As the campaign trail heats up during this final week and people head to the polls on Thursday, the buzz in London has turned away from the annoying and unpronounceable volcano in Iceland and to talk of a new government in the UK. On the tube, in the office, and in the shops, people are taking an active interest in the outcome of this election and for good reason. Still recovering from the economic downturn, battling a budget deficit that is almost 12 percent of GDP, fighting an ongoing war in Afghanistan, attempting to regulate the banks and corporate greed, reconciling legal and illegal immigration and confronting an overstretched welfare system, the newspapers do not exaggerate when they say that, like America in 2008 and given similar challenging national circumstances, this could be the most significant election in recent UK memory. As David Cameron, Gordon Brown, and Nick Clegg make their final push in these last couple of days to lead their parties to a majority, and with some polls predicting a Tory lead with a sizeable Liberal Democrat proportion of the votes, things should get interesting. Either way, it seems almost certain that Gordon Brown’s time in 10 Downing Street is over.
I have given a lot of thought about how to approach the topic of this election. I actually wrote a version of this post a few months ago, but have found that most of what was written then is irrelevant now and that the political landscape has shifted even more since with the introduction of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats as a plausible option. For people who are less familiar with UK politics the differences are quite substantial in contrast to the American system, but without going into too much detail and explaining the mechanisms of the parliamentary model, one thing I find striking is that in this election there are three, almost equally possible political parties vying for victory. Unlike in the United States where it is usually a battle between two main parties with one or two marginal parties taking part on the side, parliamentary systems require coalition governments in which several parties form a bloc, and in the UK it is a race between the incumbent Labour, the conservative Tory, and the more underdog “newcomer” Liberal Democrats. Rather than explaining each candidate and their party’s platform and policy agendas in excruciating detail, I thought I would just run down each one separately and share a few of my own observations.
Gordon Brown and his Labour Party, despite being on the opposite end of the political spectrum from the American Republican Party are facing criticism from David Cameron and the Conservative Party that sounds very similar to that which was hurled upon the Republicans by the Democrats in 2008. Indeed Gordon Brown’s premiership has followed almost the same exact trajectory as that of President Bush, although during a much shorter time span. I get the impression that he is reviled by most of the opposition and merely tolerated within his own party. The Economist referred to his time in office as a “Shakespearean Tragedy” and in 2008 and 2009 he somehow managed to survive an attempted political coup within his own party. A few months ago former staff aides and members of his administration approached the press and accused him of verbal and physical “bullying” and intimidation tactics. Last week he was caught on microphone when he thought he was in private calling a voter a “bigot” for her questions to him on immigration. Aside from the obvious personality deficiencies, he is in a constant battle against critics on both the right and left who condemn his handling of the economy, domestic, and foreign policy issues. To be fair, he hasn’t had any easy ride either. No one can argue that the economic downturn has been an easy test for any leader anywhere, but it is important to remember that Tony Blair, Brown’s predecessor, is now criticized in hindsight for helping to foster the circumstances in which this crisis unfolded and for unlawfully invading Iraq upon President Bush’s insistence. Whether or not this is an accurate or fair assessment, I am not sure, but it is the curse of the incumbent. What most people seem to remember right now is that things got really bad on Gordon Brown’s watch and consequently they are ready for a change.
This brings us to David Cameron and the Tories. The balance of power in the UK could shift slightly further right than it has been for a long time, but it is crucial to understand what this would look like. Such a movement would not necessarily be the equivalent to the same form of the “right” that we have come to know recently in the US with the likes of George W. Bush’s presidency or Sarah Palin and certain elements within the Tea Party movement. When I refer to the mainstream “right” in the UK and in Europe particularly, it is not the ideological equivalent to these, but rather a slightly more right slant of an already very left center. For example, no serious mainstream party, left-leaning or right-leaning in the UK or Europe would ever argue against the concept of universal healthcare or equal rights according to sexual orientation. You do have your anti-immigration, white supremacist British National Party (“BNP”), and although gaining more popularity in certain disenfranchised jurisdictions, it is still a highly marginalized movement with no serious ability to challenge on a national scale. The Tories should not be confused with a “right-wing” movement and Cameron is widely applauded by both liberals and conservatives for modernizing his party even further over the last several years with platforms added on environmentalism and a multilateral approach to foreign affairs.
Nick Clegg is probably the most inspiring and likeable of all three major candidates and his Liberal Democrats pride themselves on defending the welfare state and creating a more fair tax system for Britain. He is a staunch defender of civil liberties and an advocate of voting reform. Of the two television debates I saw on domestic issues and the economy, I would say Clegg came off the strongest and the most confident. Where his critics get him is on the substance and consistencies of his policies beyond these overarching principles. For example, while the Liberal Democrats advocate Britain’s entry into the Euro they would also hold a referendum on whether or not to remain in the European Union. Again, as with Brown and Cameron, it is difficult for me to comment as an outsider, but I see both the allure and the reluctance in throwing an endorsement to Clegg, despite what appears to be his best intentions.
Very shortly the UK will select a new government. As I write this I hear commentators throwing around new poll statistics which would contradict predictions I heard only a few hours ago. Regardless of the outcome, my most significant observation is that people are engaged in the political process again. Will there be a hung parliament? Will the Tories win the majority? Will they enter into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats? Or will there be a last minute surprise by Labour? Whichever way it turns out, it is clear that voters are energized by the issues and on Thursday it will be their will that is put forward.