UK's LibDem Surge Leads to Calls for Inclusion of Third Party and Independent Candidates in US Political Debates

In the run-up to the general election scheduled for early May in the United Kingdom, Nick Clegg, the leader of the UK's largest third party, the Liberal Democrats, has quickly become the most popular figure in British politics, having soundly defeated his rivals from the ruling duopoly parties in the first of three televised debates. The Guardian reports:
A week ago Clegg was in third place as the leader "campaigning best for the votes of people like you". Now he has leapfrogged his rivals to first place, on 33%, up 20 points. Cameron has dropped 14 points, from 40% to 26%. Brown is down four points, 22% to 18% today. Men are marginally more impressed by Clegg, and women still more impressed by Cameron, than on average.
As the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Clegg has been an outspoken critic of the ruling Labor-Conservative Party duopoly. Last August, I excerpted an op-ed he had published in the UK Independent arguing that "the duopoly that dominated British politics in the 20th century is dying on its feet." Clegg's sudden popularity has led to some noteworthy revelations of explicit bias against independent and third party political activism in the British media. In the Guardian, David Yelland writes that coverage of the third party Liberal Democrats has long been effectively "banned" in the British press:
At the Sun, we deliberately ignored the Lib Dems. The cosy pro-Cameron press may now be left floundering . . . in my five years editing the Sun I did not once meet a Lib Dem leader, even though I met Tony Blair, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith on countless occasions. (Full disclosure: I have since met Nick Clegg.)

I remember in my first year asking if we staffed the Liberal Democrat conference. I was interested because as a student I'd been a founder member of the SDP. I was told we did not. We did not send a single reporter for fear of encouraging them . . .

It gets even worse. While it would be wrong to say the Lib Dems were banned from Murdoch's papers (indeed, the Times has a good record in this area), I would say from personal experience that they are often banned – except where the news is critical. They are the invisible party, purposely edged off the paper's pages and ignored. But it is worse than that, because it is not just the Murdoch press that is guilty of this. [Emphasis added.]

Clegg's surprise victory in the televised debate and subsequent bump in the polls has already begun to affect the political discourse on this side of the Atlantic. Writing in the Cap Times, a progressive news and opinion outlet based in Wisconsin, John Nichols argues that American political debates are "robbed of life and meaning by the exclusion of credible third party and independent contenders." An excerpt:

Unfortunately, as Jeff Cohen, the founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, notes, what made the British debate exciting -- the inclusion of an alternative voice -- is exactly what the two major parties in their U.S. and their media allies work so hard to prevent with debate commissions and ridiculous rules for who is and is not “credible.”

American political debates are robbed of life and meaning by the exclusion of credible independent and third-party contenders. This year’s campaigns for U.S. House and Senate seats, as well as for three dozen governorships around the country, will feature candidates from many parties and perspectives. Moderate Republicans such as former Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee are mounting exciting independent campaigns. There’s talk that Florida Gov. Charlie Crist may exit the GOP and seek a Senate seat as an independent. Tea party activists are preparing third-party bids, as are Libertarians, Greens and others.

In Wisconsin, a state with a long third-party tradition, there are lots of rumblings this year. Cumberland City Councilman Rob Taylor is running for the U.S. Senate on the Constitution Party ticket, and the Greens are busily recruiting contenders. Perhaps most significantly, there been some buzz about the prospect that former Congressman Mark Neumann might switch from the Republican primary and run for governor as an independent. And the possibilities don’t end there. If we open our debates up, as Britain has begun to do, we’ll open up our politics. And that’s the best tonic for democracy.

Update: In a similar vein, Henry Olsen writes at the AEI Blog that American politicians should be paying very close attention to the Clegg phenomenon:

American pols should take notice. As I wrote recently in National Review, American polls and election results going back nearly 30 years have shown growing popular support for Independents with growing distrust of government. . . . If America’s broad electoral and demographic middle continues to feel unrepresented by both major parties, an enterprising politician can run and win as an Independent in 2012.


Samuel Wilson said...

Of course, in a parliamentary system Clegg has to depend on his popularity rubbing off on all the lesser-known LibDems standing for seats across the country. Only a relative handful of people will actually get to vote for Clegg himself. Making a celebrity of the party leader doesn't exempt the party from doing the ground-level work necessary to win him the parliamentary majority without which he can't wield power. In that respect, focusing on Clegg's personal success is even more futile than American third parties staking all on presidential elections.

d.eris said...

Very true. I'm actually most interested to see how the many independent candidates do, and what kind of effect the relatively new Independent Network has in the election.