Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Britain set for an election and a change of power

In one of those wonderfully quaint British rituals, Gordon Brown drove the short distance from Downing Street to Buckingham Palace today to seek “permission” to dissolve parliament next week and call a general election for 6 May. Brown is heartened for his four-week campaign by a narrowing of the polls according to Guardian ICM. Nevertheless most pundits expect David Cameron’s Conservative Party to win their first election in 18 years in what will be a test of new faces. It is the first election in charge for all three major party leaders Brown, Cameron and the LibDem’s Nick Clegg.

The latest yougov opinion poll has the Tories on 41 percent, Labour 31 and LibDems 18 which is typical of most UK polls which give the Conservatives a lead of 10 points, enough to win an outright majority if it is applied consistently across the country. They are also favoured by notionally redrawn electoral boundaries. The number of seats has risen by 4 since 2005 to 650. Labour had a majority of 66 seats in 2005 with 35 percent of the vote. This has been reduced by successive by-election losses to a working majority of 48. The Tories need a uniform swing of 4.3 percent to be the largest party in parliament and a swing of 7.0 percent for an overall majority. However the first past the post system complicates matters entirely: Labour got almost double the Tory seats in 2005 despite only getting 3 percent more of the popular vote and the LibDems got less than 10 percent of the seats despite getting 22 percent of the vote.

Gordon Brown missed his best chance to win an election in his honeymoon period after he replaced Tony Blair in June 2007. At the time Cameron said Brown had shown "great weakness and indecision", and had made a "humiliating retreat" but he later admitted the Conservatives would have most likely lost that election. By the end of the year, the Tories had regained the lead in the polls they had gained in the dying days of the Blair Government and never looked back.

The 2008 GFC left the British economy in ruins and by 2009 the MP expenses scandal had erupted. All parties were affected (and both Brown and Cameron apologised) to the effect the 2005 election was dubbed “the rotten parliament”. But it was Labour who bore the public brunt of the anger with high-profile casualties such as Speaker Michael Martin (the first to be forced out of office since 1695), and Cabinet ministers Shahid Malik, Jacqui Smith, Hazel Blears and Tony McNulty.

In the event of a hung parliament, the fortunes of the minor parties could become crucial. The LibDems have not made the advances they expected five years ago but the balance of power offers them their best chance to change the voting rules to something more democratic. The Greens have their best ever chance of a breakthrough in Brighton Pavilion and may also do well in Lewisham Deptford. Respect MP George Galloway moves to fight Poplar and Limehouse while they hope to retain his old Bethnal Green and Bow seat too. BNP party leader Nick Griffin is likely to stand in Barking where new boundaries give him a good chance of success. The UKIP’s best hope is Buckingham where their former leader Nigel Farage takes on new Speaker John Bercow.

Nevertheless the main political narrative will be the presidential style contest between Brown and Cameron. Both men are hamstrung. As Matthew Flinders (the British academic not the sailor) wrote, Brown may have the political inclination to deliver far-reaching reform but he lacks the capacity; Cameron is likely to have the capacity but not the inclination. Both will campaign around the state of the economy and whether it is too early to jeopardise the recovery by applying the spending cuts the Tories want. But in the end, it may just be about change. The electorate is tired of Labour. Cameron will most likely win, despite his Posh Boy baggage, simply because he is not Gordon Brown.

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