With the UK General Election now announced for May 6, some background information on what is likely to unfold might be of general interest.
l. UK general elections are not like US ones. They are normally short — never more than six weeks in length — this one will be over in four. When they are announced, fierce electoral rules come into play. No political party can spend more than £30,000 a constituency: so even if a party contests all 650 seats, spending cannot exceed £19 million. And media coverage has to be balanced: if one candidate or party is profiled on the BBC, the other major parties have to be given equal coverage. So there will be no party-funded advertising blitzes on British television, just a string of national debates and endless nightly coverage of individual constituency struggles.
2. This election is likely to a very closely fought one that might actually result in a change of government. Currently the opinion polls are giving the Conservative opposition a single-figure lead — anything from 9 percentage points to four — with the gap narrowing slightly as the election begins. So the Conservatives might win, but that win cannot be guaranteed.
In fact, there is a real possibility that the election will produce what the British call a “hung” parliament — with neither Labour nor the Conservatives able to win enough votes and seats to form a majority government, obliged instead to negotiate a coalition with the third-party Liberal Democrats. There is also a possibility of one party (this time, Labour) winning more seats than its main rival while the rival takes a larger share of the popular vote. It happened in the UK in 1951 and again in 1974. It happened here, of course, in 2000. If it happens in the UK this time, it will raise big issues about the legitimacy of any Labour-Liberal coalition, should one be formed.
3. For no matter the result, the closeness of the election is indicative of the deep unpopularity of the Labour Party under Gordon Brown. Partly that unpopularity is a product of Brown’s own poor performance as prime minister. Partly it is another chapter in a growing alienation with Labour, which began with Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq.
But the shrinkage of New Labour’s popularity — it won in 1997 with a majority of 179 and may now not win at all — also tells us how deep has been the recession in the UK since the financial crisis struck in September 2008. All New Labour’s highly-popular achievements on the economic and social front — unbroken economic growth, reduced unemployment, less child poverty, bigger spending on health and education — all those considerable achievements have been swept away in 18 traumatic months.
British electorates traditionally reward governments for good times and punish them for bad. Times in the UK right now are very bad indeed. Real incomes are marginally down on those in place at the time of last election in 2005. Incomes are down, job insecurity is up, debt and foreclosures stalk the land.
4. In close elections in dour times, personalities count and the campaign matters. The Liberal Democrats owe much of their resurgence in fortunes to the widespread respect for their Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable. The Conservatives owe much of the erosion in their support to growing doubts about their Treasury spokesman George Osborne and their untested leader David Cameron. Labour’s troubles have been compounded by a string of political scandals — the fiddling of parliamentary expenses and the sale parliamentary influence.
This election is likely to be, for many British voters, an exercise in picking the best of a bad lot. We should not expect any Obama-type rallies or wildly enthusiastic demonstrations this time round. People will vote — probably in fewer numbers this time than in 2005, and that number was low enough — but they will largely vote without illusions.
They will watch the debates between the leading politicians with their usual care, and trade unpalatable alternatives. Right now there is no way of knowing exactly how that trade will eventually pan out.
5. Whoever wins, they are likely to inherit a poison chalice. With public debt in the UK currently running at 11% of GDP, cuts in public services are inevitable regardless of the result. The debate between now and May 6 will not be about competing political philosophies, no matter how hard David Cameron tries to make it so with his call for ‘small government and big society’.
Just back from the UK, my sense is that the public mood will not tolerate loose political rhetoric this time. People want hard facts, not fancy words. They want to know how deep those cuts in public services will be, where they will be focused and how quickly they will begin. The UK is poised for a general election, but not for one of big claims and high spirits. Not this time, anyway!