British election: What it means for the UK and the US
Britain searches for a new direction after 13 years of Labour rule, the first hung Parliament in 36 years, and one of the worst economies since World War II.
(Page 2 of 4)
Still, many voters did opt for alternatives, even in a system that makes it tough for small parties to thrive. In the southern coastal city of Brighton, the Green Party won its first member of Parliament.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
More important, Labour has undergone a last-minute conversion to favor the type of reforms that could unlock the two-party system. Britain operates under a simple “winner take all” system, in which the candidate with the most votes in any district wins. Elsewhere in Europe, political systems tend to award parliamentary seats in proportion to the percentage of the vote.
“We have had unfair elections since the 18th century,” says Steven Fielding, director of the Centre for British Politics at the University of Nottingham. “But this may be the moment when people realize the system has to be reformed.”
In the end, what does the election say about Britain’s sense of itself, and are there lessons for the US?
* * *
The Parliamentary district of Islington South and Finsbury in north central London represents, in many ways, a microcosm of Britain today. Urban, densely populated, and multicultural, it is polarized economically. Part of the district is the stereotypical home of the so-called chattering classes, whose families live in opulent Georgian townhouses along leafy streets. But it is also the location of some of the most deprived areas in the United Kingdom.
The district has long been a Labour stronghold. Tony Blair used to live here, before becoming leader of the Labour Party. In a now famous and prophetic dinner at a local restaurant in 1994, Mr. Blair and Gordon Brown hatched a pact to share power in the years ahead. Blair’s ascension to prime minister in 1997 inspired many locals to believe a new political day had dawned, feelings that Mr. Brown, fulfilling his dinner-table role as his successor, only intensified.
Yet something happened on the way to Camelot. In recent years, the gap between the rich and poor across Britain in general and the Islington-Finsbury district in particular has widened – inequality has reached the highest levels since record keeping began in the early 1960s. Many people believe this was one of the biggest failures of the Labour government under Brown.
“These days property is out of ordinary people’s price range,” says Mr. White, the fruit stand vendor. “My daughter can’t afford anything.”
Even worse, Britain will likely face years of austerity as it tries to dig out from its yawning budget deficit. All three parties made clear during the campaign that severe cuts in public spending will be needed to tackle the country’s rising debt. The only difference was when, and where, the ax might fall.
The European Commission forecast on the eve of the election that the UK deficit for this calendar year would be 12 percent of gross domestic product, the highest of all of the 27 European Union nations.
“The country is in a mess and there is a big sense of crisis, particularly among the governing classes, whereas it has not quite registered yet with the general public,” says Professor Richard Vinen, a historian at King’s College London.