'Cleggmania' faces key test in British commuter town

GUILDFORD, Katherine Haddon - If Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats are to be the shock success story of Britain's May 6 general election, then the affluent commuter town of Guildford should, in theory, be their first trophy.
"Cleggmania" is the phrase coined by media to describe the 43-year-old's flip from also-ran to contender after two strong showings in TV debates which saw his party surge from third to second, or even first, in opinion polls.

Nick Clegg (left), David Cameron (centre) and Gordon Brown.
Nick Clegg (left), David Cameron (centre) and Gordon Brown.
But if it is to be more than just a flash in the pan, the Lib Dems, as Clegg's centrist party is known, must convert hype into votes in key seats like Guildford, 30 miles (50 kilometres) southwest of London.
The town, plus the surrounding chocolate box villages which make up the constituency, was won by David Cameron's Conservatives at the last election but is now the Liberal Democrats' top target nationally.
The sitting MP has a majority of just 347 votes, or 89 if recent boundary changes are counted.
So is "Cleggmania" ripping through the well-appointed streets of Guildford? Maybe, but if it is, it is doing so in a very understated, English way.
Many voters are impressed by Clegg's performances in Britain's first-ever televised leaders' debates.
But they dismiss the hype and say local issues like pub closures and potholes will be as important as national ones when they decide between the Liberal Democrats, the Tories and other parties which look likely to receive fewer votes here.
"Good performance on television and suddenly he's ahead in the polls," Sharon Barratt, 46, told AFP. "We're supposed to be choosing a prime minister, not a television star."
James Morgan, 32, added Clegg had performed "really well" on TV. But it was the change he offered compared to Cameron, whose party was in power for most of the 20th century, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, which was most appealing.
"Nobody can tell the difference between Labour and the Conservatives, neither of them in my lifetime seem to have done anything memorable that's positive for the people," Morgan said.
"Just anything different seems positive at the moment."
Many voters also highlighted fears over Britain's fragile economic recovery and frustration at a nationwide scandal over some lawmakers' lavish expense claims.
Liberal Democrat candidate Sue Doughty was Guildford's member of parliament (MP) between 2001 and 2005 -- the first non-Conservative in the county of Surrey since 1906 -- and is now trying to win the seat back.
She said the Clegg factor has played well on the campaign trail and had energised debate.
"When I walk up and down the high street, they're actually talking about who they're going to vote for, why, and what Nick Clegg said," she told AFP.
"That's unusual, because people don't bother discussing it normally with their friends."
Conservative Anne Milton, an energetic former nurse who won the seat from Doughty by a narrow margin in 2005, agrees people are certainly talking now.
But she argues that what voters want most is a clear change of government. Most commentators agree the Lib Dems are unlikely to win enough seats to form a government themselves but could be kingmakers with Labour or the Conservatives in a possible hung parliament, where no party has a clear majority.
"Without a doubt, that's been there for the last year or more, definitely a feeling that they want a change of government," Milton said.
Of a possible hung parliament, she added: "It sounds good if you've never experienced it but it would be a disaster. What people want is clarity."
Some experts say the very fact that voters are now talking about Clegg in the same breath as Brown and Cameron, whose party has seen its opinion poll lead shrink recently, suggests something is changing around Britain.
Andrew Russell, a Manchester University politics lecturer, argues that while voters' interest in the Liberal Democrats nationally has been building for some time, some had not supported them in previous general elections because they did not think they could make a big impact.
"People have often said they want to vote for them if they were a credible force and what the TV debates have done is put them much more in the forefront of credibility," he said.
Russell predicted that the Lib Dem surge could lead to a hung parliament.
"At the moment, it's hard to see how that couldn't be. If things are going to change, they have to change very dramatically, very quickly," he added.

Monday, April 26th 2010
Katherine Haddon

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