UK Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg spoke to EURACTIV in an interview about his party’s aim to knock on a million doors in the country ahead of next year’s European elections. He also spoke of his belief that a return to face-to-face politics, combined with innovative campaign technologies, can combat growing political apathy among voters.
Nick Clegg is the leader of the UK Liberal Democrats. He was formerly an MEP.
Mr. Clegg: the European elections take place in six months’ time. Can you tell us a little about your goal to knock on a million doors in the UK before then?
The whole point of the ‘One million door challenge’ is to make sure that Liberal Democrat activists, candidates, MPs, peers [members of the UK House of Lords] and MEPs get out on doorsteps in the communities, villages, towns and cities of the United Kingdom in order to explain to voters directly and in person what we stand for.
Nothing can beat face-to-face politics, even in this Internet age. I think this is particularly true for a party like the Liberal Democrats, which has always been a party of grassroots activism and community politics.
Of course, this feeds into the European elections. We consider these to be tremendously important, and I believe we stand out in British politics as the most consistently pro-European party at a time when there is huge anxiety among millions of people about their own futures. We need to show that the European Union is part of the solution.
One of your party’s MEPs, Andrew Duff, is the European Parliament’s rapporteur on electoral reform. He has called for transnational European elections to be in place for 2014 (EURACTIV 13/10/08). How do you assess this proposed reform, what is the likelihood of its becoming reality, and how could it tie into the million door challenge?
It’s not going to be relevant for the 2009 elections, certainly. I think it’s a very understandable long-term ambition, but we have to be realistic that at a time of real fear about people’s own futures – whether they can keep their jobs or a roof over their heads – I like to hope that in this context we could campaign on behalf of a candidate who people don’t know and won’t have heard of is probably a push too far.
I think it’s a good idea, I like the idea, I understand the idea; but I think at a time like this, you’ve got to talk to people in terms which are relevant to them, and for example, campaigning in a doorstep in Leicester on behalf of a Greek candidate they’ve never heard of, whose name they probably have difficulty in pronouncing – I just don’t think it’s the best way to get people out to vote in a European election. One step at a time.
I think it’s very important in this kind of climate – we’re dealing with an unprecedented economic crisis – that we keep the focus of our party and the whole EU on providing concrete answers to people’s concrete problems.
Do you think the ‘million door challenge’ initiative reflects a general change in the dynamics of how elections are carried out?
We certainly are innovating constantly in order to get our message across directly to people, because the monopoly of the old media outlets, the big newspapers, etc.: that has all broken down. People now get their information in so many different ways, from the Internet – through EURACTIV, for example, and through social websites – and I think that needs to be reflected in a much more diverse, plural way of communicating a political message.
We have done a lot of innovative things on the Internet. We’ve used direct telephone canvassing techniques. I personally as a leader spend more of my time, more than any other party leader in Britain, out in the country: I’ve held 30 town hall meetings over the last 10 months.
I think it’s very much marrying the old and the new. In a sense, it’s a return to an old-fashioned, face-to-face form of politics, but it’s also recognising the much more diverse way in which people now receive their information.
When you’re knocking on doors on the ground in Britain, do you get the sense that apathy towards Europe and the European project is greater than that towards national issues?
Yes it is, undoubtedly, but I don’t think we should try and pretend that all is somehow rosy at national level and it’s all about the European level. We have a crisis of legitimacy, in my view, at all political levels. Millions of British and European citizens are just turning their back on politics altogether.
In the last two general elections in the UK, more people didn’t vote than voted for the winning party. That is a very alarming statistic, and it’s not down to the European Union. That’s a crisis of politics itself.
The most recent high-profile vote to concern the EU was the Lisbon Treaty referendum in Ireland. Do you think an initiative the like ‘million door challenge’ could have mobilised more support for the mainstream political parties in Ireland and perhaps resulted in a ‘yes’ vote?
I wouldn’t know. I’m not going to start trying to teach campaigners in Ireland how to run their own campaigns, that’s entirely their business. What I do know from my own personal experience, having been a MEP and watched, from Brussels and Strasbourg, the debate about Europe deteriorate and degenerate in the UK, is that this is one of the reasons I went into British politics.
I wanted to be in a position to engage with people directly rather than commenting on the debates from afar, and I think, even in this globalised high-tech world, people still make their political decisions based on feelings and sentiments that are often most powerfully derived from human contact. I think there’s no surrogate for old-fashioned doorstep politics.
The uncertainty concerning the Lisbon Treaty has been enormously damaging to the image and credibility of the EU. I hope that we can all play a role in persuading the Irish people to vote for the treaty [in the new 2009 referendum; see EURACTIV 12/12/08], but if they vote it down, then that should be the end of the story. We’ve got to put an end to this period of uncertainty.
The pattern for the last number of European elections has been one of consistently declining voter turnout. Do you think, in next June’s vote, the recent global crises might give people stronger cause to believe in collective EU action and as a result turn out in greater numbers?
Yes, but only if politicians spell out very clearly what the link is between the decisions which are taken at summits like the one that has just taken place, and the direct benefits to them and their families.
If you don’t make the link, it all just appears too distant to people. We’ve got to make the European response to this economic crisis – which is crucially important – as relevant as possible to people, in as direct a way as possible. If you don’t do that, I think the fear remains that many people just won’t turn out to vote at all.