For those of you who follow any politics from outside Australia, you’d be aware that the British General Election falls on May 6 this year. Gordon Brown, the incumbent, went to see the Queen last week, giving us a very short election campaign. After the announcement, I approached Online Opinion’s Graham Young with a view to providing his readers with some British election coverage. He was keen, so here I am.
By way of background, I’m an Australian lawyer doing postgraduate studies at the University of Oxford (please, no Tony Abbott jokes). I run the legal/cultural/political blog skepticlawyer. DeusExMacintosh –one of my co-bloggers — is also an Australian (in this case, a tech journalist and cartoonist) who lives in the UK. She, however, lives in Edinburgh and so provides a distinctive perspective on British politics. Few Australians appreciate the change devolution has wrought in the UK. Among other things, it means the UK now resembles Australia much more than it once did, with things like policing, education and health now largely the responsibility of the “state” governments (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).
In terms of politics, I’m a member of the Oxford Conservative Association, which means I’ll do my best to draw on information that comes to hand through Conservative Party friends and contacts. I’ll also flag at the outset that I’m perfectly capable of stepping outside my own political preferences. This is in part because there are some things the Tories are doing right now that give me the willies as much as anything Labour wants to inflict on us. Listening too much to this bloke is one of them.
DeusExMacintosh, by contrast, is of no party or clique and is genuinely undecided. She’s made the early running on our coverage, including a wrap-up on Britain’s first ever prime ministerial TV debate. Yes, you read right. We’ve never had this staple of American and Australian politics in the UK before, and this first edition was remarkably free of such oddities as the “worm” or teleprompters. That’s not the way the Brits do politics.
When it comes to electoral crystal-ball gazing, there’s been a fair bit of talk about a hung parliament. For a long while, David Cameron looked like he would be elected in a landslide, but some of that support has ebbed away in recent times. Interestingly, most of it isn’t flowing back to Labour, and pundits I respect (including Institute for Humane Studies scholar Stephen Davies) say we are looking at the real possibility of minor parties — the Greens, the BNP and possibly even UKIP – with seats in the House of Commons. For anyone who knows anything about the British electoral system, this would be a real shock. The Commons is elected using a “first past the post” method, and distributive vagaries mean that it is surprisingly easy to win a majority of the seats with a minority of the votes.
Of course, there is also the possibility that Conservative support will harden in the fortnight before the general election, and that its current “softness” is as a result of the widespread (in Britain) “Shy Tory” phenomenon. There is no doubt that Labour is on the nose with the electorate, but at this stage it is rather difficult to see just where that widespread distaste is heading. Significantly, betting markets like Intrade and Centrebet have the Tories well ahead. In some respects, this is unsurprising: the British invented the phenomenon of lying to pollsters about their voting intentions.
There is also Britain’s “third party” to take into account: the Liberal Democrats once regularly formed governments but have tumbled far from the days of David Lloyd George. In recent years they have begun to trend back to their Liberal (British definition) roots, and treasury spokesman Vince Cable has even sounded positively libertarian at times. He wants to raise the tax-free threshold to £10,000 and cut taxes, for example. This has helped to make his party more popular. Even so, the Lib Dems remain enduringly unpopular in Scotland for forming a coalition with Labour in order to keep the Scottish National Party out of office in the Scottish Parliament, and their support base in Scotland has declined considerably.
As for the issues, these are many and varied. Britain’s participation in two unpopular wars is front and centre, as is responsibility for the financial crisis (the latter is particularly hurting Labour). Britain has yet to have its “One Nation” experience, and immigration is also a prominent issue. Parliamentarians of all stripes (although once again, Labour are particularly afflicted, thanks to incumbency) are in the public’s bad books thanks to the Expenses Scandal, which led to a very large number of MPs opting not to contest their seats this time around. Whoever wins, there will be a large number of new faces in parliament.
Whether the televised debates will have any effect is a moot point; most of the punditocracy seems to agree that they will help the Liberal Democrats; both Labour and Conservative did their best to exclude the Lib Dems from the debates, but it was a bit difficult considering that they regularly win 20 per cent of the total vote and have a significant number of seats in the House of Commons.
Whatever does happen on May 6, it will be a step into the unknown.
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