By Bill Emmott
Other people’s elections are usually baffling and boring, which is certainly true of the United Kingdom’s coming vote on May 7; indeed, many Britons share the sentiment. The longest election campaign in UK history has been strikingly short of focus. Nonetheless, the campaign contains three important pointers for other Western democracies.
The first pointer is that Bill Clinton’s famous campaign slogan from 1992 – “It’s the economy, stupid” – is itself stupid, or at least insufficient. If it was the economy that would decide Britain’s election, Prime Minister David Cameron would be leading a much more confident campaign.
For the past 18 months or so, the UK has had Europe’s fastest-growing economy, and at times has even outpaced the United States. The unemployment rate, now 5.6 percent, has fallen to less than half that of the eurozone.
But favorable economic indicators have made little difference to the standing of Cameron’s Conservatives in opinion polls, and have done nothing to save their coalition partner, the centrist Liberal Democrats, from a severe slump. Too many voters, it seems, still do not feel better off, and for good reason: average incomes have barely begun to rise, following seven painful years.
As in the US, too many voters do not feel better off despite high growth and lower unemployment because average incomes have barely begun to rise, following seven painful years.
So the right slogan in this campaign might be, “It’s the living standards, stupid.” Or, more accurately (though more cumbersomely): “It’s the perception of future living standards, stupid, and the perception of fairness surrounding those prospects.” Either way, the point is straightforward: statistical recovery is not enough.
This seems to be why, although it has only a small lead of 2-4 percentage points in the polls, the center-left Labour Party has had the best of the campaign. Labour’s leader, Ed Miliband, was widely derided last year as weak, unconvincing, and unlikeable; but, perhaps benefiting from low expectations, he has looked steadily more credible and statesmanlike as the campaign has gone on.
The second pointer is that foreign affairs, though rarely a major factor in any country’s national elections, can contribute to a general sense of unease about political leadership. It had been widely assumed that the UK’s continued membership in the European Union would be a leading campaign issue, given the rise of the UK Independence Party and Cameron’s pledge that, if re-elected, he would hold a referendum on the question by 2017.
Indeed, Cameron’s promise is arguably the most consequential issue at stake in the British election: if he remains Prime Minister, there will be a referendum; if Miliband takes over, there will not be. Britain’s strategic future rests on this choice.
Yet there has been near-silence on this choice. Both UKIP and its charismatic leader, Nigel Farage, have slipped in opinion polls and have struggled to get attention. More important, Cameron has said almost nothing about either Europe or immigration; and, though Miliband’s clearly stated pro-EU stance has endeared his candidacy to many business leaders, he, too, has played down the issue.
Perhaps this reflects my own bias, but I suspect that this evasiveness on the part of Britain’s main political parties has weakened support for them, by diminishing their status as valid representatives of the country. Voters may not list Europe or foreign affairs among the main issues that concern them. But the daily news about migrants dying in the Mediterranean, the war in Ukraine, Greece’s possible default, the turmoil in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Gaza, Iran’s nuclear program, and more heighten voters’ awareness that their country needs to be defended robustly, by a government with a coherent foreign policy.
And yet Britain’s defense forces are weaker than at any time since the 1930s. The general perception is that Britain’s voice in international affairs is less influential than at any time since then, too. Whatever voters think Britain’s foreign and defense policy should be, they believe their country should have one.
The final pointer of the UK election may partly reflect the vacuum in national leadership that such silence epitomizes. Whatever the result of the election, the most striking phenomenon will be the rise of regionalism, most notably a surge in support for the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP).
No one can predict whether the SNP might end up in the paradoxical position of joining a coalition with Labour to govern a country that it was campaigning to leave in last September’s independence referendum. But the SNP’s likely electoral gain is too large to be explained by secessionist sentiment alone. The party appears to be attracting many people who voted against independence but who want more regional autonomy and a stronger voice for Scotland in the Westminster Parliament.
The absence of a broader “feel good” factor from economic recovery, resentment of economic inequality, mistrust of national political leaders, and greater faith in localism: these are the main features of Britain’s election campaign. Whether or not they make Miliband the next prime minister (in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, or both), they are likely to characterize elections elsewhere as well in the years ahead.
Bill Emmott was the editor of The Economist from 1993 to 2006. He is the executive producer of a new documentary, “The Great European Disaster Movie,” and wrote “Girlfriend in a Coma,” a documentary about Italy’s decline. © Project Syndicate.
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