Surging Lib Dem Party in Britain Shows the Path to Upending the Status Quo in U.S. Politics
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For those inclined to root for a disruptive brand of politics, there's an election going on for you. It just happens to be across the ocean in the United Kingdom. The nationwide election in the UK is May 6, and for the Liberal Democrats party, it can't get here soon enough.
During the spring of 2008, I got my first taste of working with the Liberal Democrats, during the London mayoral contest. It was the typical frustrating election that Lib Dems tend to have had over the years. A bit of a rise during the initial parts of the campaign -- one that builds up the hopes -- and then a swift crushing downfall as the election date neared, ending with yet another third place finish.
That's because the voters, fearing a wasted vote, usually near the end of the campaign, migrate to one of the more traditional candidates in the Conservative or Labour parties. Two weeks ago, a similar fate might have been about to occur to the Lib Dems. The Conservative party, with David Cameron, was in the lead with 38 percent of the vote; the incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour party trailed with 30 percent, and bringing up the rear was Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems, with polling numbers at 20 percent. The other 12 percent or so gets distributed among the smaller or regional parties. Over the past week though, running against the conventional wisdom, the Lib Dems have surged in the polls to pull even with the other two parties, each garnering around 30 percent of the vote.
Most point toward Clegg's shining moment of clarity in the recent national televised debate as the reason. Nick Clegg was unanimously decided the victor in the debate between the three contenders for prime minister. But that seemed more like a tipping point, rather than a single event. Over the past few elections the Lib Dems have been silently laying the groundwork by building themselves up as a national party; and at the same time, British voters have been getting ready for a brand of disruptive politics they haven't seen in a long time.
When Nick Clegg reassured the voters that they could reject the "old parties" in favor of a future fair, he struck a chord. That last bit of language, "for a future fair" is the slogan of the Lib Dems this cycle, but it's much less potent than the disruptive parts of the Lib Dems' message.
The traditional "more of the same vs. change" argument was reframed by Clegg: There are the two-party politics of old that flip back and forth in power with nothing really changing, and the alternative of supporting the Lib Dems. Nick Clegg deftly combined a message of "it doesn't have to be this way" with a message of a new direction. And what should be noticed here is that Clegg isn't talking about bipartisanship change, but rather disruptive change.
It's tipped the standard "a vote for Lib Dems is a vote wasted" argument on its head. Now, to vote for the Lib Dems is to reject the status quo system as something that needs to be disrupted. A hung Parliament? Bring it on. When the Tory's Cameron trotted out the argument, after Clegg's winning debate performance, that a vote for the Lib Dems was a vote for chaos, he was effectively throwing fuel on the fire.
Both of those factors, change and disruption, play to the strength of the internet for decentralized organizing, and the appeal of a new politics that radically up-ends the status quo. It's happened politically here in the US over the past decade (recall the online-fueled campaigning efforts that led to the Dems' landslide in 2006), and it's happening now in the UK. Most likely, we'll see it back here again, sooner than you think too.