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.

Carl de Souza/AP
Conservative Party leader David Cameron talked to supporters at a rally at East Renfrewshire, Scotland, on May 4.
Brian Aldrich/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
‘Iraq was my biggest problem,’ says Sophie Bridge (left with her two sons), an investment banker who faults her Labour Party for sending troops there. 'He [Tony Blair] knew that a lot of the party’s most loyal supporters would have voted against it. We marched against it.'
Brian Aldrich/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
‘These days property is out of ordinary people’s price range,’ says David White, a fruit and vegetable vendor in north central London. ‘My daughter can’t afford anything.’
Brian Aldrich/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
Mohammed Nurus Safa, an accountant who emigrated to Britain from Bangladesh 40 years ago, usually votes Conservative. This time he backed Labour’s Gordon Brown to ‘reward’ him for saving the banking system from collapse.
Brian Aldrich/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
People mill through the Chapel Market, an outdoor vendor area in London.
Scott Heppell
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown smiles as he walks on his way to vote i Britain's General Election in North Queensferry, Fife, Scotland, Thursday (May 6)

Sophie Bridge is an investment banker who, by occupation at least, should have voted for the Conservatives in Britain. She didn’t. The self-
described “hard-line Labourite” grew up in a family with distinct left-of-center leanings.

Yet last week she wasn’t casting her ballot for the Labour Party either. Instead, Ms. Bridge was committed to a third party alternative, the Liberal Democrats.

David White, a fruit-and-vegetable vendor in a working-class neighborhood, would seem to be a natural supporter of the Labour Party. He wasn’t.
He went for the Conservatives, pining for the tough-love days of Margaret Thatcher’s austerity policies.

The two voters symbolize how unsettled British politics is these days – and why the nation whose empire once bestrode the globe is now facing one of its gravest challenges since World War II. Like other parts of Europe, Britain is struggling to navigate the worst economic crisis since the 1970s, epitomized by the debt problem now ricocheting around the Continent.

Yet it will have to do so with a potentially fragile government, the result of a chaotic general election in which no party emerged in overall control of Parliament for the first time in 36 years. The May 6 vote – a hinge moment in which the ruling Labour Party suffered one of its worst results in decades but in which their resurgent Conservative opponents still fell short of winning an absolute majority – reflects a shifting political landscape that will hold consequences beyond the immediate formation of a coalition government.

It may lead to fundamental political reform, complicate the nation’s ability to surmount a budget deficit that is set to eclipse even Greece’s next year, and could affect how aggressive a role Britain plays on the world stage.

In one way, the election result marked a further fragmentation of the electorate similar to what has been sweeping across Europe. Many voters continue to opt for myriad parties from the far left to the far right, along with Greens as well as Scottish and Welsh nationalists.

In another sense, it was the most Americanized election in British history. A presidential-style campaign focused on party leaders and their personalities, with key roles for their spouses as well as strategists from Barack Obama’s White House run aiding opposing sides.

The main message from the election, however, seems to be the public’s rejection of any one political vision for the future. The two major parties that have ruled British politics for nearly a century failed to achieve a clear mandate for the nation’s direction.

Yet neither did the upstart Liberal Democrats, the third party led by the telegenic Nick Clegg, break the duopoly on power and achieve the dramatic breakthrough everyone thought it would. While the percentage of support for the Liberal Democrats rose slightly, the party actually dropped seats. Still, it finds itself in the enviable and ironic position of potentially being kingmaker as the country tries to cobble together a new government.

Theories abound about why the “Lib Dems” didn’t do better. Some posit that Britain’s powerful right-wing press scared many voters away from the party – and toward the Conservatives – by trumpeting Mr. Clegg’s policies and past pronouncements on issues such as adopting Europe’s troubled common currency, the euro. Some liberals, who might have been tempted to vote for the centrist Lib Dems, clearly stuck with Labour, nervous about what a Conservative government would mean for the economy.

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.

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.

More than just economics, though, has driven the restiveness of the British public. To a certain extent, the election results were the culmination of a wave of public anger and distrust within Britain’s political classes in the wake of last year’s scandal over the misuse of taxpayer-funded allowances by parliamentarians.

Many MPs announced months ago that they would not be running again. More than 150 MPs retired in all, resulting in the largest number of new members on the stump since World War II. Some experts also trace a distrust of the Westminster elite to the way Britons felt misled over their country’s involvement in the Iraq war.

“Iraq was my biggest problem,” says Bridge, faulting Blair for sending troops. “He knew that a lot of the party’s most loyal supporters would have voted against. We marched against it.”

Yet along with the general disaffection, many Britons have clearly grown weary of the two-party system. “British society today is so much more schizophrenic than in 1979 [the year Thatcher was elected prime minister],” says Mark Garnett, an expert on political culture at the University of Lancaster.

