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UK General Election Promises Dramatic Change Whoever Wins

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Contributor:
Chris Ford
Chris Ford
Gordon Brown

This is the second part of a series on the key global elections for 2010. Today, a focus on the forthcoming UK general election. The next and final article in this series will focus on the US mid-term elections.

On Tuesday evening (New Zealand Time) British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will travel to Buckingham Palace for an audience with Queen Elizabeth II. While prime ministerial audiences are a weekly occurrence in Britain, this one will be the most important for five years as Brown will ask the Sovereign to dissolve Parliament.

It is a mere formality that the Queen will say yes (as she is conventionally obliged to act on the advice of her ministers). Anyway, time is almost legally up for the current Parliament as a general election must be held by the first week of June. With local elections timed for May 6th, convenience dictates that the general election be held on the same day (and there are historical precedents for this).

Brown will go and see the Queen with a slight spring in his step as the Labour Party has made something of a recovery in the opinion polls. Twelve months ago, it looked like it was all over barring the electoral formalities for Labour. The party was facing near annihilation due to a succession of negative events. The global economic crisis had adversely impacted on Britain with unemployment rising to nearly two million.  A parliamentary expenses scandal had claimed the scalps of more Labour MPs than from any other party. Britain's ongoing involvement in the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had left a sour taste in the electorate's mouth. Many Britons rightfully felt that they had been lied to about Iraq and were also feeling downbeat about Afghanistan with more flag draped caskets of young soldiers being driven through high streets. There were re-emerging complaints about the funding of public services including health and education, two key areas of past electoral strength for Labour.

Now a hung Parliament may be in prospect. Britons are increasingly not prepared to give either of the major parties,  either Labour or Conservative, a majority on May 6th according to some of the latest polls. Notwithstanding, it is expected that in a tight contest, the Tories will win the most seats in Parliament under their relatively new leader, David Cameron. Cameron, an Eton educated former public relations executive and political adviser to former Tory chancellor (finance minister) Norman Lamont has had a spectacularly fast rise up the party ranks. Many commentators initially compared Cameron to the young Tony Blair. With photogenic looks, a young family, attractive partner and supposedly moderate right-wing views, the new Tory leader was seen as the man who could take the Conservatives back to Downing Street after what has been (so far) their longest absence from that famous address for well over a century.

In order to win back office, the Tories moved back to the electoral centre by vowing, for example, to spend more on the National Health Service (NHS) and education system than Labour. The Tories also decided to take on a more 'blue-green' tinge through advocating policies to actively combat climate change. To display their new green credentials, the party has gone so far as to change its logo of a blue flamed torch to one showing a green topped, blue stumped tree. Under Cameron, the party has engaged in an outreach campaign to Labour voters in the ethnic minority, disability and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered communities. Women voters have been actively targeted too and for a party that produced Britain's first women prime minister in Margaret Thatcher, the Tories share of the women's vote has been falling for nearly two decades. As a result, the Tories have selected more women candidates than ever before in an attempt to swing the women's vote in their favour (and this in an attempt to replicate the so-called 'Blair's Babes' phonomenon of 1997 which saw a record number of Labour women MPs elected). 

The Liberal Democrats, under the leadership of Nick Clegg, will be under enormous pressure to not only hold on to their electoral gains from the last three elections but build on them. Traditionally, the party has sought to portray itself as the third party that has stood between the extremes of the Tories on the right and Labour on the left. In recent decades, since the party merged with the Social Democratic Party in the late 1980s, the party has moved slightly more to the left on economic and social policy issues. Therefore, under the respective leaderships of Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy, Sir Menzies (Ming) Campbell and now Clegg, they have pledged to raise the top income tax rate to at least fifty pence in the pound or more in order to fund better health and education services. It has traditionally adopted a neo-Keynesian economic stance with, for example, promises to increase regional development spending. After all, the Liberals were the party of John Maynard Keynes himself.

At this election, there does not appear to be a great deal of policy differentiation between the three main parties. Labour has actively stolen the Lib Dems policy clothes by moving somewhat back to the left through Gordon Brown and Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling's moves at the height of the recession to re-nationalise key banks, boost public spending and cut both lower and middle income tax rates in order to provide a neo-Keynesian stimulus to the economy.  Meanwhile, the Tories (after Brown's large scale repudiation of Blairism) are seeking to recapture the middle class voters who fell in love with the more right-wing Labour Party of Tony Blair. At the moment, things seem to have gone slightly awry on this front for the Tories due to revelations that one of their major donors, Lord Ashcroft (who featured in the 2005 New Zealand election as a National Party donor), is not domiciled in Britain but rather in a Caribbean tax haven. Moreover, some of their policy stances on favouring marriage through the tax system have come under fire from Labour and other parties who have accused the Tories of potential discrimination against the growing number of people in de-facto relationships (both straight and gay) for this reason.

These acts of political repositioning have contributed to a narrowing in the polls between the two main parties. If the polls continue to trend this way up until May 6th then, in all probability, the Liberal Democrats will hold the balance of power. If this is the case, then they could end up either going into coalition and/or a minority government confidence and supply arrangement with the party with the most seats (and I expect this will be the Tories). This will put the Lib Dems in a powerful position to extract the one concession they would want in return - a New Zealand-style binding referendum on proportional representation for the House of Commons. If the Tories or Labour agree to this in exchange for the Lib Dem's help in  forming the next government, then the possible introduction of proportional representation at Westminster will change the dynamics of British politics, going forward, in the same way as it has done here in Aotearoa.

