What’s at stake in Britain’s election?

May 6, 2010

James Illingworth looks at the backdrop to today's general election in Britain.

BRITISH VOTERS will go to the polls today in an election that will probably end the Labour Party's 13-year dominance of national politics.

Pre-election polls put the right-wing Conservative Party, known as the Tories, with the biggest share of the vote, but the big news is that the Tories may not gain an outright majority in the House of Commons. Who becomes prime minister is determined by which party can organize a parliamentary majority, either on its own or in coalition with other parties.

Labour, meanwhile, looks set to win its lowest share of the vote since the early 1980s, and may even finish third behind the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, the third mainstream party in British politics.

There can be little doubt that Labour has dug its own grave. The party came to power in a landslide in 1997, with former Prime Minister Tony Blair riding a wave of disgust at almost two decades of Conservative Party rule.

But Labour failed to deliver on the hopes of its working-class base. Instead, under the name "New Labour," it continued and extended the privatization and pro-business policies of the Conservatives, and it wholeheartedly joined the U.S. war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, with Blair becoming a junior partner of the U.S. war machine.

Conservative Party candidate David Cameron on the campaign trail
Conservative Party candidate David Cameron on the campaign trail (Andrew Parsons)

Under Gordon Brown, who took over from Blair as party leader and prime minister in 2007, Labour has become even more unpopular, presiding over the worst recession since the 1930s and bailing out the banks while leaving millions of unemployed workers to fend for themselves.

The final nail in Labour's coffin was the expenses scandal of 2009, which revealed that dozens of members of parliament (MPs) had used taxpayer money to renovate their homes, fund lavish lifestyles and generally enrich themselves at public expense. Working-class voters might have expected this from the Tories, which, historically, has been the political wing of the ruling class. But the corruption of the Labour MPs seemed to signal just how far the party had moved from its origins in the union movement.

As a result of the scandal, British voters have been seized with a "kick the bums out" sentiment--and the Labour government will be the main victim.

INCREDIBLY ENOUGH, however, the Conservative Party--the main opposition--has failed to take advantage of Labour's unpopularity and establish a major lead in the pre-election polls.

Since becoming party leader (and therefore the next prime minister if the Tories get to form a government) in late 2005, David Cameron has sought to reinvent the party as "progressive" alternative to New Labour, embracing environmentalist rhetoric and civil liberties issues such as LGBT rights. All of this is a far cry from the days of Margaret Thatcher, when the Conservatives were unabashed champions of right-wing social and economic policies.

Despite the attempted makeover, however, the Conservatives have let the mask slip during the current election campaign, revealing that they haven't moved all that far from Thatcherism, after all. The party's manifesto for the election includes tax cuts for the rich, deep cuts in the public spending and a pay freeze for public-sector workers.

The Conservatives' pledges to limit immigration, which are echoed by the other major parties, have fed the growing climate of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant hate in Britain, symbolized by the growth of the fascist British National Party (BNP).

The party set to gain most from the unpopularity of both New Labour and the Tories is the Liberal Democrats. Buoyed by widespread disillusionment with the two main parties, particularly among younger voters, Britain's perennial third party seems poised for its strongest showing in decades.

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, has attempted to capitalize on this sentiment by casting himself as a political outsider, an agent of "change" in British politics and someone willing to break with "business as usual." Clegg's party has also benefited from its opposition to the unpopular war in Iraq and its criticism of Britain's ludicrously expensive Trident nuclear submarine program.

Following the first-ever televised debates in April between leaders of the three main parties, the Liberal Democrats enjoyed a major surge in the polls and have even threatened to win a bigger share of the vote than New Labour.

In reality, though, the best the Liberal Democrats can hope for is a significant increase on their current total of 63 MPs and a potential role as kingmaker, or junior coalition partner, in the eventuality that neither Labour nor the Conservatives win an overall majority on May 6. Clegg has made it clear that any coalition deal will depend on support for his party's long-held commitment to electoral reform and a system of proportional representation in parliament.

AS THE three main parties compete to see which can best make workers pay for the economic crisis, the far right is making another bid to enter the mainstream of British politics.

The fascist British National Party (BNP) is running 338 candidates in the election and is hoping to build on the breakthrough it made in 2009, when the party elected its first two members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and won more than 6 percent of the vote. The Nazis are trying to capitalize on popular anger with political corruption--and turn it against immigrants and Muslims.

The BNP's best hope in this election is in the East London constituency of Barking, where party leader--and current MEP for Northwest England--Nick Griffin is running against Labour's Margaret Hodge.

Barking is something of a stronghold for the fascists--BNP candidate Richard Barnbrook won 17 percent of the vote there in 2005 elections, and party members make up nine of the 30 local councilors. Furthermore, Griffin's opponent, Culture Minister Margaret Hodge, is a multi-millionaire, one of Britain's wealthiest MPs and a major target of public anger from the expenses scandal last year.

If the BNP does succeed in electing its first MP, it won't be the first sign of the far right's increasing strength in Britain. While Nick Griffin and his party are trying to make fascism respectable in the halls of power, racist mobs have returned to the streets of Britain in the last few months in the shape of the English Defense League (EDL).

Made up of racist soccer hooligans, skinheads and neo-Nazis, the EDL claims to oppose "Islamic extremism" and "the imposition of sharia law," but it is, in reality, nothing more than an Islamophobic and semi-fascist street gang. The EDL has staged a number of high-profile protests and marches in recent months, feeding on the growing hostility to Muslims in British politics.

A handful of candidates carry the hopes of those to the left of Labour. In Birmingham, Salma Yaqoob of the Respect Party has a decent chance of winning a seat in parliament; her fellow Respect members George Galloway and Abjol Miah are running for two seats in London. Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party and a current MEP, could win in Brighton.

But the left has suffered through a series of conflicts in recent years and remains on the margins of the election.

Even with the polls about to open, when this article was published, the British election is too close to call. Labour could finish second or third in number of votes received and still win the largest number of MPs. Or the Conservatives could win a majority. But the most likely outcome appears to be a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats--the question is whether the Conservatives or Labour will be in charge.

But the truth is that the three main parties are committed to a similar agenda--above all, to making workers pay for the economic crisis. The Conservatives may be promising the swiftest and deepest cuts, but Labour and the Liberal Democrats are not far behind. Those who want to stand up to policies of austerity and war have their work cut out for them, whichever party wins today.

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