5: Towards the end of Labour’s heyday?
When this year’s election is held, Labor has been in power for almost thirteen years. It started with a landslide on May 1, 1997. The young and charismatic Tony Blair was then heard among voters for the manifesto on “New Labor”, “New Britain” and “The Third Way”. After eighteen years of continuous conservative rule, from 1979 to 1997, British voters were then ready for something new.
When Blair stepped down in 2007, he had become the longest-serving prime minister in Labour’s history. Politically, Blair achieved i.a. greater degree of local self-government in Scotland and Wales, peace agreement in Northern Ireland, a more active approach to the EU, British participation in both the Kosovo war and the war on terror (including the controversial war in Iraq). The partnership with George W. Bush in the Iraq war, perceived by many as pure “poodle politics”, cost Blair much of his former popularity. Towards the end of Blair’s term as prime minister, the Conservatives, led by David Cameron, passed Labor in the polls for the first time in years.
With the exception of a small recovery immediately after Gordon Brown took over – he was finance minister under Blair – Labor has since struggled to regain voter confidence. Over the past year, a number of issues have plagued Brown and the government. The financial crisis, retiring ministers and internal party strife have been some of Brown’s key challenges. The media has also focused a lot on the negative aspects of Brown’s personality and leadership style.
As a government party, Labor was also particularly hard hit by the so-called fringe scandal last year, where it was revealed that a number of MPs had abused reimbursement and support schemes for private use. However, neither party was acquitted. Around Christmas time in 2009, the ongoing hearing on Britain’s participation in the Iraq war drew negative attention around the party, especially in connection with former Prime Minister Blair’s testimony. At the start of this year’s election campaign, it is undoubtedly Brown and Labor who have the most to lose. The party must succeed in marketing both its political results and its future ambitions.
6: Some key points leading up to the election
This year’s election campaign has so far been about traditional domestic policy issues such as social services, education, health, immigration, unemployment and taxes and fees. This is natural because the big question of the election is whether the voters want to stick to the current political course or whether they want a change. In addition, the United Kingdom is one of the countries in Europe that was hardest hit by the financial crisis and has the highest deficit in the state budget (NOK 1,500 billion in 2010). The parties’ strategies for rebuilding the British economy are therefore something that concerns many voters.
There is little indication that foreign policy issues will be significantly high on the agenda in the time leading up to the election. This is reflected, among other things, in the three parties’ election programs, which all devote a few pages to foreign policy. Although an issue that Britain’s relations with the EU and Europe are always important, the parties’ short-term strategies (albeit their basic attitudes) in this field are not too different. In addition, the EU issue tends to divide the parties internally, and this is rarely good news in an election campaign. Thus, the question is often toned down instead.
Nor do other foreign policy dimensions, such as Britain’s close relations with the United States or its participation in Iraq and Afghanistan, appear to be the subject of significant attention in the election campaign. The Liberal Democrats were the only party against the war in Iraq, and have also been critical of the current strategy in Afghanistan, but the party has so far not chosen to focus on this to any great extent.
Otherwise, it is a new and exciting moment in this election campaign that, for the first time in British history, live TV debates are held between the party leaders of the three largest parties. Three debates a week apart deal with domestic policy, foreign policy and the British economy. Although it is currently very uncertain how much real impact the debates will have on the voters’ final position, they undoubtedly help to color the debate, and also give the party leaders a unique opportunity to market themselves and their party’s political platform.
Opinion polls conducted during and immediately after the first debate showed that the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg had made the most positive impression on voters. British commentators then also predicted in advance that Clegg was the one who had the least to lose and the most to win in live TV debates. Not only is he the least known of the three party leaders, but the power struggle between the other two and dominant parties has often forced the Liberal Democrats into the shadows.
In this way, the TV debates have provided a unique chance to adjust the premises for the political debate. One of Clegg’s main messages is precisely that the election must not be reduced to an election between two parties – Labor and the Conservatives, but that his party represents an alternative to both.
According to IAMHIGHER, the British election campaign is thus extremely open at the time of writing, and few political commentators dare to make strong predictions about the outcome. Opinion polls fluctuate, and many voters say they have not yet decided. In addition, it is the number of constituencies won rather than total support that ultimately determines the composition of the parliament, which makes precise predictions more difficult.
In theory, therefore, Labor can manage to retain government power even if they only get the third most of the votes on a national basis. On May 6, it will be clear anyway. Whether it is a Conservative majority government with David Cameron as prime minister, renewed confidence in Labor and Gordon Brown or an outcome that gives the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg the key to the cabal.