The United Kingdom will go to the polls on May 6, almost five years since the last general election. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has clung to power as long as he legally could. Now he must face the electorate. The electorate is fickle and the outcome is uncertain.
Brown is wooden and uncharismatic. He has misled Parliament on important issues, including funding for defense. Some have accused him of being a serial liar. But he has shown dogged determination and, perhaps more by good luck than good judgment, the economy seems to be showing signs of revival, even though it looks fragile.
In his 10 years as finance minister he encouraged an asset bubble, based on a vast expansion of cheap credit. This pleased many voters, who accepted his claim that he had abolished “boom and bust.” When the bust inevitably came he blamed international finance and U.S. bankers. He then claimed with more justification but considerable exaggeration that he had saved the world economy by taking tough measures to deal with the banking crisis and adopting Keynsian policies to prevent economic bankruptcy.
Brown argues for a further term in office on the basis that the uncertain future makes change dangerous and that his experience gives him an edge over all his rivals. He scoffs at David Cameron, the youngish leader of the Conservative opposition, as an inexperienced toff and smoothy.
Brown’s accusations against Cameron are unfair. It is as discriminatory to argue that Cameron’s education at Eton should be held against him as it would be to argue that a politician who had never been to university did not deserve a ministerial post. If lack of experience is to count against a candidate, how can any aspirant gain experience?
Cameron may not have the qualities that make a good prime minister, but we shall only be able to tell if he is given the chance to prove himself. Cameron is more charismatic than Brown and has done a great deal to modernize the Conservative Party, dragging it back into the middle ground. But the electorate does not yet seem convinced that the Conservatives have really changed and may be reluctant to vote the party into power.
Britain is not yet a two-party state. The Liberal Democrats, who poise themselves in the middle, although on some issues they are left of the Labour Party, have no chance of achieving power on their own. The opinion polls generally suggest that around 18 percent of the electorate support the party. The “first past the post” system of voting in Britain’s single-member constituencies means that in many constituencies a vote for the Liberal Democrats is likely to be wasted. The party’s main hope is that there will be no outright winning party and that in what is termed a “hung” parliament the Liberal Democrats will hold the balance of power.
Neither of the two major parties would be happy with such an outcome and argue that the result would be a weak government unable to take the necessary difficult steps to deal with the serious deficit in government financing. However, the next government is likely to be one which is supported by less than 50 percent of the electorate.
The biggest problem in the election is going to be to persuade voters to go to the polls. The electorate is disillusioned with politicians. Voters have seen how members of both houses (Commons and Lords) and of all the major parties have used their positions to line their own pockets. The hope is that the worst offenders will either not stand again or be defeated at the polls. But many voters may well express their disgust by not voting at all or voting for minority parties, especially in Scotland and in Wales. A major task following the election will be to clean up politics.
The main concerns of the electorate, as revealed in opinion polls, are the prospects for economic recovery and especially for reductions in unemployment. The parties have all been forced to declare that funding for the National Health Service will not be cut and when possible increased.
The next priority is education. Schools have been rebuilt and teaching staff expanded under the Labour government, but there are real doubts about whether the increased expenditure has been justified by improved standards.
Cameron often speaks about Britain’s broken society. This may be an exaggeration and crime levels may not have got much worse under the Labour government, but voters remain seriously concerned about lack of discipline in school, antisocial behavior by youths and ethnic minorities, and by drunken misbehavior that disturbs some city centers at weekends. These will be important issues especially in marginal constituencies.
Immigration is also increasingly important. There is nothing that Britain can do about limiting immigration from European Union member states. While some immigrants from poorer European countries, including Romania and Bulgaria, have caused problems, the large numbers of Poles and other central Europeans have contributed to the British economy, doing jobs that British people have been unwilling to do.
The main focus has thus been on immigration from outside Europe. In a number of British cities in the North and West Midlands as well as in parts of London, people of Asian and Afro-Caribbean stock outnumber Caucasians in schools and in demands for local community services. This has become a cause of friction and the appropriate response to these problems will be a major electoral issue in some constituencies. Fortunately all parties are agreed that the response must not be a racialist one.
Foreign and defense policy should be major issues, but are unlikely to sway more than a relatively small minority. Brown’s failure as finance minister to fund the armed services adequately for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan almost certainly meant an increase in British casualties, and relatives of those killed or injured will not forgive him.
Brown did not stand up to former Prime Minister Tony Blair when he misled Parliament and the people in giving unstinting support to the illegal United States invasion of Iraq. Brown should also be held accountable for taking Britain into Iraq, but this will not be a key election issue.
Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.