Sun | Oct 1, 2023

Finally, Britain gets an election

Published:Thursday | April 8, 2010 | 12:00 AM

It's been a cold, hard winter in Britain. By now, sunny, warm weather should have brought people back into their gardens. But winter blasts and dark days seem to be giving it one last good fight.

For the governing Labour Party, such a hard winter should be a bad omen. The last time it held office, it was a 'winter of discontent' that brought its rule to an end. The bitter cold and heavy snows of 1979, at which time the unions brought the country to a standstill with one last rush of strikes, turned the country to the Margaret Thatcher-led Conservative Party. Labour was stuck in the wilderness for nearly a generation.

It is almost as if the unions, fearing they will soon lose a sympathetic ear in Downing Street, are rushing to seal their deals before the bidding closes. On May 6, Prime Minister Gordon Brown revealed yesterday, Britain will go to the polls. And the unions are at it once again.

It is probably a fair bet that Britain is tired of Labour; they are particularly tired of Gordon Brown; and they are bothered by the upsurge of industrial action. However, this is not 1979.

For one thing, the strikes are having much less of an impact on the economy. The country is hardly on the brink of shutting down. And the opposition leader, Conservative David Cameron, is - for better or worse - no Margaret Thatcher.

Socialist roots

At a time when the Labour Party was moving further towards its socialist roots, Mrs Thatcher called for a right-wing revolt. But more than a decade of Tony Blair's leadership has left the Labour Party - or 'New Labour' as Mr Blair liked to call it - a pale shadow of its old self. Labour today is little more than Thatcherism in a cool suit.

And as for the Conservatives? Having wandered through the desert for more than a decade, during which time they experimented (badly) with a surge to the right, Mr Cameron has judged that a touchy-feely approach is the best way forward. If Labour is cool Thatcherism, he'll take it one step further and put it into a cozy cardigan.

But this attempt to be all things to all people may backfire. The Conservative Party's platform has been summarised as "We're not Labour". Hoping to cash in on the government's unpopularity, Mr Cameron wanted above all not to say the wrong things. The result is that, to many voters, he said nothing at all. And lacking the sort of choice with which Mrs Thatcher once presented them, starkly, enough voters may yet decide to stay home or stick with Labour, that the Conservatives could miss this boat.

Labour victory unlikely

Labour victory in May remains unlikely. However, a hung parliament, which until a few weeks ago was off the cards, is now back on. It is possible that no party will win a majority. It is also possible that the Conservatives will find it difficult to put together a workable government.

Faced with a slide in the polls, Mr Cameron has gone on the attack and begun spelling out the ways a Conservative government will differ from a Labour one. Unfortunately for him, some of his policy proposals are turning out to be unpopular. In particular, his pledge to cut spending right away has not been well-received. Yet subsequent efforts to soft-pedal the promise have only made him look indecisive.

So, for an election that looked out of reach for Mr Brown a couple of months ago, all is now in play. US Republicans beware: being the 'party of no' may be risky.

John Rapley is president of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI), an independent research think tank affiliated with the University of the West Indies, Mona. Feedback may be sent to