Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Gordon Brown's last stand?

Unlike the situation here in the US, land of the permanent campaign, Britain's national election campaigns are short and sharp. Prime Minister Gordon Brown dissolved Parliament on April 6, and voters go to the polls tomorrow, May 6.

However, they've managed to pack quite a bit of drama into just one month. For the past several years, the almost universal consensus of informed opinion held that the next general election would produce a crushing defeat for the Labour Party, and that the Conservative Party's David Cameron would be the next Prime Minister. Then around February, to many people's surprise (certainly mine), the Conservatives' lead in the polls seemed to have evaporated. Perhaps this meant that, even though a lot of British voters are unhappy with the Labour government or simply tired of it, the imminent prospect of actually voting the Conservatives into power gave them pause? So when the campaign began, its outcome was far from a foregone conclusion. Then, after the first of three US-style TV "debates" between party leaders, there was a sudden surge in support for the perennial third party of British politics, the Liberal Democrats. Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg made a strong and attractive impression in the first debate, and as his party moved up in the polls, it no doubt offered many people the enticing option of not having to vote for either of the two main parties. So for a few days it looked possible that the Liberal Democrats might pull ahead and actually achieve their long-held aspiration to "break the mould" of British politics.

Probably not. According to the polls, the Conservatives have again pulled ahead, while support for the Liberal Democrats subsided a bit. But the outcome still looks genuinely unpredictable. Actually, all three parties' support seems to be within 3 or 4 percentage points of 30%, with the Conservatives above that level and Labour and the Liberal Democrats neck-and-neck below it. But one can't always rely on polling numbers. And given the patterns by which voters for the different parties are distributed between Parliamentary districts, it would be quite possible for one party to get fewer votes than another but more seats in Parliament. To complicate matters further, some minor parties (e.g., the Scottish Nationalist Party) will pick up some seats, too.

The latest number-crunching from Nate Silver at projects
an unusual situation in which Conservatives alone could not form a majority, but Labour and Liberal Democrats could also not combine to form a majority. My personal view is that the most likely outcome of such a scenario would be a Conservative minority government, possibly followed by new elections in relatively short order as Conservatives sought to win an outright majority.
On the other hand, Silver is careful to add that this projection is quite speculative, based on a methodology that is controversial and unproven (but then so are the alternatives). So who knows?

=> I don't pretend to know myself. But it really does look most likely that Labour will probably lose this election, and that this will be Gordon Brown's swan song. He went into the campaign with the odds against him, and most observers seem to agree that the campaign he's waged hasn't helped him a lot.

Before we say goodbye to Gordon Brown, though, I think it's worth having a look at what may prove to be his last, best shot. On Monday Brown, Cameron, and Clegg all addressed a meeting of CitizensUK, Britain's largest coalition of community activist groups. A number of reports described this event as, in effect, the "unofficial fourth TV leadership debate"--and suggested that, in this venue, Brown had finally found his voice. The Guardian's Allegra Stratton, who clearly found herself unexpectedly impressed, put it this way:
Gordon Brown today put in one of the most extraordinary performances of his tenure as prime minister when the three party leaders took part in an unofficial fourth debate – addressing community groups in the largest live audience of the election campaign.

As the Labour party battles to avoid coming third on Thursday, Brown appeared to find an emotional range and vocabulary previously unheard from him. Prompting repeated standing ovations, he told the audience: "As you fight for fairness, you will always find in me a friend, a partner and a brother." The speech, before 2,500 voters in a large church hall, may end up having been the most electrifying event of the campaign. Critics of the prime minister described it as one of the best speeches they have seen by a politician.
Was it that good? You can watch this clip from his speech and see what you think. My guess is that, if nothing else, it really does convey some of the values and concerns that took Brown into public life:

=> Not being British, I don't have to decide how I'd vote in this election myself, though my guess is that I would vote Labour--with mixed feelings. (I certainly wouldn't vote Conservative, and I have feelings about the Liberal Democrats that are even more mixed, both tactically and substantively.)

