Thursday, 21 February 2008

Is it too late for Nick Clegg to offer a "fresh" face?

We all know that people are pissed off with the way things are going. Voters in the US, the UK and elsewhere keep telling pollsters that their countries are on the wrong track. But they don’t necessarily want big policy changes. The voters are finding their own solution (as they inevitably do): get in some new faces at the top, without risking policy shocks. They are also more and more interested in leaders from a new generation who are untainted by old arguments and who carry less political baggage than what’s already on offer. Senator Barack Obama, with his offer of a fresh break from the baby boomers' culture wars, is the latest example.

My home country New Zealand has a general election later this year. After three terms, the incumbent Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark (57) faces an uphill struggle (but she will fight like hell) against the centre-right National Party’s John Key (46), an MP since 2002 who became his party’s leader in late 2006. The veteran NZ political pundit Colin James says:

. . . "fresh" is John Key's critical advantage.

Clark has been more than 14 years and two months Labour leader, now longest serving by some accounts. She was an MP 27 years ago, a minister 21 years ago and Deputy Prime Minister 19 years ago. She is long in the political tooth.

Key is still new. He has not accumulated enemies as Clark has. He promises a "fresh start". The potency of that slogan is in its plausibility.

Key is not promising a change of direction. He has signed up to most of Labour'smajor policy positions. His "fresh start" for young people predisposed to crime two weeks back consisted mainly of more vigorous action on programmes already in place.

Instead of a new direction, Key's "fresh start" promises fresh energy in the current direction: some amendments and over time discernible leans but nothing dramatic or unsettling.

Key is able to do that plausibly because, unlike his predecessor and his opponent, he is not defined by the debates of the past . . .

James explains what those were and then says:

Key can plausibly present himself as offering "fresh" politics. He can imply he has answers to the "crisis" he says besets us without proposing radical policy change, simply because he is of a new political cohort. He can even take large political risks. . . He can walk where Clark cannot.

In case UK readers haven’t worked it out yet:

There are loose parallels in United States presidential candidate Barack Obama, British Tory leader David Cameron and Kevin Rudd in Australia.

At the age of 41, inexperienced in office and all but unknown before 2005, Cameron, in his own way and in this political environment, seems to tick a lot of same boxes as Key and Obama.

Nick Clegg is also 41 and still a new face at Westminster. But he came to his party’s leadership two years after Cameron. The new generation of voters already had someone new to identify with. So a “fresh face” won’t quite be enough.

Has he arrived too late? Not necessarily. The last time voters were getting very weary of a government, in 1997, the Lib Dems invited them to make a real difference and it worked. I think that could work next time. But offering a genuinely fresh start means taking large but calculated political risks and walking where Brown and Cameron cannot.

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