Sunday, 7 October 2007

Gordon Brown and the Election

It is interesting how the political situation in the UK has changed since I began this blog. Whilst as I have noted the prime minister now, Gordon Brown, does not have a good human rights reputation, just like his predecessor, Tony Blair, but what we are spared is the smug, patronising tone of Blair which seemed to suggest that none of us could match his self-perceived saintliness and thus should defer to him in all things. At least Brown remembers he is a politician and not some spiritual leader. I am also glad to find that Blair has so quickly faded into obscurity despite the perversion of giving him the role of a Middle East envoy. Whatever can keep him away from the UK now is a good thing, but I do feel sorry for the Arabs and Israelis who now have to be patronised by him. I do fear for Middle East peace if Blair has anything to do with it and I just hope that people realise he is a failure and he can be properly pushed into retirement, say in a remote villa on a hillside in Tuscany, Italy, where he can do little harm to the world.

Anyway, back to Brown. There has been a world of speculation in the UK about whether he will go for an election in November. He is not obliged to do so, but having managed the crises of the Summer pretty well and with a good standing in the polls, there was temptation to do so. The Conservative Party were baiting him to do so. I think the media have assumed that Brown had risen to that bait more than in fact he had done, so it has been a very artificial disappointment and very artificial claims of cowardice now that he has ruled out an election that early. As Brown notes he has not had a chance really to put his mark on the political scene yet, especially on the agenda which he feels are important. That is less vital for winning over floating voters and more essential for securing traditional Labour Party supporters who had become disillusioned with Blair especially over the Iraq War. In this context, the announcement of withdrawal of 1000 British troops from Iraq and the report on National Health Service reforms coming at the same time are important.

David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party has proven he is a competent Opposition leader and that despite fitting the trend of bland personalities in the Conservative Party leadership since the departure of Margaret Thatcher and the marginalisation of Michael Heseltine and Michael Portillo, he is asserting some identity. He is also shaping the Conservatives' policy approach pretty well, seeing off extremist views and coming up with an agenda which is different from Labour's. For both parties putting 'clear blue water' between them (a lovely British phrase taken from the sports of rowing and sailing, in fact in British waters it is more likely to be green or brown water) has been difficult since the political consensus in Britain became focused around the Thatcher Consensus. Naturally this has gained Cameron support and has emboldened him. However, he does not have much basis on which to accuse Brown of cowardice as Brown had no obligation to go for an election now and not responding to media pressure actually demonstrates he is his own man, in contrast to Blair (and to a great extent John Major prime minister 1991-7, too).

It is foolish for the Labour Party to go to the polls in the Winter months. In February 1950, because Clement Attlee waited until the King came back from his tour, Labour lost its large majority and fell from office in October 1951. The one situation in which a delay beyond the Autumn was wrong was in 1978. Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan did not bow to media pressure that year and delayed the election until May 1979 and lost very heavily ushering in one of the worst periods in British politics and society by allowing Margaret Thatcher to wreck the economy and batter people to an extent that Britain still has not really recovered from. The so-called Winter of Discontent 1978/9 when many public sector unions went on strike damaged Labour's chances severely. Now, it is unlikely that Callaghan could have won in September 1978 given the economic problems Britain, like the rest of the Western world was facing in the light of the sharp oil price increases and the inflation they brought, but Thatcher's majority would have been less and she would have had to have dealt with the public sector issues. This probably would have been done very brutally and you would have seen the crushing on trade union rights in 1979 rather than in the mid to late 1980s.

Brown is going to face industrial unrest this Winter, postal workers are already on strike. However, things have changed greatly. With the mass privatisations of the 1980s there is hardly any public sector left in the economy, so even mass industrial unrest would not land at the feet of the government in the way it did in 1978. Even though Labour supporters are not made up of the industrial workers with no cars as they were in the past, they are still often working longer hours and have less opportunity to get to polling stations than traditional Conservative voters many of whom are self-employed or retired. Given that Brown's strategy is to shore up the loyalty of the traditional Labour voters, he needs to pick a time when his core support can get out in daylight and decent weather. I am sure Blair's victory would have been far less if John Major had called the election in November 1996 (as he could easily have done given his shrinking majority) rather than May 1997.

Whilst the media will taunt Brown towards an early election, it would be foolish for him to be swayed by this approach. With more time he can establish a true Brown government rather than a second-hand Blair one, which had lost far more glamour than many commentators have realised. Even if nothing changes between now and the late Spring, Brown will not lose anything by waiting. He is likely to lose some seats from those who fear he is too Old Labour, but with a majority of 66 he can afford to lose some. For Brown this will not be sufficient, he would want to come home with a raised majority rather than the 20 as threatened at present, which as with Major could be chipped away to being unworkable within 4 years. Brown's policy seems to be to work from the base up. He does not have to go to the polls until May 2010 at the latest and he could quite easily hold on into 2009. All of these claims of him lacking a mandate are foolish, people elect their own MP in the UK not a party leader, they vote for the policies that that MP is guided by and given that at least half the policies Labour stood on at the last election came directly from Gordon Brown, there is certainly a mandate for thes. By refusing to go now, even though he may have been tempted, Brown also demonstrates that it is he that dictates policy rather than the media. Personally I would have thought less of him if he had rushed to an election.

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