With a hung parliament looking a distinct possibility and with few policy differences between the main parties, attention will turn to the performance of other smaller parties. One of the most worrying trends is rising support for the neo-fascist British National Party (BNP). Under the charismatic leadership of Nick Griffith, the party's profile has been raised enormously. With the onset of recession, many white working class and unemployed Britons (particularly in Northern England) have begun to see the party as a viable alternative to either Labour or the Conservatives. The BNP's racist emphasis on non-white immigration has particularly played well in these communities where economic and social deprivation has been prevalent since the Thatcher era. Now exacerbated by the effects of the worst recession in seventy years, a small but still not insignificant number of poorer white Britons have, misguidedly, turned to the party. This was evidenced by the BNP taking two British seats in the European Parliament last year. Whether this was a positive sign for them will be answered on May 6th. My fervent hope is that they are seen off at the polls as has traditionally been the case for fascist parties in the past at general elections.

A party only more slightly to the left of the BNP is the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Founded by the late Sir James Goldsmith in the mid-1990s, its single issue motif is it's call for the UK to withdraw from the European Union (EU). While UKIP has gained seats in European parliamentary polls, it has not feared as well in domestic British elections and I think this will be the case again. At the moment, many British voters are not obsessed by matters EU and unless the government were proposing to adopt  the Euro currency, support for UKIP will remain in single figures.

To the left of Labour, there is no real hope of Respect re-entering Parliament. Their charismatic (and unpredictable) former leader George Galloway (current MP for Bethnal Bow and Green in London) won his seat under the Respect banner based on support from the largely Muslim community of his new constituency in 2005. In the wake of his removal from the Respect leadership as a result of his erractic Commons attendance record (amongst other things), it looks unlikely that either Galloway (who is standing in another constituency as an independent) or his former party will be returned to Westminster. Consequently, there will be no radical socialist party represented in the next Parliament and that will be a real tragedy if the BNP happens to make a breakthrough.

The Greens are another interesting party to watch. As with other minor parties, they have won seats in both the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies, on local councils and at the European level but never at Westminster. With climate change politics now in vogue, it will be interesting to see whether their percentage of the vote rises further at this election. While a seat gain at Westminster is still unlikely, don't rule anything out for the Greens either. In the constituencies where they are standing, they could take votes off either of the major parties and the Lib Dems, so a few fluke election results could be the outcome if the Greens do well. Otherwise, they will have to cross their fingers that the Lib Dems do well enough to secure the balance of power in a hung House of Commons so as to bring about proportional representation. As it has in New Zealand and elsewhere in Europe, proportional representation should definitely help the Greens gain seats and become a significant player in British politics.

The closest thing to a left of Labour presence in the new Parliament will be the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties, namely, the Scotttish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cyrmu (PC). These nationalist parties have, at least since the late 1960s and early 1970s, continuously won seats at Westminster. This election could be a significant watershed for another reason in that if the SNP Government in Scotland proceeds with its plan for a referendum on Scottish independence later this year, then this could be the last United Kingdom election ever. If the UK breaks up, then this move will disadvantage the Labour Party who will face the prospect of eternal opposition to the Tories.

An outcome like this is not far fetched as the Tories have always historically been the majority party in England while Labour has largely always been the majority party (until recently) in Scotland. If Scotland goes, then Wales might well follow. Although Wales has historically been more closely integrated with England than Scotland has ever been, there has always been an undercurrent of nationalist feeling in the Welsh valleys that could help turn the tide towards independence there and that possibility will hurt UK Labour even more in the long term.

And where will that leave Northern Ireland? The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 has largely held up in Northern Ireland, thanks to the continuous intervention of both the British and American governments. As part of that agreement, the Irish nationalists (in the form of both Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic Labour Party) were granted significant concessions in return for recognising that Northern Ireland would remain a British province, so long as the majority of the population (mainly Protestant) wished to do so. Northern Irish elections are completely different affairs to those on the British mainland given the Protestant/Unionist-Catholic/Nationalist divide there. As ever, the right-wing Unionist parties remain divided while the republican parties appear to be less so, but at the end of the day if Scotland chooses independence, the province's Unionist community will have to think very hard about why they want to continue cohabitation with England, especially if it becomes the centre of an emasculated British federation. Perhaps they should begin to think about an even closer relationship with the Irish Republic as there is only historical antipathy on the part of the Unionist community that is preventing this from happening.

So the 2010 poll could be an historic one for many reasons. While there will be no significant change in terms of economic and social policy (with all three parties pledged to make public spending cuts, only differing in terms of timescale and size), this poll could be historic. It could be so as this might be the last election before a possible declaration of Scottish independence (which is something I strongly favour being of Scottish descent myself. I say go for it Scotland!). Depending on the result, it could herald the introduction of proportional representation for Westminster elections, presaging a political realignment not seen in Britain since the disintegration of the old Liberal Party in the 1920s.

Therefore, there will be change in more ways than one, even if Labour does miraculously retain the keys to 10 Downing Street. Gordon Brown or David Cameron will therefore face a period of political change that will determine the future of the United Kingdom and the shape of its institutions.

 

 

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