Electoral fatigue takes a toll on Britain

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — The British general election takes place May 5. It was formally announced April 3 but electioneering has been going on for months and many voters had become bored even before the dissolution of Parliament. It is widely feared that boredom and disillusionment with politicians of all the parties contesting the election will lead to voter apathy and a low turnout.

The electoral system has come in for much criticism. In local elections held last year in Birmingham there were allegations of widespread fraud by Labour Party local counselors involving postal votes. The judge who presided over the trial of some of those involved said that the system of postal voting was “worthy of a banana republic” and that apart from writing on postal-voting envelopes “please steal me” the system could not be made easier to manipulate.

The government has said that they will reform the law but only after the current election and have continued to encourage the use of postal voting.

The British constituency system is subject to review by an independent boundaries commission to try to ensure reasonably equal numbers of voters in each constituency, but the review has not kept up with the movement of populations from cities to the suburbs and country districts. As a result, urban areas where the Labour Party is strong are over-represented in comparison with country districts that tend to be more inclined to vote Conservative, or Tory as the party is popularly known.

The “first passed the post” system makes it difficult for third parties such as the Liberal Democrats in Britain to obtain seats in proportion to the votes cast for them. This inevitably means that governments in Britain are almost invariably chosen by an overall minority of the votes cast. Those who support the current system argue that it generally rules out coalitions and weak governments. But as the Liberal Democrats point out, the system is not fair to their supporters.

It is never possible to predict the outcome of a British election with certainty and opinion polls are notoriously unreliable. Moreover there could well be events or electoral gaffes by party leaders that could affect the results. This said, the pollsters seem generally agreed that the Labour Party will win an unprecedented third term in office, although with a reduced majority.

Such a result may seem strange after the many mistakes made by the government over the war in Iraq and a number of bungles over domestic policies. But, while there is a pretty general loss of confidence in Prime Minister Tony Blair, particularly over his handling of the issues involved in Iraq, Tory leader Michael Howard has failed to capitalize on this disillusionment and does not inspire confidence. Moreover the Tories did support the war in Iraq, even if they have recently tried to modify their position. Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, has been consistent in his opposition to the Iraq war, but while a likable personality he is criticized as lacking in the “steel” needed to run a government.

Foreign policy does not in any case play a major part in elections in Britain. Europe, for instance, has hardly featured in the campaigns, despite the fact that the two main parties hold diametrically opposed views on ratification of the European constitution, which will be the subject of a referendum in Britain next year.

As Bill Clinton once declared on the campaign trail, “it’s the economy, stupid.” The government have taken this advice to heart and made much of their handling of the British economy. At one stage the Labour Party seemed to have tried to sideline Finance Minister Gordon Brown in the campaign. But this decision was not popular with the Labour Party and Blair and Brown, whose relationship is notoriously difficult, decided for electoral reasons to make up their differences, if only temporarily. Brown no doubt realized that, if in his jealousy of the prime minister he sulked in the background, he was in danger of forfeiting his chances of succeeding Blair when the latter retires, as he has said he will, during the course of the next Parliament.

On the whole the government’s record in managing the economy has been reasonably good, although most economists think that taxes will have to rise to pay for the government’s pledges to spend more money on health and education and there is much dissatisfaction among businessmen over increasing bureaucratic red tape.

The Tories have promised limited tax cuts while maintaining most of the government’s spending plans. They argue, not very convincingly, that they can do this by a major attack on waste in government. The Labour Party is also targeting waste and bureaucracy, but few observers think that the savings projected by the government or the opposition from cutting down the bureaucracy are attainable. The tax burden seems likely to rise in the next few years whichever party wins, and it is questionable whether Tory sums add up.

Over health there have been skirmishes on peripheral aspects such as waiting times for hospital treatment and the spread of the super-bug MRSA in hospitals, but the Labour Party, despite their tendency to bureaucratize the health service and constantly bring in new targets, have managed to cast doubt on the Tory commitment to maintain the service.

In education there is not a great deal of difference between the policies advocated by the political parties except over university fees. The Liberal Democrats would abolish the fees and cover the costs by increasing tax on those with the highest incomes. The Tories would cover the costs of abolishing fees by reducing the number of students going on to higher education.

The other main election themes have been avowedly populist. The Tories have attacked the government record over immigration and asylum, and have called for strict limits on the numbers in both categories. Labour has responded defensively. While crime statistics are inconclusive, both the main parties want to strengthen the police and deal more effectively with antisocial behavior, and both favor the introduction of compulsory identity cards. Only the Liberal Democrats are firmly opposed to identity cards and the authoritarian tendencies of both the main parties.

All parties want a high voter turnout by their own committed supporters. They also aim to woo undecided voters in marginal constituencies. But cynicism with the politicians and the electoral process may well lead to a low level of voting.