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Vote for change may bring more of the same

by Tina Burrett

Just last month, the opposition Conservative Party seemed as close to unbeatable in the upcoming British election as is possible in politics. But last week Gordon Brown, the usually dour prime minister, had reason to be cheerful. According to the latest polls, Brown’s Labour Party could yet emerge as the largest party after the election on May 6.

The past year has not been kind to Brown and his government. Rightly or wrongly, U.K. voters’ anger over MP expenses and the recession that resulted from the global financial crisis was leveled at Labour. Although some of most headline-grabbing and indefensible claims revealed by the inquiry into MP expenses came from Conservative members, the scandal broke on Labour’s watch.

As finance minister for a decade from 1997, it did not escape voter attention that Brown was personally responsible for much of the deregulation of the U.K. financial markets that left the British economy one of the worst affected by the global crash in 2008. Although his fast and adept response to the crisis was admired abroad, not least in Japan, Brown was given very little credit at home for saving Britain’s economy from what could have been a much longer and deeper recession.

Public anger at Brown and Labour resulted in a boost for the Conservatives and their leader David Cameron. For most of 2008-09, the Conservatives enjoyed a poll lead over Labour of more than 10 percent. Cameron and his party could reasonably assume that the outcome of the 2010 U.K. election would resemble the Japanese election of 2009: a tired government, devoid of new ideas and steeped in sleaze, replaced by a re-branded opposition with a populist agenda. But now that the election starting gun has been fired, British voters are taking a closer look at the Tories and their platform, and are not altogether convinced by what they see.

The recent turnaround in the Tories’ fortunes under Cameron’s leadership had earned him admirers in Japan. Liberal Democratic Party politicians such as Taro Kono and Yuriko Koike have cited the rehabilitation of the Tories as a model for rebuilding their own party. But Cameron’s example may offer Japanese conservatives a very different lesson to the one they were expecting.

Cameron and his team proclaim “Vote for change” at every opportunity, but Cameron’s rhetoric is not matched by his program. A closer inspection of the Tories’ pitch shows no radical break from the policies pursued by for 10 years by Blair, and to a lesser extent, still now by Brown.

Cameron is Blair’s natural heir. He, more than Brown, shares Blair’s faith in the role of the private sector in the public services. Cameron’s casual, self-deprecating communication style cannot help but remind voters of Blair’s easy and informal (if much-rehearsed) public manner.

Cameron’s mimicry of Blair and Blairism is an ill-conceived strategy that ironically lets the three-term Labour government proclaim itself as the real choice for change at this election.

While Cameron tries to fill Blair’s shoes, Brown is asking voters to let him out from under the shadow of his predecessor: A fourth term for Labour and election as prime minister in his own right would allow Brown to follow his own more redistributive and interventionist instincts, which served Britain well during the financial crisis. Voters who initially blamed Brown for Britain’s recent economic woes are beginning to realize that, had they been in government over the past 10 years, the Conservatives would have followed the same deregulatory policies as Labour, perhaps to a more extreme extent.

Furthermore, despite the backdrop of the financial crisis, Cameron has thus far failed to present voters with a satisfactory plan for restoring responsibility in Britain’s banking sector. Voters are beginning to worry that behind the smiling Cameron are the same old Tories with their friends in the City and a blatant disregard for anyone else.

Until recently, it looked like public dissatisfaction, and in some cases disgust, with the current government would be enough to guarantee Cameron victory, as it did for Yukio Hatoyama in Japan. But unfortunately for Cameron, the upcoming ballot in Britain could now resemble Japan in 1996 rather than 2009, when the incumbent LDP just squeaked a majority. Another possible scenario is that the Conservatives may win more seats than Labour, but not an overall majority.

In such a situation, both main parties would be forced to court the support of Britain’s third party, the centrist Liberal Democrats. As the recipient of as many protest votes against Labour as against the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats would face an unenviable choice. Which way their leader, Nick Clegg, will jump is difficult to predict. British politicians have had no experience of coalition government since the mid-1970s. A hung parliament would be the ideal time for them to learn a lesson or two from Japan.

Tina Burrett is assistant professor of international relations and politics at Temple University, Japan.