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Have the leaders’ debates changed British politics for good? Maybe

These televised turns will determine the kind of leader Labour picks next, but the bigger question is whether they have ushered in a new era of three-party politics.

Have you noticed anything? Here we are, more than halfway through the campaign, all still focused on the three main leaders’ television debates – last night’s instalment of which the aggregated overnight polls awarded to Nick Clegg, with 33.8% to David Cameron‘s 32.8% and 27.6% for Gordon Brown.

I wouldn’t quarrel too hard with that, though I scored Brown a little higher than Cameron. They were all pretty fluent. But hang on – wasn’t this meant to be the election when new media came of age and drove events?

Perhaps it has. Perhaps I’m much too gaga to understand the extent to which the election is being played out among young voters on Facebook, YouTube, Mumsnet and other social media that I don’t think to visit every day, or read about when something makes it into the dead tree branch of the trade: newspapers.

Today’s media contains a good example of that. In response to Labour allegations that the Tories would take away all sorts of old folks’ goodies – winter fuel allowance, bus passes, the stuff that got David Cameron cross in last night’s debate – Conservative HQ has issued its "Vicky Pollard" poster.

You can see it above. It shows Brown dressed up as Vicky, saying: "Did I lie about the dodgy leaflets? Yeah but no but yeah but … "

It’s a good one, by which I mean it made me laugh as well as making the point that Brown was a bit shifty when challenged on the leaflets: they are, it so happens, just his style.

There again, there’s a lot of highly-targeted leaflet and telephone canvassing going on below the radar, customised ("Dear Michael") letters coming through the letterbox and the email in-tray, courtesy of ever-bigger computerised databases: Mosaic, ContactCreator, that sort of stuff.

The Observer’s Gaby Hinsliff efficiently summed up what the parties are up to the other day. The other important component of new media is fundraising, Obama-style. We won’t know much about that until the campaign is long over.

And I suppose you could argue that Cleggmania is a product of the new era, his impact on old-fashioned telly last week magnified at top speed through the new media. I’m sure that’s right, though it potentially contains the seeds of its own destruction, as we know through the notoriously brutal fickleness of the TV talent shows.

Is Cleggie to be the new Susan Boyle, built up and then reduced to tears, partly by the "Kill Klegg" campaign in the Tory tabloids, partly by the low turnout, Vicky Pollard side of the young voters who were heard cheering whenever he appeared on the big screen outside the debate centre in Bristol last night?

"Did I vote? Yeah, but no, but I meant to, I really did, but I, like, forgot … "

So has the 2010 campaign yet produced any fundamental change in the way we do politics – and will do it future? I think it may. May. For one thing, the TV debate accentuates the personality of the party leaders, the presidential quality of the race that has been intermittently obvious for decades.

Personally, I don’t much like it. But when policies are more about means than ends – and mainstream ideology is basically convergent on the managerial centre – it’s bound to happen. The debates have reshaped the rhythm of the campaign – not healthily, I think. Too many of the eggs are now in one basket.

But they’re here to stay, and will be self-fulfilling in terms of the kind of leader Labour has to pick when next a vacancy occurs, not necessarily soon after the looming defeat. I’d guess the new TV dimension will be further bad news for Ed Balls’s prospects (how is his constituency battle going, I wonder?), but I could be wrong.

The more important, more fragile question is whether three-party politics in the British electoral scene – Wales and Scotland already have four – is firmly entrenched or even if the Lib Dems can break through from third place and win, like Kelly Holmes at the Olympics?

In his Guardian column today, Martin Kettle makes some pertinent cautionary points, revealing that Clegg has been in touch with Francois Bayrou, whose language he speaks (among others).

Bayrou? Does the name ring a bell? Oh, concentrate, please, at the back of the class. He was the third-party centrist who ran for the French presidency in 2007 when both Nicolas Sarkozy and the socialist candidate Ségolène Royal gave voters justifiable qualms.

In one poll, he matched Sego on 23%. Of course, it was not to be. Bayrou fell back as polling day approached and – like Ross Perot in the US in 1992 – got squeezed by the big boys, though Perot clearly cost George Bush Sr the election against Bill Clinton.

None of which means it’s going to happen here to Clegg, only that it might happen – albeit not on the evidence of last night’s cool performance on Sky. But even if he gets lots more votes, they do not translate into seats until he is well past the 30% mark.

So let’s not rush to praise him as a messiah or condemn him ("from Churchill to a Nazi" in three days was his own witty riposte) as a new Hitler. We leave that sort of overreaction to the tweeters and the bloggers, don’t we?

Oh dear, that reminds me. I keep forgetting to tweet. Send me a postcard, will you, just to jog the memory.

Following excerpt from wikipedia

Brief history and overview
Prior to the mid-19th century politics in the United Kingdom was dominated by the Whigs and the Tories. These were not political parties in the modern sense but somewhat loose alliances of interests and individuals. The Whigs were associated with the newly emerging moneyed industrial classes, and the Tories were associated with the landed gentry, the Church of England and the Church of Scotland.

By the mid 19th century the Tories had evolved into the Conservative Party, and the Whigs had evolved into the Liberal Party.

These two parties dominated the political scene until the 1920s, when the Liberal Party declined in popularity and suffered a long stream of resignations. It was replaced as the main left-wing party by the newly emerging Labour Party, who represented an alliance between the trades unions and various socialist societies.

Since then the Conservative and Labour Parties have dominated British politics, and have alternated in government ever since. However, the UK is not quite a two-party system since a third party (recently, the Liberal Democrats) can prevent 50% of the votes/seats from going to a single party. The Liberals merged with the Social Democrats because they had very similar views and became the Liberal Democrats which is now a sizeable party whose electoral results have improved in recent years.

The UK’s First Past the Post electoral system leaves small parties disadvantaged on a UK-wide scale. It can, however, allow parties with concentrations of supporters in the constituent countries to flourish. Other than the Respect coalition and Health Concern, the only other parties winning seats in the House of Commons at the 2005 general election were based in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Since 1997, proportional representation-based voting systems have been adopted for elections to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the London Assembly and the UK’s seats in the European Parliament. In these bodies, other parties have had success.

Traditionally political parties have been private organisations with no official recognition by the state. The Registration of Political Parties Act 1998 changed that by creating a register of parties.