international analysis and commentary

UK elections: deadlocked or a wider political system?

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Gordon Brown has hardly been the nation’s favorite prime minister. Yet there seems to be a single prominent cause of the political debacle the Labour Party is set to face in the forthcoming May 6th general election: the stimulus package he put in place last year in order to try and shield the UK from collapse in the wake of the global financial crisis. Of course, Brown has been challenged on a number of other fronts, including “character” issues such as his allegedly bullish attitude towards his staff. But the crossfire he has been caught in over the last few months is unprecedented in scale and depth, and this gossip-type media coverage looks more like a consequence than a driving force. There are three sub-themes, all closely tied to the government’s economic policy record: first, New Labour is ageing as a political paradigm; second, opposition forces have no governmental track record to defend, and therefore enjoy a much easier time when it comes to winning an election; and third, the Tories and the Lib Dems are doing much better in impersonating the image of a young, up-and-coming leadership. The likely outcome of these processes is a leadership change, bringing about a policy shift whose effects might range from marginally beneficial to disastrous.

As soon as it became clear that the crisis was going to require a publicly funded stimulus package, governments throughout the world smelled potential trouble, and oppositions saw potential opportunities. The UK made no exception, and the 13% budget deficit of 2009 looked like a perfect attack line for David Cameron’s conservatives. Indeed, as early as last autumn, they launched an aggressive campaign against virtually every policy that had been pursued by the Brown cabinet, and the bottom line has been the claim that, in any field, a Tory government would deliver better results at a lower cost. It is very difficult for an incumbent government to convincingly show that such a large budget deficit was necessary, as long as practical results are not perceived by the wider public, hence the advantage Cameron enjoyed since the very beginning. Nuances apart, he was almost unanimously portrayed by all media as the obvious frontrunner of the campaign.

The interesting element about the early phase of the campaign, that saw a one-on-one fight between Brown and Cameron, was that besides the big claim that the budget deficit would be phased out (Brown) rather than cut drastically after 2011 (Cameron), the substance of the economic policy proposals was rather similar: Cameron promised the ring-fencing of funds devoted to the National Health Service, and so did Brown; even Cameron hinted that an overall tax increase would be necessary;  both candidates think the financial sector needs tighter regulation and that Britain would benefit from renewed emphasis on the real economy, especially the manufacturing sector. And there are further areas in which a wide consensus is almost inevitable: nowadays, would any governmental candidate deny the need for a focus on education or steering energy production and consumption towards a more sustainable future?

It is in other policy areas that differences between the two parties have emerged, in rather traditional ways: Labour wants a Britain open to immigrants, just as it has been over the last few decades, with the introduction of a points-based system for the selection of the “best” immigrants, while the Tories propose to introduce an annual cap to immigration visas. Brown is a fervent Europeanist, while Cameron, sometimes in contrast with his party’s majority, would like the European Union to step back on a number of policy areas and remain an intergovernmental body rather than a superstate.

All this should be viewed in the context of the economic crisis as an accelerator on ongoing changes: first and foremost, the fact that New Labour has seen its day. Tony Blair’s innovative response to the conservative era was based on faith in a combination of market forces and efforts to promote social justice. Under today’s conditions, the “third way” has lost its appeal: some are inclined to move back toward a more traditional socialist platform, while others are switching to more conservative views.

The Lib Dems seem to incarnate an altogether different political mix, straddling the left-right divide. Nick Clegg’s platform is really not very well known in detail, but the general message is broadly similar to the one which brought Labour to replace the Liberal Party in the early 20th century: a redistributive, reformist platform. As several commentators have observed, what is surprising about this political mix is not its sudden success, but the fact that it has taken so long to emerge.

The second campaign driver, the opposition’s advantage of not having a track record upon which to base the credibility of its proposals, obviously works in favor of both Cameron and Clegg. Yet, the televised debates have graphically confirmed Clegg’s advantage of a late entry into the campaign: the electorate will not have the time to carefully scrutinize his party’s policy proposals. Thus, he may act as the catalyzer for the many “swing” voters for whom this election will be an opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with the current government without endorsing the other traditional party.

The third driver can be summed up by borrowing the expression that Cameron once applied to Tony Blair: “You were the future – once”. The same can now be said of Cameron himself in the shadow of the rising figure of Nick Clegg.

Despite not being part of the political discourse to the same extent as Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan, change is definitely in the air. The best outcome of the ballots, it has been often claimed, would be a clear majority: most likely this would be a Tory majority – in which case the UK would experience Cameron’s extensive budget cuts policy. Critics warn that such policy could jeopardize the efforts which cost British taxpayers 13% of last year’s GDP: cutting the special support provided by the stimulus package in many policy areas – before industry can stand on its own feet again – would turn public policy into a sizeable disaster, possibly epitomized by a lowered sovereign rating, the sterling dropping under par value with the euro, increased domestic inequality and so forth.

An alternative outcome is of course a more or less “hung” Parliament, in which the party holding the relative majority will have to seek an alliance with another force in order to reach an absolute majority. This situation, rather common for most continental European countries, looks like a nightmare to most British politicians and commentators. But actually, should Nick Clegg be the man David Cameron will need to come to terms with, and should he prove as reasonable as he has appeared to the electorate over the last few weeks, it might actually be the right time for the UK to steer its traditionally adversarial politics towards a more consensual model. The likely policy outcome would then be one of market-driven growth, but at the same time with moderate redistribution; energy transition but intelligently phased budget deflation; international competitiveness and strong Europeanism.

After all, it is only natural that even one of the oldest democratic political systems might have to undertake innovative experiments in order to maintain its credibility at the vanguard of modern democracy. It could be a new beginning for British politics, instead of Cameron’s somewhat nostalgic Thatcherite comeback, at least judging from some of his proposals. Rather than a “hung” political system, one might even call this situation a widening of British politics. Its chances of success rest in the hands of the two young leaders who, in one way or another, are most likely to emerge as winners.