The equally-gratuitous Part I.

Trench foot-in-mouth

Last week Gordon Brown called a voter who strode up and gave him what-for about immigration from Eastern Europe “bigoted.” After forgetting to take out his microphone. Whether it counts for anything or not is totally unclear – in 2001 the famously surly deputy prime minister hit a guy and Labour got a huge majority. But it’s not for nothing that this is the first real coverage Brown has individually got in weeks. This fracas sadly encapsulates Labour’s war so far – they haven’t been able to catch a break, nobody’s listening and nobody thinks you matter.

(As a personal note, I agree with Gordon Brown. Really I like him better the more everybody else hates him. But more on that in Part III.)

It is a strange sort of revenge for Labour’s resistance to proportional representation that Gordon Brown is learning how it feels to be the leader of “the other party.” Though Labour’s numbers have held relatively steady and the resurgent Liberal Democrats are beginning to drop back, the race between two fresh, dynamic, not-grizzled leaders looks better when you don’t stick Mr Shrek MP up next to them. Labour, having developed a taste for the blood of its own leaders, is watching large chunks of its support drift away (to apathy and to LibDems – less to Tories) and indications are that the campaign is totally falling apart. Senior party leaders are apparently trying to convince Gordon Brown to stay on as a caretaker in the event of a loss in an attempt to prevent deputy leader Harriet Harman – whose abrasive style and overexact behavior as Women’s Minister earned her the nickname “Harriet Harperson” – from gaining an indomitable foothold.

As the tetchy campaign enters its final week, both Labour and Tories rounded on Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg on a promise of amnesty for illegal immigrants and extremely ill-advised declarations about his intentions should the Liberal Democrats hold the balance of power in Parliament. These have allowed Brown and Labour, with some success, to declare that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is by proxy one for Cameron – and certainly even Brown-hating Labourites will find irritating his attempts to dictate their choice of leader. David Cameron’s Conservatives have too late realized the danger of the LibDem surge and are only now turning their guns on Nick Clegg after generic attacks on a hung parliament fell flat. A strong performance in the final Leader’s Debate has helped Cameron – no poll since 20 April has showed a vote-winner other than the Conservatives – but the chances it will save him from electoral ambiguity are fading. The election’s had its big bang moment: the focus now shifts from the general campaign to contests in 650 individual seats.

The election-to-come

The quote at the top is from a commentator on election night 1997 when Labour won 418 seats and exterminated half of John Major’s Cabinet.

Derrida (in a random and slightly gratuitous philosophy reference that I’m probably going to fuck up) liked to talk about the “democracy-to-come”: how democracy doesn’t constitute anything intrinsically but is a perpetual work-in-progress, moving and shaping with the passage of time and the change of mores as people and elites assert control in new ways. It’s not going anywhere, as such: there’s no pre-arranged destination, no inevitable moment of completion and triumph. Democracy is a political system that meanders down the road, leaning forward, nervously eyeing its surroundings. If so, in Britain this week democracy is hurtling down an expressway. But where to?

The Liberal Democrat surge has guaranteed that this will be the key question in any new Parliament: not who will govern but how British government will be. If the Conservatives don’t win a majority the Liberal Democrats will hold the balance of power. It is a decades-long party policy that they cannot participate in a regime that does not pursue electoral reform, and for the first time they will be large and decisive enough to enforce that policy. Hungry for power though they may be after a hundred years out of government, they are not likely to break this commitment.

Labour will lose. Nothing can stop that now. But their ability to survive – not as a party of government but as a party at all – now hangs in the balance of this vote. If Labour does indeed drop into third and 100 seats or more fall, a massacre of Labour’s leading lights could follow. It is, ironically, like an asteroid is coming towards the Labour party. What they need in the event of a loss is enough diversity so that the gene pool of potential leaders and their supporting personalities remains robust enough for them to quickly rebound. Two factors are working against this.

The first is that low turnout, high profile Labour safe seats, like David Miliband’s South Shields, are precisely the ones likely to give up a larger-than-average swing should the election go horribly wrong. Labour’s strongholds in the North are the most likely to suffer in such a situation, and given independent interventions and a large swing towards one challenging party could overtop the superficially large majorities held by several Labour ministers like brothers Miliband or the family BallsCooper. (Teehee – Balls.)

Labour may also suffer because of Brown’s reliance on peers in government, who are unelected but can still occupy most government positions. Three peers sit in Cabinet positions which can be held by MPs – two as Secretaries of State and one, Lord Mandelson, as Gordon Brown’s right-hand. A larger number are junior ministers at the highest profile departments – 3 of 9 at Business, excluding the Lord Mandelson; 2 of 5 at Defence; 3 of  5 at the Foreign Office. The competence of these officers aside, these are all positions which are not being used to blood MPs who will be the beating breast of a Labour opposition (and the core of future Labour leadership teams). With the attrition likely if a severe loss comes on Thursday and the potential loss of many junior ministers who sit as MPs, including the most politically sensitive in marginal seats, a rump Labour party would likely fall into the hands of its safest and most hardline members, possibly under an unexpected and inexperienced leader. The Conservatives know how this feels. But they will not share Labour’s pain.

Any hung parliament is unlikely to last long, especially if it results in any kind of broad electoral reform – a new poll will have to follow any alteration in the governing system. If so – and if Labour is unlikely to be a party to the decisions that shape such a reform – their concern should not now be this Thursday. It should be election night November 2010, or May 2011, or whenever this Parliament teeters to its conclusion. By then Tories and LibDems alike will truly have dipped their hands in the blood and they will suffer the burden of having no time for any proposed remedies to take effect (which is why Cameron is so desperate for a majority government – he’ll need his full five years, at least). Labour could profit from this, especially if any Conservative-LibDem regime tears itself apart over reform.

So this was supposed to be 2 parts. w/e. I have a lot of opinions.

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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.