Sometime between now and June 7 the UK will have a general election—and if consensus is correct, 7 May is the day. What is starting to look possible—indeed, likely—is that there will be no Parliamentary majority. If there were a majority, it will be either Labour or the Conservatives, since the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to emerge as the new majority, although they are well represented on local councils all around Britain, and they may hold the balance of power in the event of a hung parliament. And up to a couple of months ago, it seemed pretty clear that it would be the Tories. David Cameron had done an admirable job of reconstituting the Conservatives into a party that seemed to have some thinking, some vigour, and some common sense. He rode his bicycle around, he supported (and still supports) the NHS, and he’s made a determined effort to broaden the appeal of the party.
But a couple of things have happened during the past two months. The first is Gordon Brown’s renewed attempts at populism. As transparent as this has been, it does seem to be having an impact. The faux anti-bank rhetoric has been something of a help as well. The irony of Brown, chief cheerleader for the City of London for the past 13 years, leading the chorus has not gone unnoticed, but the Brits love irony anyway. There’s also been an increasing restiveness among the Tories themselves, particularly the righter wing of the party, who have never been completely comfortable with the direction Cameron has been taking the party. The major issue, as it has been for a number of years, if not decades, is how close the UK should be getting to Europe—for the old guard, the further away, the better. As an American living here, I always find this a bit weird, but there it is. There also have been a number of localities where there has been open dispute between the locals and the party leadership about who should stand in the next election.
The main problem, though, seems to be the pretty muddled campaign that Cameron and the Tory leadership have waged thus far, which has included more than its fair share of gaffes, including economic claims with not much substance, policy proposals that then had to be withdrawn or modified substantially, and sufficient ambiguity in the overall campaign to instill less confidence in the Tories by the public than Cameron might have wished. None of this will be helped further by yesterday’s revelation that Lord Ashcroft, who generally has written the checks for the party over the past decade, turns out to not be a full UK taxpayer—he lives in the Barbados, but he’s a UK citizen and spends a whole lot of time in the UK. And he writes most of the checks for the Conservative Party. This in itself probably wouldn’t be so bad if the issue hadn’t actually been around forever, with Ashcroft and the Tories denying for years that there was an issue here. So the real issue will now become how long have the Tories known this, and not fessed up? As always, this is one of those cases where the cover-up may be more embarrassing and damaging than the crime (metaphorically speaking, of course, since this is hardly illegal). So now the Tories have a genuine issue on which their credibility will be sorely tested, at the worst possible time—but it’s their own fault. William Hague, the former Tory leader and current shadow Foreign Secretary, and who has been palling around with Ashcroft for years, now says he didn’t know. Although he did, actually, for several months, and chose not to say anything about it. This sort of thing will not help the Tories maintain, or re-establish, their credibility. It tends to remind voters of why they threw the Tories out in 1997.
The result has been a tightening of the polls, as the Guardian article linked to above points out. It’s the best of both worlds for Labour—the Tories have been losing ground, and Labour has been picking up support. It was probably inevitable that the Tories would lose some support. What is surprising is that Labour has been picking up support, primarily because it has been in some respects a pretty bad couple of months for Labour. First up, the Chilcot Iraq Inquiry, during which Tony Blair, Alistair Campbell, Jack Straw, Geoff Hoon, and various other Labour luminaries blatantly lied to the commission, or made absolute fools of themselves, in neither respect endearing themselves to the voting public. We get to hear Gordon Brown rationalize away tomorrow. This only makes the voting populace all the more unhappy about the current Afghanistan situation, in which British soldiers continue to die, and which shows signs of lasting forever. More recently, we’ve had claims about Gordon Brown’s bullying tendencies, which have generated a fairly transient burst of heat, but no light, and the even more recent allegations among Labour staffers about Brown yelling at Darling what the latter claimed last year that the UK was facing a horrible recession. I remember that incident, in fact, and how quickly Darling had to back off his comments. The fact that he turned out to be correct has gained him no supporters in the media, however, who also seem to have forgotten the whole incident.
So it’s a bit of a mystery why the polls are tightening. You would think that after 13 years in power, what with Iraq and Afghanistan and the near-collapse of the banks, the UK public would have gotten a bit weary of Labour. This is would be the natural result of having anyone in power for 13 years, especially a Parliamentary system – people just get tired of who is there, and decide they want a change. This is a natural political cycle, and we have seen it occur time and again here in the UK. Of course, the last one, under the Tories, lasted 18 years, from 1979 to 1997, so Labour may be able to console itself that the cycle might last just a bit longer.
What is unusual this time is that while there seem to be enough people fed up with Labour to deny them a clear majority, it also appears that Cameron and the Tories have not yet completely convinced people enough to give them a clear majority ether—although it’s possible that one or the other will still pull this out. But the prospect for a hung parliament is now being openly discussed. Which there hasn’t been one of since, oh, 1974.
So what would his mean? It would mean that either the Tories or Labour would need to put together a Parliamentary majority. Which means working with (1) each other, or (2) the Liberal Democrats. I think we can pretty much rule out (1). But the Liberal Democrats have ruled out governing in any coalition. This can probably be taken with a large grain of salt. What has been strange during this period is the failure of the Lib Dems to actually generate any significant voting advantage to themselves—they remain generally at about 20% in the national polls, around where they have been for several years, although they are well represented at the local level, even controlling the Councils of some of the major cities. They have an attractive and articulate leader in Nick Clegg, and in their head economics and finance guy, Vince Cable, perhaps the smartest guy in Parliament in terms of economics, and who is everyone’s choice for Chancellor no matter who wins. In fact, I know a lot of people in the finance sector here who are actively hoping for a hung parliament just to increase the likelihood of Cable becoming Chancellor. The alternatives are Alistair Darling, the current Chancellor, or George Osborne, the Tory Shadow Chancellor. Darling has done not a bad job, all things considered, but if it means another five years of Labour under Gordon Brown, no thank you. And Osborne is just a child, really, who inspires no confidence from anyone, as far as I can tell, as fed up with Labour as the City may be. So it’s likely, as the election inevitably approaches, that we’ll get more discussion of how this might actually be achieved. And given the Sterling crash that occurred the other day as City traders got increasingly nervous about the prospect of a government that would in fact wield little real power, it can’t come a moment too soon. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, actually had to make a concerted effort to calm markets down and reassure everyone that markets would not blow up should we get a hung parliament in which the Lib Dems had huge influence.
We’ve got a number of months, theoretically, before an election, although in principle Brown can call one at any time. It’s possible, of course, that there will be some game-changing development on the next several months that will allow the Tories to reverse their decline, or Labour to pull ahead meaningfully. Anything can happen in politics, as the Tories have been recently reminded. This could be a highly entertaining period in British political history.
The above stamp, depicting a suffragette campaigning for the right to vote, was issued in 1999 by the Royal Mail as part of its Millennium Series. Women over 30 got the right to vote in 1918, and in 1928 women got equal voting rights to men in the Equal Franchise Act. Given the British love of irony, it should come as no surprise that one of the first women to be elected to Parliament, Jennie Lee in March 1929, could not actually vote for herself at the time of her election because the latter law had not yet come into effect.