it happen to a Democratic majority in the US over a key plank in Obama’s re-election campaign, which appealed to millions. Is there some reason it won’t happen here?

Yes, we’ll fight against it, but what else is new? This election won’t change that.

(I’m not being defeatist by the way, apologies if it comes across as that – I just have a problem with people placing emphasis on this general election. The Lib-Dems could win six hundred seats and still things would plod on in much the same direction, with a few contingent variations. The real issue, and one with which Liberal Conspiracy is deeply concerned, is what we’re doing and how we can develop structures to hold our political institutions to account beyond elections.)

Apologies, comment #15 is written as though Galen wrote the original article, which he didn’t, but if you change a few pronouns to definite articles it still stands.

@ 16 Dave Semple

You know, I’m not so sure about people not voting for a hung parliament. I think after the first debate, a lot of people are doing just that. The momentum behind the idea that “we, the people” could deprive BOTH Cameron and Brown of a majority seems to be growing if anything.

Let’s face it the majority of people just aren’t that engaged in the minutiae of politics, policies and the concerns of those who are politcally more engaged. Fair enough, the LD’s may just be part of the existing system, but if they serve as a catalyst for lasting and significant alterations to the existing system, more power to their elbows.

The surge in LD support probably isn’t a ringing endorsement of their platform. It has much more to do with the ennui of an electorate who no longer buy the promises of a politically bankrupt duopoly.

It’s more a hope than certainty, but I earnestly hope you are dead wrong. Change is ach

(oops..dyslexic fingers! contd. from above!)

Change is achievable. Hang parliament now. We can do it, and we should do it, whether you’re an LD supporter or not!

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