Flirting with change that Britons can believe in

DRAMA, suspense, irony and regret all clash in the chorus of confusion and contradiction in the build-up to Britain’s general election tomorrow.

This political equivalent of Britain’s Got Talent pits Labour Party Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Conservative Party leader David Cameron and Liberal Democratic Party leader Nick Clegg as keen contestants.

Popular expectations dwell on a contradiction: that Brown is going to lose heavily to Cameron, and that it will be a tight race between the three. Another contradiction is that while the sorry state of Britain’s economy is uppermost in voters’ minds, a candidate’s appeal is an inversion of his competence.

By all accounts Brown is most experienced on the economy, being Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) for a full decade before becoming premier. Yet he is expected to fall the hardest, particularly from his incumbency.

The candidate with the highest jump in popularity is Clegg, who is the least experienced. Cameron’s experience with economics was as a subject at university, and for both political experience came only as Opposition MPs.

Brown’s critics say his experience has not stopped Britain’s steep economic slide. But much of the problem might have been beyond his control, since the global crisis began with Britain’s closest ally, the US.

Brown’s own decline is tied to Labour’s, whose downward spiral began with his predecessor Tony Blair’s fall from public grace after taking the nation to war three times. Brown’s liability may be limited to his naivete, such as in asking Blair to help his campaign in its closing stages this week.

Britons are worried about lax immigration controls largely because they are worried about the economy. But before Brown could absorb that, he was caught calling a lifelong Labour supporter who cornered him on immigration “a bigoted woman.�

That affected his image and his performance in the final debate, all at a crucial moment of his campaign. Besides, two terms of Blairite “New Labour� may be all that even the staunchest supporters can endure.

Beyond party rhetoric, Clegg’s Liberal Democrats seem to offer the most radical changes. On the economy all are worried about the budget deficit, but Lib-Dems are even more pro-poor and for taxing the rich than Labour.

Pensioners, the lowest-earning bracket and the first £10,000 (RM48,648) earned would be free from tax. There would be a “mansion tax� and tax loopholes for the rich would be closed.

On civil liberties, Lib-Dems have more to offer than the other two. There would be better protection for journalists, curbs on libel claims, and a freedom Bill to limit invasive CCTV security coverage.

Lib-Dems want to scrap the Trident missile system like the others, while rejecting any similar replacement.

They also want a full inquiry into Britain’s role in state kidnapping and torture, rejection of military action against Iran, pressure on Israel and Egypt to lift the Gaza blockade, and end the “subservient relationship� with the US.

The latter prompted Brown to call Clegg “anti-American,� as if championing British interests has to be anti-ally. Brown as unreformed Blairite has not understood how the British electorate has shifted its ground on his party after Blair.

Lib-Dems are the most radical on electoral reform. Not only would they introduce a written Constitution, lower the voting age to 16 and replace the House of Lords with a fully elected second chamber, they want proportional representation for voters to select more than one candidate in order of preference.

This system, practised in Ireland and Australia, is rejected by both Labour and Conservative as it could put them at a permanent disadvantage. Since they are supposed to be at opposite ends of the political spectrum, their supporters are likely to vote for the centrist Lib-Dems as second choice, virtually adding to the party aggregate to keep it in office indefinitely.

That, or the party will remain strong enough to be a kingmaker in various combinations of coalitions. If the Labour-Conservative divide based on the 19th-century division between labour and capital are now outdated in today’s industrial Britain, the Lib-Dems could be a sign of the times.

Despite the touted differences between Labour and Conservative, in office both gravitate to a middle ground of consensus politics such as “caring Conservatism� and “New Labour.� The Lib-Dems’ high profile today may just be blowing the cover of party labels to reveal modern British social democracy as it is.


United Kingdom | Politics | 2010-05-05 |