5 years ago he was, according to The Sunday Times, “more popular than Churchill” and the other was cleaning fish guts off the floor of Billingsgate Market. The Nick Clegg-Joey Essex selfie shows us how far these posers have come and how far our politics hasn’t.
2010’s Cleggomania came on the back of those ‘historic’ leaders debates, a political Weakest Link where the right answer seemed to be “I agree with Nick”. Yet the power of the liberal demigod fell short of actually winning votes and his party saw its share of seats decrease. Ahead of tonight’s 7-way clash many, including the BBC’s Nick Robinson, have questioned whether televised debates amount to anything more than light entertainment.
I don’t agree with Nick R. Why? Let’s return to that Clegg-Essex selfie. Hunched around a phone with a Gordon smile and one eye on his post-election transition to deputy-list celebrity, Clegg is doing the classic Politician Attempts to Engage the Youth, his very own hug a hoodie moment. It is founded on the assumption that to be associated with hot young properties amounts to a direct line to the young vote. And that’s where the back stops. That young feel disenfranchised shouldn’t be a surprise- the rise in tuition fees, the standardisation of zero hour contracts and unpaid internships, the near impossibility of getting on the property ladder- all amount to a politics that fails to recognise the under 30s as serious actors.
The grey voter may say the young get the governments they don’t vote for. And it’s true that those aged between 18 and 24 don’t tend to flock in large number to their local polling stations. The sources of this apathy -itinerant students? Russell Brand?- will continue to be been picked apart ad nauseum. The fact that 2010 actually marked a resurgence in the 18-24 vote (aka the Y vote) has been largely ignored. After being in freefall since 1992, the Y vote saw its turnout rise by 13%, the biggest increase across all age ranges. That 2010 was the first election to be truly fought on social media is no coincidence. The combination of being the least tribal of voters and the most integrated into the fabric of social media results in a generation that has found in the form of twitter and facebook a place to go to discuss, to damn and to decide.
It was through social media that much of the 2010 campaign was filtered. And as there were many politicians for whom email was still the vanguard of digital communication we were largely left to our own devices. Which brings us to the leaders debates. The average number of live tweets per debate in 2010 was 150,000, nearly as many as for an episode of Game of Thrones. That a disproportionately large share of the audience of the debates were Y voters goes to prove that TV, when synced up with social media, is not entirely dead for young people. 55% of surveyed Ys said that tuning in helped them make up their mind. This is supported by a recent survey showing that Ys will be turning to both the TV debates and social media.
May 7th marks the end of an era, with one of the largest number of MPs standing down in recent elections. It could beckon a more youthful one as there are more parliamentary candidates under 30 than ever before. It also shouldn’t surprise anyone if we see the highest turnout in Y voters in a generation. And it won’t be anything to do with celebrity selfies and other token gestures by the desperate political class.