The Guardian, the premier voice of left-liberal British opinion, just endorsed the Liberal Democrats--which, according to Martin Bright, could actually have some an impact on undecided middle-class voters. Much of the tabloid press has endorsed the Conservatives, and so have more serious publications like the Economist and the Financial Times.

Matthew Yglesias pointed out, correctly, that although those last two endorsements are not surprising, there's still something peculiar about them. And, more generally, he offers some plausible reasons why we might feel some sympathy for Gordon Brown:
[....] Under the circumstances, it’s worth pointing out that whatever Brown’s flaws and despite the very real problems with the Labour government (Iraq, e.g.) he’s largely being punished for an economic crisis he didn’t cause, couldn’t have stopped, and has actually handled quite well. The global financial meltdown was not unique to Britain and the United Kingdom’s status as a country that’s unusually exposed to the ups-and-downs of the financial industry is extremely longstanding. The country has mostly been suffering from bad luck.
Well, yes and no. But that's certainly true to some degree.
And thanks to the combination of the fact that Brown, as Chancellor, kept the UK out of the Euro and as Prime Minister has presided over substantial stimulus the British economy is actually weathering the recession pretty well. The latest news is that the manufacturing sector is surging forward and recovery is under way. Conditions aren’t great—they’re actually quite bad—but the situation is much better than what you see in other European countries.

It’s interesting that [the] fundamentals-driven [response] that ignores all this seems to impact not only the mass public, but also elites. The FT, in the course of endorsing David Cameron, concedes that “As a crisis manager, Gordon Brown has been a better premier than his critics claim” and simply doesn’t say anything about the substance of the Tories’ opposition to stimulus, a policy that had it been adopted would have sank the economy. The Economist does take this issue head-on and concludes that the Tories “were wrong to oppose the economic stimulus after the banking crash” but endorses them anyway.

Basically, Britain confronted a giant economic challenge and the center-right party responded with such bad policies that even center-right business-focused newspapers think they were wrong, but conditions are bad so voters are urged to vote Tory anyway. [....]
So what else is new? Paul Krugman follows up:
Yglesias is right. For sure, Gordon Brown — like the Rubinites here in America — made the great mistake of buying into the promises of high finance. But is there any doubt that a Tory government would have done the same?

And I understand the sense that Labour has been in office too long. If I were British, I might well consider voting Lib Dem.

But in the current crisis, Brown’s policies have been sensible, whereas the Tories wanted to slash spending in the face of recession, which would have been disastrous. And The Economist agrees — then endorses the Tories.

Is The Economist of the belief that there will be no future crises? That this gigantic failure of judgment in the face of a defining moment for economic policy offers no hint about how well the Tories will perform in dealing with other issues?

It’s utterly bizarre.
But so it goes.

=> I'll give the last word to Norman Geras, who does have to make a practical decision about whom to vote for in this election. Here is his brief explanation for why he will vote Labour (with a follow-up here):
I always do vote Labour but that doesn't mean I don't have reasons - like I'm tribal and all that - and since the national papers are now declaring their hand, I feel that normblog should declare mine. Not to make a meal of it...

(1) The Conservatives are the party of the rich - always have been, still are.

(2) As the Guardian says, even in announcing its own support for them, 'The Liberal Democrats are a very large party now, with support across the spectrum. But they remain in some respects a party of the middle and lower middle classes. Labour's record on poverty remains unmatched, and its link to the poor remains umbilical.'

(3) See above at 2, Labour's record on poverty unmatched - and social justice trumps other considerations unless these are of an exceptional and urgent kind.

(4) Labour is the party most closely associated with the doctrine of liberal interventionism, a doctrine which should be supported.

(5) The Guardian has come out for the Lib-Dems - and the Guardian is now a moral swamp, where poisonous vapours are allowed to circulate freely.

So... Gordon Brown notwithstanding, and my support for electoral reform ditto, normblog recommends voting Labour.
(Reasons #1-#4 are clearly the most significant, and I assume that #5 was tacked on half-facetiously ... but I can certainly sympathize with #5, too.)

Well, it's all in the hands of the British electorate. Stay tuned for tomorrow ...

Yours for democracy,
Jeff Weintraub