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British brew up a different tea party

Conservative Party leader David Cameron speaks about “a contract with the voters” Friday in Derby, England. But it is the Liberal Democrats who are remaking this election.

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Conservative Party leader David Cameron speaks about “a contract with the voters” Friday in Derby, England. But it is the Liberal Democrats who are remaking this election.

For Americans stranded in London recently, the coming British parliamentary elections offered all the discomforts of home.

A seething electorate there is on the hunt for change. They're fed up to the top of their double-decker buses with mounting deficits, expense-padding politicians, a rotten economy, unchecked immigration, and a government they say is ever bigger but never better.

I thought to myself: Flatten the accents and add a sign or two about "death panels" and Obama with a Hitler mustache and I could be watching a tea party protest in United States.

And just like home, all that populist furor appeared to be working to the advantage of conservative candidates. But over the two weeks that I was in Britain, that script got a major rewrite. Change is coming when the United Kingdom goes to the polls Thursday, but it is not going to be quite what anyone had predicted even a month ago.

Perhaps the person most surprised about this was the leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron. Running against a Labor Party headed by the charmless and unpopular Gordon Brown, he looked like an easy choice for voters whose patience with Labor was exhausted after 13 years in power. In response to Labor's "Big Government" policies, Cameron offered a "Big Society" platform that aimed to restore power over schools, and even police departments, to citizens.

Few people had forgotten that this power-to-the-people mantra was coming from the same politicians who had used taxpayer money to renovate their homes. But given that both parties had engaged in that distasteful business, Cameron had a comfortable lead in the polls simply by virtue of not being Brown.

"But (Cameron) made a huge, glaring strategic mistake," says Paul Staines, who writes as "Guido Fawkes" on the British political blog, "because there were actually two 'change candidates.' The other was Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems."

On April 15, the night of Britain's first-ever televised debate between party leaders, Nick Clegg was little more than the top name of a perennially irrelevant party. The Liberal Democrats occupy 63 of the 646 seats in Parliament. (Labor, by contrast, has 345.) Clegg, though, bears no resemblance to the out-of-date knock on the Lib Dems as sandal-wearing granola crunchers. Clegg's easy, clear-spoken manner, not to mention youthful good looks, turned the 90-minute debate into a video calling card to the nation.

A poll by Guardian/ICM indicated that 51 percent of debate watchers said Clegg had won, compared to 20 and 19 percent for Cameron and Brown.

How did he do it? He made the more convincing argument that he represented a real change from the two "old parties." Commentators have pointed out the irony that the Liberals, who merged with the Social Democrats in the 1980s, have been around since the 19th century. But it's all in the delivery, and Clegg, a multilingual former trade negotiator, is nothing if not smooth in front of a microphone.

His equally solid performance in a second debate a week later proved that despite an attempted roughing up by the conservative press, Clegg's party was going to be a real factor in the election. Winning a majority of seats is all but impossible, but polls show the Lib Dems could do well enough to force a hung Parliament in which neither Labor nor the Conservatives had a sufficiently large majority to rule without Clegg's help forming a coalition.

That help won't come cheaply. If Labor somehow manages to overcome Brown's propensity for alienating his own voters (see: Gillian Duffy, you're a bigot), the price might be forcing Brown to step aside.

Frankly, given Brown's unpopularity, that might not be as steep a price as the Conservatives would have to pay. Far more ideological space separates Cameron and Clegg on everything from nuclear armaments, breaking up big banks, attitudes toward the European Union and immigration reform. The biggest difference of all is the Lib Dems' self-interested desire to completely overhaul the electoral system — abolish "first past the post" and implement proportional representation.

This is the point at which comparisons to the tea party in the United States require major qualifiers.

You won't find any antigovernment types among the Lib Dems — they're quite comfortable with a reasonably activist state. And they don't count anyone in their camp who remotely resembles the "birthers" who insist President Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen.

But the more significant differences between these two groups may be how they're constructed rather than what they stand for. Inconsequential though it may have been for decades, the Lib Dems are poised to shake things up precisely because they are a party operating inside the electoral system.

No one can dispute the effect the tea party has had on the political debate in this country. Republicans who don't align clearly with tea partiers on health care reform and government spending have paid the price on the campaign trail — witness Charlie Crist's announcement Thursday. And there's every reason to believe that influence will carry through to November.

But does the lack of a leader — not to mention a deliberate resistance to forming a cohesive party — mean the tea party movement is less likely to have impact beyond that?

"If there is a lesson here for the U.S., it's that an extreme movement like the tea party is not the most likely vehicle for a protest party," wrote E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post, calling the Lib Dems the "real" tea party. "A lot of voters are more grumpy than angry, searching for palatable and reasonable alternatives than an ideological adventure. Clegg and the Lib Dems definitely offer that in Britain."

Don't discount the power of extreme movements outside the system, says Charles Franklin, co-founder of and professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin.

Though the United States remains a resolutely two-party system, outside movements and third parties have changed the national political landscape even without having a single seat in Congress. Look at how the civil rights struggle shaped the Democratic Party, Franklin says. Likewise, the antiabortion movement transformed Republicans from a business-focused party to one driven by social issues.

One thing is quite comforting, no matter which country we're talking about: The level of political engagement is as high as the anger, and that's something no healthy democracy can do without.

Bill Duryea is the Times national editor. Matt Ford in London contributed reporting.

British brew up a different tea party 05/01/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 30, 2010 8:39pm]
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