Tuesday, 25 September 2007

UK election next month?

It’s party conference season here in the UK. If you took the word ‘conference’ out of that phrase it would sound a lot more fun. But from what I heard from my friend Francis about the Lib Dem conference down in Brighton, these things are actually a raucous good time.

Party conference season refers to the three weeks in the fall when the three main political parties in the UK each have a big event outlining their platform for the coming year. They’re a bit like the national conventions in the US, except that they happen every year rather than every four years and are not expressly for the purpose of choosing a candidate to run for the country’s leadership (although sometimes such a leadership change is made).

There are a lot of differences between UK government and US government, but the main one is that in a parliamentary system, political parties pick a leader on their own without an election, regardless of whether their party is in power or not. Then, when an election is held, the party that has received the most seats in the House of Commons gets to make their party’s leader the prime minister. This prime minister then serves at the pleasure of their party, not at the pleasure of the people. Hence the confusion in the US when Tony Blair stepped down and Americans thought he was ‘resigning in disgrace’ before the end of his term, Nixon-style. Perhaps this misconception was understandable. Having adopted the tactics and imagery of an American president, it was easy for Americans to become confused and think he was the “president” of the UK. But in the UK, the departure of a prime minister would not logically coincide with an election.

The prime minister has the power to call elections whenever he feels like it, but elections must be held at least every five years (the next one has to be before May 2010). This means Gordon Brown has difficult decision to make. He’s just recently inherited the PM mantle from Tony Blair and has had a good start. Brown has surprised the country in the past three months, expertly handling a series of crises while at the same time proving he was much more dynamic and PR-savvy than people had assummed based on his dour demeanor while he was chancellor of the exchequer (the head of Britain’s finances).

There was much speculation that dour, boring Brown wouldn’t be able to fill Blair’s larger-then-life shoes. But it would appear the British public didn’t want him to. For the most part it seems people are sick of the slick, image-obsessed Blair years and seem grateful to once again have a politician acting like a politician should: dull, but principled and strong. This is reflected in the polls: Brown now has a large lead over his rival, the Conservative leader David Cameron.

Watching the Labour party conference broadcast this week, it is immediately apparent from the enthusiasm of the crowd that in three months Brown has been able to accomplish a remarkable feat. He’s managed to connect himself with the successes of the past 10 years of Labour rule, while at the same time distance himself from Blair and presenting his government as a fresh start. Blair, who will likely go down in history with Thatcher and Churchill as one of the most dominant prime ministers in modern British politics, was barely mentioned throughout the conference. In fact the only thing noticeable about him was his absence.

So now the big question in Britain is – will he or won’t he? With his sizable polling lead that’s come from both his handling of the summer’s crises and the honeymoon period of a new prime minister, now would be an excellent time to call an election. The Conservatives are in disarray, with tons of infighting as more traditional, older Tories challenge Cameron’s efforts to move the party to the left. And because Brown isn’t Blair, Labour is likely to regain many of the seats lost to the Liberal Democrats in the last election when the Iraq War was high on the public’s mind (the Liberal Democrats opposed the war).

Throughout the conference there has been chatter about a snap election being called for October 25. The Conservatives have clearly taken these rumblings seriously. The Tories reportedly have a contingency plan in place to turn the upcoming Conservative conference into a “mini election rally” if a snap poll is called next week.

But there is a significant risk in calling a snap poll. The public is gravitating toward Brown precisely because he is appearing to be above the American-style, PR-driven politics of Tony Blair. If he were to call an election he would be forced to engage in just the sort of campaigning activities the public doesn’t want to see. But for a prime minister to not campaign during an election would be crazy, especially when he faces a charming, attractive and PR-savvy opponent in David Cameron.If it starts to appear that Labour is entirely focused on politics rather than running the country, the public could be left with the impression that they’re back to the Blairite years, and they could turn against Brown so fast it would make your head spin.

At the same time, there are significant risks in not calling an election. Allowing the rampant speculation to continue much longer without taking any action could make Brown look indecisive. And waiting until 2008 or 2009, Brown runs the risk that something might happen in the interim that would seriously damage him.

That is exactly what happened to Labour prime minister James Callaghan in 1979. Callaghan was both the foreign secretary and chancellor of the exchequer before prime minister Harold Wilson resigned in 1976 and Callaghan was elected the new Labour leader, and thusly prime minister. Callaghan rode in on the usual “honeymoon bump,” and many historians think he would have won if he had called an election within the first few months of his prime ministership. But he waited, and in the mean time the UK was hit by crippling labor strikes, industrial disputes and high unemployment in the "Winter of Discontent" of 1978–79. This lead to a parliamentary vote of no confidence and Callaghan’s defeat by Margaret Thatcher, who promised to crack down on the unions with an iron fist.

My hunch is that Brown will call an election next week. It seems to me that the risks involved in calling one early are far less than the risks involved in waiting. And the media seems to be practically demanding one. All the coverage of the conference this week has revolved around how this would be a perfect time to do so.

But here’s my question. If he does call an election, will the Conservatives use a demand for a referendum on the EU treaty to shore up populist support? So far they’ve been half-hearted in their calls for one, because they know a referendum would be popular with the public but disastrous for the country, because the public will almost certainly vote no thanks to the rabidly Eurosceptic British media. But if an election were called, it could be too tempting for the Tories not to make political hay out of this populist issue. In the end this could be the reason Brown might wait. No serious politician wants the treaty to be put to a referendum by the public. Even Cameron, I suspect, wouldn’t want to inherit a government that had just destroyed the European project. But forcing the referendum issue might be the only way the Tories could win October 25.

It will certainly be interesting to see what happens in the coming weeks

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