We're into the final 10 days before the UK elects its next government. Americans would be amused to spot the many ways Brits are living in the shadow of Obama's historic achievement - yearning, above all, for the excitement he generated. So much so that all the major parties have borrowed pieces of Obama's election machinery - his speechwriters campaign managers and strategies. Each party leader hopes to channel his charisma and trigger new levels of engagement with the electorate.
For the first time, the three largest parties agreed to a series of American-style TV debates. But to the alarm of the Labour and Conservative parties, who have taken their turn to govern for the past 50 years, these televised spectacles brought the smallest party of the big three, the Liberal Democrats, into voters' sitting rooms for the first time. By simply pointing out that novelty, their leader Nick Clegg has stolen the mantle of being the Change Candidate from the Conservative Party's David Cameron, the leader of the current Official Opposition. He's even earned himself the right to become an Obamaesque graphic.
But how much newness can Nick Clegg deliver? Obama is the first black American president ever, implicitly the embodiment of a level of inclusion rarely seen in the USA. He does not need to promise change; he is change. In contrast, Clegg is another upper middle-class white man of the kind that regularly leads Britain. His party, while barely visible behind the familiar duopoly dominating British politics, has nevertheless been around in its specific form for over 20 years (and as the Liberal party since 1839). While he has some brave propositions, such as dropping the Trident missile system, he is not a revolutionary
: he does want to maintain a cheaper military nuclear deterrent and holds off exploring nuclear power for energy.
But with the arrival of a third party in the spotlight, there is a major chance of significant change - not so much the individual politician, but the way we do politics over here. While the Lib Dems were traditionally viewed as the referees between the Leftist Labour Party and the Rightist Conservatives, the financial crisis has them weighing in on the far left with game changing tax plans. This has prompted The Guardian, Labour's staunchest supporter in the past, to ask their readers who they should back for this election. The less partisan Independent meantime, has capitalised on the confusion by challenging Rupert Murdoch's right-leaning hold on British politics through The Sun, The Times and Sky News.
No clear winner will lead to what Brits refer to as a hung parliament whereby the party with the most seats will either create a coalition or be constantly beholden to the smaller parties to pass law, a familiar scene in Congress. Cameron, who until recently was expected to be the next PM, characterises this as paralysis. The Clegg phenomenon has revealed the British public to be keen on the possibility of this kind of coalition (or post-partisan) politics, so much so that the BBC has decided to rename the old term: now they speak of a balanced parliament.
This may signify much greater change than is currently being discussed in the op-ed columns of the UK press. When The Downing Street Project first began to talk up balanced leadership as a way to describe more women in politics, it was a deliberate attempt to create a wider context for the change we are looking for, beyond the simple math of an equal representation of the genders. Balanced leadership implies more input into decision-making from different sections of society: the natural result of this would be a more feminine/less macho style of leadership, displaying less debate and seeking more dialogue, more soft power and less hard power. Beyond constitutional or institutional tinkering, we sought deep cultural change.
Similarly here, balanced parliament evokes more cooperation between the parties and less of the usual knee-jerk contestation. Much has been written about the public's distaste for YahBoo politics where the opposition is over-invested in the failure of the government. Against expectations, this sudden shift in the political dynamics appears to offer voters the chance to usher in an alternative way of doing politics.
But is the public being naive about the politicians' ability to act differently - simply because the largest party in the Parliament will be bereft of a majority, and need to start talking to others? Will the parties in government begin to see each other as partners for the greater good, or will they become obsessed with scoring minor points? In a further twist of events, this may turn out to be a good time for women politicians to show off their mediating skills.
Ironically, it is exactly this challenge that tests whether any of these candidates on offer truly have "The Obama quality". The American public believed this underdog challenger to John McCain, when he said that he could unite America. Everything about Obama's manner and style of leadership suggested that he could listen, empathise and build relationships with people of all kinds. Obama was able, in Gandhi's words, to be the change he wished to see in the world
For a hung parliament or to use the much more preferable term, a balanced parliament - to work in the UK, all three of the party leaders will have to show these qualities. If not, they will be marginalised in this new political culture that the public seems to be calling for. If they can, they will surely also get a mandate to go further. Perhaps, as Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats are calling for, the more European style of democracy as proportional representation will come to the UK. A system where the political choices of citizens are given their due share of seats according to numbers of votes cast for parties - rather than those votes being distorted and misrepresented through wildly differing sizes of constituencies, each still delivering one single MP. That would be an extraordinary change for British politics.
And if that happens, watch out America. Change has a habit of rebounding across the Atlantic.
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