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Don’t write Labour Party off

by Tina Burrett

In an ironic twist, just as the Democratic Party of Japan government is considering importing elements of the Westminster model, British politics begins turning Japanese.

While Japan has a long experience of multiparty governments, the coalition between Britain’s Conservatives and Liberal Democrats that ushered David Cameron into Downing Street on Tuesday is the first to govern the country since World War II.

The Conservatives’ concession to offer a referendum on electoral reform was a key element of Cameron’s successful courtship of Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, whose party has been badly penalized by the current first-pass-the-post (FPTP) voting system.

Indeed, in last week’s election, while the Liberal Democrats received 23 percent of the vote, this translated into only 8.8 percent of parliamentary seats. But with the majority of the Conservative Party opposed to changing an electoral system that has served them well over the last century, the best the Lib Dems can hope for is a slightly more proportional system based on alternative vote or a Japanese-style mixture of FPTP and proportionally elected seats.

Electoral reform is not the only area in which the new coalition partners fundamentally disagree.

The two parties share little common ground on European integration, nuclear power, and where the inevitable public-spending cuts will fall.

Furthermore, at a local level, animosities between Tory and Lib Dem activists run deep. The two parties faced-off in some of the hardest and dirtiest races of the election. This will be a coalition fraught with difficulties. Despite reassurances from Cameron and Clegg that their pact will last a parliament, both men will find it hard to take their parties with them on this journey into uncharted territory.

The fragility of the governing coalition should offer some comfort to Labour. While left-leaning Lib Dem activists may be willing to stomach a coalition with the Tories in exchange for seats in the Cabinet, the millions of voters who supported Clegg to keep out Cameron will not be so easily pacified.

In more than a dozen constituencies, Lib Dem members of Parliament (MPs) owe their seats to tactical voting by Labour supporters and other voters opposed to the Tories. In the future, these voters will not trust that a Lib Dem vote is a vote against a Tory government. At the next election, which would be triggered early if the coalition were to falter, Clegg’s decision to enter a Conservative government could cost his party millions of votes.

To position itself as the natural party of Britain’s progressive majority, Labour will have to prove to voters that it is capable of change. The last time a Labour government was ejected from office in 1979, the recriminations almost tore the party apart. In the 18 years it took for voters to regain their faith in Labour, Thatcherism change the face of Britain; obliterating the country’s manufacturing base, and in the process, the social structures on which the Labour vote depended.

In the 1980s many in the Labour Party were too quick to roll over and accept defeat. Similarly, some in the party now argue that a spell in opposition is exactly what Labour needs in order to rethink and regroup. But with the possibility of a collapse in the governing coalition and new elections coming at any time, Labour must move swiftly and decisively to reinvent itself in the eyes of voters.

In its last 48 hours in office, Labour’s leadership showed it was willing and able to take rapid, radical decisions to hold on to power. In an attempt to uncouple Cameron and Clegg, Labour offered the Lib Dems a cornucopia of policy concessions to join them in office. On Monday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown put party before personal ambition and resigned as Labour leader. His continued presence was a major stumbling to a Liberal-Labour deal.

Although Brown was an electoral liability for Labour, the party’s problems cannot be fixed simply with a change of leader. As Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party has learned since suffering defeat in August 2009, cosmetic changes alone will not restore voters’ support. Even at the previous general election in 2005, voters were already falling out of love with “New Labour.” Then as now, the party blamed its falling fortunes on its leader, Tony Blair, and his decision to take Britain into an unpopular war. But what voters disliked about both Blair and Brown was their closed-shop, imperialist decision-making, and their whiff of opportunism and dishonesty.

Whoever replaces Brown as Labour Party leader will face a double challenge. He or she must not only renew the party’s policy platform, but also voters’ trust in Labour, which was badly shaken by last year’s MPs expenses scandal, as well as by the dubious way the Blair government led Britain into the Iraq war. Labour can tackle both challenges simultaneously by basing its renewal on a commitment to civil liberties, constitutional reform and the environment.

The election of Britain’s first Green MP, Caroline Lucas, coupled with a surge in voter support for electoral reform, shows that a large section of the British population wants a new type of politics. If it makes the right changes, Labour will be best placed to give it to them.

Tina Burrett is an assistant professor of international relations at Temple University, Japan campus.