The adage that ‘idealism is what precedes experience, cynicism is what follows’ is something often preached by older generations and frequently ignored by younger ones. When it comes to politics however, the 2010 general election has shown a number of first time voters that this journey from optimism to pessimism can be prematurely short.
As with all student generations, we don’t fully accept the world that we’ve inherited. The sense that things must be a certain way because that’s the way they’ve always been rings hollow in our ears and many simply enjoy opposing that status quo for opposition’s sake. Unlike previous generations however, the possibility of really changing the landscape of politics seemed genuinely within our grasp in this year’s election. We had seen Obama defy the odds in the US, and now it was our turn to vote for change.
Many saw this route to involve empowering a largely ignored party, the Liberal Democrats, who promised a fairer society, radical voting reform and an alternative to the stuffy, adversarial two party politics that has come to be synonymous with Westminster- a party that encouraged young people to register to vote and persuaded them that they mattered. And it was a strategy that appeared to have worked. The Lib Dems’ situation changed from one where, on ‘First-Time Voter’s Question Time’, one audience member asked what Brown, Cameron, and ‘that other guy’ proposed to do, to a media frenzy that catapulted Nick Clegg into the election’s spotlight.
On the night of the 6th May 2010, there was a sense of unfettered excitement and anticipation in the Sheffield Student Union. Crowded around televisions in Nick Clegg’s constituency and awaiting the election results, with our political allegiances proudly displayed by the purchase of cocktails in party colours, it would be true to say that yellow drinks adorned a good deal of glasses. But far more specific than my own crude calculations, polls have shown that around half of the nation’s students backed the supposed party of change. We agreed with Nick.
Yet a matter of weeks later and the position of the Lib Dem voter has changed dramatically; from that of the enthusiastic optimist to at best bemused and at worst, livid. It isn’t hard to see why. The very people I rubbed shoulders with at the polling station were the ones that got Nick Clegg elected for Sheffield Hallam constituency, yet now Sheffield has borne the brunt of the new coalition government’s spending cuts with the plug being pulled on three projects, totaling loans of around £150 million and more importantly, hundreds of jobs. What we were promised is simply not what we’re getting and, worse, what we voted against is now precisely what Lib Dems will be voting for in the Commons in a shameless pact with the Conservatives. Savage early cuts and the Tories’ ‘secret VAT bombshell’, both of which were publicly renounced by Clegg during the election campaign are now to become a reality with Liberal Democrat backing. Anyone who watched the budget will have seen a stern-faced Clegg sitting behind George Osborne, nodding approval at a variety of policies which just a few weeks before, he campaigned passionately against. Gone was the air of change and rejuvenation, and there arrived instead the feeling of betrayal and of a failed mandate that now surrounds the party. As Harriet Harman put it, they have sacrificed everything to ride on the Tories’ coat-tails.
But while the Clegg-effect on policy is yet to be discovered, for the time being the most tangible product of the Liberal Democrats’ time in office is their plummeting popularity in the polls, down around 8 points since the election to 15%. The price in terms of principles of the party coming out from the political wilderness has simply been much higher than anyone expected, and has come as a particularly hard-knock to the idealist- the Lib Dem’s core voter. So, whilst for some it may take the course of a lifetime before life experience outweighs optimism, perhaps the disillusion of many first-time voters means that that well-trodden path towards cynicism is now well underway.