“The whole point is that class borders are much more fluid and difficult to identify. Often it’s people who have risen successfully from working-class roots, but still want to refer to their working-class credentials as a badge of honor.”

Britain’s changing ethnic mix has contributed to the unpredictability. At his restaurant in the Islington-Finsbury district, Mohammed Nurus Safa notes that while he has voted for the Conservatives in the past, he wanted to reward Brown this time for saving Britain’s banking system from collapse following the 2008 financial crisis.

An accountant who came to the UK 40 years ago from Bangladesh, Mr. Safa remembers the 1970s differently from the way many others do, who regard it as a period of decline. “I think we need to go back there; it was a time when the government was more caring for the people, when the National Health Service was No. 1,” says Safa, whose three daughters work as doctors.

Safa typifies a generation of older immigrants whose families continue to add new dimensions to British society. For one thing, voter turnout among many ethnic minorities is unusually high. In the 2005 general election, for instance, the national average turnout was 61.4 percent, while for Bangladeshi voters alone it was 76 percent.

Despite the rise of ethnic minorities, experts fault the two mainstream parties for not heeding their interests enough, adding to the veneer of volatility in the land. Confronted with a complicated and “footloose electorate,” says Dr. Garnett, every major political party has tailored its message to an imagined caricature of Britain, centered around a vision of middle-class voters receptive to the language of the “Westminster bubble.”

The result: Large swaths of the public feel alienated – particularly the white working classes.

This was epitomized most visibly by Brown’s “bigoted woman” incident late in the campaign. The prime minister, stumping in the northern English town of Rochdale, listened to a woman – a lifelong Labourite, it turned out – complain about the number of Eastern European immigrants. Unaware that a microphone was still attached to his lapel, Brown described her as bigoted.

For many, the remark summed up the detachment of mainstream politicians, and particularly the ruling party, from the concerns of ordinary voters.
Immigration, already a big issue, exploded as a hot-button concern. It generated some of the liveliest exchanges in the final televised debate.

* * *

From here, Britain could be heading into a prolonged period of political fragility. Even if a coalition government is formed quickly, there is nothing to guarantee that it might not fall in the months or immediate years ahead, given the divisions in Parliament and among the electorate.

Mindful of this – and the challenges ahead – Conservative Party leader David Cameron was reaching out quickly to the Liberal Democrats and other factions to try to head that off.

“The new government will face the worst inheritance of any incoming government for at least 60 years,” he said the day after the election. “That is exactly why it is so important that we have strong stable government that lasts.”

No matter what the precise makeup of the government, it probably won’t change transatlantic ties in any meaningful way. During the campaign, all three parties supported the UK’s involvement in Afghanistan, even though it is highly unpopular with the British public.

The country’s ties with Europe may be less definitive. Britain has always harbored conflicted feelings about the European Union. As recently as 2008, a Pew Global Attitudes poll found that more Canadians (71 percent) and Americans (56 percent) expressed favorable opinions of the EU than Britons (50 percent).

These crosscurrents surfaced during the campaign. At one point, Mr. Cameron faced accusations that his party’s alliance with hard-line nationalist and allegedly anti-Semitic fringe elements in the European Parliament would marginalize Britain in the EU.

The election may hold a few lessons for the United States. One is the enduring difficulty of a third party to break through in many democracies. While in this case that was due in part to the winner-take-all nature of the British political system, the Liberal Democrats couldn’t make major inroads on Conservatives and Labour even with a leader who drew comparisons during the campaign to Churchill.

There were signs all along, to be sure, that the Liberal Democrats’ appeal might be transitory. Polls showed that as many as a quarter of the Lib Dems’ potential supporters knew little or nothing about the party’s plans. That suggested “Cleggmania” did, in fact, stem from one man’s charisma more than any ideology or defined set of values.

Yet the support the Lib Dems did garner, along with that of many other alternative candidates, suggests that major parties shouldn’t take the electorate for granted. The message for mainstream parties may be this: Don’t become too narrow.

Cameron was able to rejuvenate the demoralized Conservative Party in part by moving it away from the hard right. After taking over a bitterly divided party in 2005, he forced it to end an obsession with immigration and anti-European rhetoric. Concepts such as climate change and gay rights were embraced in a bid to broaden the appeal of the Conservative brand.

“The Conservative Party’s strong showing – their biggest swing against the Labour Party since the 1930s – may have a lot to offer for those looking towards conservative renewal in the US,” says Stefan Andreasson, a political expert at Queen’s University, Belfast. “What Cameron has done is move very much towards the center, attracting a greater diversity of voters including those from ethnic minorities. It’s very different from the US where the Republican Party has been taking account of an increasingly vociferous ‘tea party’ fringe.”

Is anyone in America listening?

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