Peter does the British election, Part I: The long goodbye

25 April 2010

Many of you have come up to me – in the street, in bars, during my wheatgrass colonic – and asked, “Peter, I have to know – what do you think of the British election?”  Normally I don’t like to comment on politics, as my friends know. Religion and sex acts with clowns are spicier conversation. But – oh, what the Hell.

Beforehand: since the six of you who read this are almost entirely American, you might ask, “Why should I care?” If “because I tell you to” is an insufficient answer, consider: the United Kingom is one of America’s ten largest trading partners and London stands shoulder-to-shoulder with New York as a global financial center; next to the United States, Britain is one of the four or five countries whose fiscal decisions reverberate through the world; and this will be the first time a democratic government under a market capitalist regime will be judged on the economic crash and its response to it. (Remember Obama was elected before ARRA and TARP really hit home.) With a skeptical free-market Conservative government challenging an interventionist Labour, this election is arguably a dry run for November here. You might not be surprised to see some of the same themes bleed in: it wouldn’t be the first time.

Baby got back… ground

Yeah, not inspired.

Gordon Brown has been the Prime Minister since summer 2007. He was originally Chancellor – keeper of the purse strings and holder (slash-frequent squeezer) of the Prime Ministerial testicles. That he became Chancellor and Tony Blair party leader and shoo-in for premier despite the latter being nominally the junior partner is said to be down to a mickey slipped him at a Italian restaurant called Granita, which is a singularly inappropriate place to decide the fate of a country. (At least one without a romance language). Despite getting unprecedented control over government policy for someone not actually responsible for making it, Brown was not a happy camper. He got no happier when – if the deal is to be believed – Tony Blair stayed on past and then well past the agreed time. Gordon Brown learned the hard way that though the banker’s offer may be the smart move, you could still be giving up the $1,000,000 briefcase. (649,875 GBP.)

Brown eventually hounded Blair out a decade after he took office after Blair was forced to deputize him to save the last election campaign in 2005. Brown thought the popularity he’d built up as a surly, hard-charging, hard-spending Chancellor would continue when he ascended the throne himself – and for a time it did. Then came the election that wasn’t. To be fair I don’t think it was really Brown’s fault – but speculation about a snap poll in late 2007 got out of control and he did nothing to stop it. In Britain the date of the election is not fixed, so to dangle the prospect of going to the people and then pull back at the last moment is a most dangerous electoral cocktease.

He’s been sleeping on the couch ever since. But the swarthy Scot is lucky that there has been no grand adversary to match the depth of his own party’s despair. No Margaret Thatcher, no Tony Blair, indeed no Ronald Reagan waits in the wings, ready to cruise onstage as the growling saturnine Scot departs. David Cameron’s Conservatives have failed to convince a skeptical public that he’s not Margaret Thatcher, whom the entire country appears to have retroactively decided was an LOL they turned into a great big OMG. Until recently, the third-party Liberal Democrats – alternatively left-liberal, free-market libertarian and a little bit country – were set to draw 20% of the electorate no matter what happened, ensuring that any winner would form a government on a very low vote total. (I am going to link relatedly to myself again. I have absolutely no idea where I found the time to write all this garbage. Unemployment? I kind of miss unemployment.) Short version is that because Parliament’s elected like the US Congress, if the Speaker of the House ran the fucker, a party which gets 20% of a 3-sided vote everywhere will not win anywhere, even if a proportional result would give them a far bigger seat at the table. In 2005 the Liberals won 62 seats on 22.1% of the vote while a numerically proportional result would have seen them take 142. Most of these were in Southwest England, Scotland, and a few scattered urban seats (most often with heavy college populations or young, affluent outer cities).

Another 35-40 seats, occupied by the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, single-issue independents, vanity MPs and the inevitable Irish constitute a wedge which in years past counted for no one. Practically, then, to form a government one party has to win 326 seats out of only 550-575, while the remaining 70-100 aren’t going to be in play at all. This in a country in which government by more than one party is basically unthinkable. (At least, as unthinkable as German rearmament.)

The only thing missing was Jim Lehrer… and “that one

For the first time in British political history, the cancer of American-style politics spread to the concept of a televised leader’s debate. They do it in Australia, they do it in Canada – it was only a matter of time. It was refreshing to me that starting it with the benefit of all our experience didn’t mean it was any better; while the Brits themselves seemed to be frothing at the mouth over this particular to-do, the parts I watched were just as much a pointless robotic clusterfuck as any presidential clash. It was rather like watching three middle-aged men play Trivial Pursuit, except all the questions were People & Places and nobody ever got a wedge. (“I talked to Wanda, in Bournemouth…”)

But the result was nonetheless remarkable: the Liberal Democrats surged from distant third to close second. They’ve always consistently struggled less with their message than getting anyone to hear it, despite a series of seasoned, well-spoken parliamentarian-leaders and broadly popular liberal policies. The election of Nick Clegg as their leader in 2007 looked for a long while like a major error – a 40 year-old former European MP only elected to Parliament two years before, Clegg never seemed very comfortable in the House Commons and was regularly put aside by a flagging Gordon Brown and his own seasoned deputy, shadow Chancellor Vince Cable. For two years Clegg polled behind the other two leaders and his own predecessors (who had the added disadvantage of also being Scots). He was always shit.

And yet neither Labour,  digging in against a televised leader’s debate, nor the Conservatives clamoring for it, realized that they were in fact drinking a nice big draught of hemlock. From here it looks like Clegg’s secret weapon has turned out to be that he’s the most American of the three – he’s good-looking and easy with the camera, exudes congeniality and above all else he’s seen to be calm, clear and level-headed. If the little worm bastard is any indication (sadly, they have that too), people don’t particularly like conflict in these debates – because, unlike Prime Minister’s Questions, viewers have the impression of being spoken to directly rather than watching others debate. Nobody likes to be yelled at, which is why Brown and Cameron have stumbled when they’ve tried to mix it up – they’re schooled and skilled in parliamentary swordplay. You wonder if even Tony Blair, the talk show Mr. Cool, would have been as well-suited to this format as Clegg.

He’s also a novelty. After three years people seem kind of tired of Brown and Cameron – the drawbacks of 24-hour saturation media is that a lot of people are seeing a lot more of you than they really ever wanted. Having had very little opportunity to speak to a mass audience, Clegg and the LibDems not only appears fresh and their ideas more interesting and innovative but, most importantly, they haven’t yet had time to annoy the entire world. He gets the sort of freshness of the Obama effect without the sixteen months of campaigning that slowly wore it away.

The proof is in the pudding. After the first debate Nick Clegg was unanimously thought to have won, in most cases by margins in double digits. Brown and Cameron alike polled about equally-poor second places. The LibDems’ numbers floated around 20% and hadn’t poked above their 2005 result in many months – after the debate they have not dropped below 26% and regularly top 30. For the first time in – awhile? Ever? – the third party came top in the polls. New numbers haven’t come out since the second debate, but while instant reaction registered a closer result, it still gave a Clegg win. At a stroke, the question became not whether the Conservatives could gain a majority but who would even be the largest party.

I’ll probably publish a part two when I feel like it. Or not.

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2 Responses to “Peter does the British election, Part I: The long goodbye”


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