Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The next election – who is there to vote for?

In the midst of an economic recession, a costly war in Afghanistan and rising prices Britons must make one of the most important electoral choices for many years. The additional presence and recently increased importance of the potentially destabilising BNP, who stand to potentially increase their proportion of the vote, gives the election an added significance. With the date for the election as yet unclear, it is nigh-on impossible to tell what the deciding issue will be. Yet what is clear is that a time such as this the public need the three major parties to step up and provide voters with a proper choice. It seems to me that the electoral choice is, at the moment, and barring a sudden change in leadership, extremely limited.

Gordon Brown’s record has arguably turned the public against him, rightly or wrongly, and the blunders made by his government and the Blair administration are still in the public consciousness. Whilst the global economic recession cannot be blamed entirely on Gordon Brown or the Labour government, their reaction and the time in which Britons are forced to endure these conditions will affect the voters. The stark possibly of cuts to services being made in the near future could affect Labour’s standing even further, given the fact that Labour had previously remained committed to protecting investment in core services. The need to halve the budget deficit in four yearswill almost certainly be a key issue at the next election, with the Conservatives continually stating that they would reduce spending immediately, yet this issue is very much a double-edged sword for Brown. If he were to commit to a policy of reducing expenditure, trade unions have announced the possibility of strike action if jobs are put at risk, whilst retaining the current level of spending will increase the deficit, currently at £175 billion, which will likely cause Labour to lose the election. Labour’s economic policy seems to focus mostly on past achievements, which whilst being impressive, do not show the existence of a clear path to recovery in Westminster. As far as immigration policy goes Labour has a clearer idea, introducing a number of intelligent ideas such as a ‘points-based’ system for new migrants and a system whereby British citizenship must be earned. However we are yet to see the benefit of any such changes and whether they will actually make a real-life difference.

Meanwhile David Cameron has, almost unarguably transformed the electoral chances of the previously-moribund Conservatives, as well as drastically improving their public image. Yet voters may be left feeling slightly cold by Cameron’s Blair-esque PR tricks and appearance-based politics. Voters desire political parties that listen to their concerns and act upon their suggestions, as well as providing an effective manifesto to address current issues and problems affecting ordinary Britons. Yet is Cameron capable of delivering post-election? Whilst he is more than capable of pointing out the fairly frequent failings of the current administration, can he really do any better, and if yes, does he have any policies with which to do so? The Conservatives describe a seemingly rather vague policy of “a responsible fiscal policy bolstered by independent oversight” plus “a responsible attitude to economic development that fosters more balanced economic growth”. Whilst these may be eye-catching and do sound rather impressive, they do not provide any statistics, facts or numbers to show how they will enforce these aims. The Conservatives support the concept of a ‘needs-based’ immigration policy whilst also imposing an annual limit on migrants, yet will this be enough to satisfy the electorate, for whom immigration is fast becoming a very important issue? Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats are frankly unlikely to pose a serious threat to either Labour or the Conservatives, and will only become a major player in this election in the event of them holding the balance of power in a tight electoral contest.

Then we come to the British National Party, whose recent attempts to mobilise supporters to launch highly provocative protests in majority-Muslim areas against Islam have seen minor street-level violence. Yet if they were to increase their vote, which seems very likely, these clashes could become more frequent, and are likely to get more violent. The fact is that the BNP are an organisation that, in their words, calls “for an immediate halt to all further immigration” in order to ensure “that the British people maintain their homeland and identity”. I do not wish to discuss whether the BNP are right or wrong to promote this policy or any other relating to immigration. Yet in the 2005 election the BNP increased both their number of candidates to 119 from 33 in 2001, and their percentage of the vote from 0.2% in 2001 to 0.7%. Their success has come mainly by winning the support of former Labour voters in mostly working-class constituencies. Whilst 0.5% of the vote is no where near enough to give the BNP a serious foothold in British politics, it is extremely likely that this vote will increase in the next election. This will occur primarily because the three main parties are currently failing to deal with the issue of immigration in a manner that some members of the public find acceptable. This failure comes to a head in a time of economic recession, as the public anger at the Labour party for the effects of the downturn is translated into a BNP vote, as they promise, despite any mention of how they plan to provide them, jobs for British workers.

The most recent opinion poll, conducted by YouGov puts the Conservative party ahead with 41% of the vote, Labour second with 27% and the Liberal Democrats at 18%. The Conservatives have held the lead in each poll conducted since June 17th, with an average lead of around 14% over Labour. Therefore it seems the next election will be a foregone conclusion, and that Gordon Brown might just as well not bother to turn up. Yet whilst this may spell victory for the Conservative party it will most likely be the public that loses out. There is certainly no evidence to suggest that the Conservative party will do a worse job than Labour since the 2005 general election, yet there is equally little to suggest they will do any better. The policies of Labour and the Conservatives regarding the economy, what I deem to be the most important issue at the next election given the events of the past year or so, are vague to say the least and provide no real explanation of how we will recover. Which leads to me pose the question, does either party even know? Cameron may know how to work the cameras and deal with the media, but is he capable of solving the worst recession we have seen in Britain? Are partisan politics the ideal way to solve our economic problems, or would Britain and the general public benefit much more from a reasoned and rounded approach the problem, drawing in ideas from across the political spectrum? I believe so, and if the election were to produce a hung parliament, I would be delighted. A national government solved the last major economic crisis in the 1930s, and I see no reason why it wouldn’t again. Yet modern politicians would be bemused at the concept of working together in order to solve problems, as it would differ greatly from their usual game of one-upmanship. Hopefully all three parties will listen to their constituents and come up with meaningful, positive manifestos that spell out in no uncertain terms what each party aims to do, how they aim to do it, and whether the finance is available for them to do it. Whilst this will probably not happen, it would be a breath of fresh air into British politics, and give first-time voters such as myself a reason to fill out the ballot paper in 2010.

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