WELLS, GREAT BRITAIN — Neither Laurel Allen nor Tamsin Denbigh voted in Britain’s last general election, in 2005. But both will do so this year and with apparent zeal. Though Allen and Denbigh will cast their ballots for different parties (for the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats, respectively), after 13 years of liberal Labour Party rule, they will both be voting for change.
As Ms. Allen, 35, put it, “Labour’s just been in power for too long.”
Allen and Denbigh are typical. In two days of interviewing in Southwest England ahead of tomorrow’s general election, I found many similarities between the British and American political situations — chief among them is a broad and deep anti-incumbency mood that may well produce the end of liberal misrule.
The leader of whichever party wins the most seats in Parliament will become prime minister, a position Labour’s Gordon Brown has held since Tony Blair stepped down in June 2007.
Labour is trying to secure a fourth consecutive term, but it is unlikely to do so as its popularity has slowly eroded over the last five years. The Conservative Party (Tories), led by David Cameron, are favored to head the next government. But in order to win an outright majority, they will need the biggest electoral swing since WWII, 116 seats out of a possible 650 seats.
That result has seemed increasingly unlikely since Britain’s first-ever televised debates, which drew record numbers of viewers and catapulted Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third party, to prominence. Clegg’s ascendance may well produce a “hung parliament,” a Parliament with no overall majority, the first since 1974.
In fact, come Friday, under Britain’s “first past the post winner take all electoral system,” the possibilities seem endless: Labour could finish third in the popular vote but still have the most seats in Parliament; The Tories could win but not have enough of a parliamentary majority to run the country. And, in an increasingly plausible scenario, the Lib Dems could win enough seats to form a coalition with either party.
Clegg’s debate performances, and his branding of both his opponents as two sides of the same old establishment, have made him something of an international sensation. But George Firth, 66, isn’t impressed. “He’s style over substance,” he told me. “The debates had no effect on my vote. They all seem the same. In fact if you ask me to relate any significant point, I couldn’t tell you. None of them told us what they are going to do to save money to get rid of the deficit.”
Ms. Allen isn’t buying into “Cleggmania,” which London Mayor Boris Johnson called “the biggest load of media-driven nonsense since the funeral of Diana,” either. She calls the 42-year-old Clegg a “flash in the pan.”
One thing Americans should know about British politics is that there are far fewer ideological clashes in British politics these days than there are in American politics. Cameron may be the Conservative Party leader, but he’s not a conservative by American standards. In America, Cameron’s social liberalism and his emphasis on the environment would make him a moderate Democrat. He has said, “I’ll cut the deficit, not the NHS [Britain’s government-run National Health Service].”
But Cameron is conservative relative to his counterparts. Clegg, who once interned for the Nation magazine, has said he was “very, very left-wing. I was influenced by Marxist thinkers.” Labour is considered even more leftwing than the Lib Dems. In its 1945 manifesto, Labour described itself as “a socialist party and proud of it.”
Opinion polls here show the top issues are the government’s ballooning budget deficit, unemployment as well as crime, immigration and race relations. Immigration is Allen’s top priority. “I think England’s overcrowded at the moment,” she said, “and I do think the UK needs to do something about it.”
Joe Tucker, a 79-year-old farmer who says he votes “conservative –always,” told me, “It irritates me, these immigrants come in and get into their enclaves, and they aren’t interested in trying to live like Britons live. They’re in a group and they don’t mix at all, really. They come here for the freebies.”
Regarding Britain’s relationship with America, Ms. Denbigh said, “I don’t think it’s a good thing…it’s misleading to think that having a special relationship with America will help us. It’s a myth…we need to be first and foremost part of the EU [European Union]. A special relationship harkens back to George Bush days and our legacy in the wars. …I didn’t agree with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So that’s given me a reason to vote.”
Firth, in contrast, sees a close relationship with America as important. He said, “[America’s] a former colony of ours and we have a special relationship with all former colonies. There’s an affinity because of the language.”
Allen agreed that the relationship should be close, but “not too close…Brown was kowtowing to Bush too much. The UK shouldn’t be seen as kowtowing too much toward the U.S.”
Given the attention socialized medicine has received lately, I asked about the National Health Service, Britain’s government-run health system, and got a mostly positive response from all.
“It’s brilliant,” said Denbigh. “Equal medical access is important, regardless of your income. From a democratic point of view, I wholeheartedly support it. It’s a great system. It’s great not to have to worry about how you will have to pay a bill.”
Firth said, “It costs a hell of a lot of money and employs too many people, but it works considerably well in my experience.” “In fact,” he said, “I recently got rid of my private insurance because NHS is good enough.”
Allen, who lived in America for 15 years and recently gave birth to a daughter in Britain, said she had very positive experience with NHS. “Though some of my friends have had negative experiences, and in America you get more personalized care with being able to see the doctors you want to see, it’s still a brilliant system because it’s fair.”
The one thing my interviewees could agree on is that change is afoot. More MPs (148) have decided not to seek re-election than at any time since 1945. Keenly aware of the prevailing desire among the electorate for a new direction, the Conservative Party adopted the slogan “Vote for a change,” while the Lib Dems responded, “a vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote for real change.”
Denbigh said about her decision to vote after not voting in 2005, “I think this is a more interesting election because there are three parties with near equal chances to win. This time it’s a more interesting race, and we’ve got more dynamic leaders.”
While your correspondent hesitates to predict the outcome of tomorrow’s election, it is telling that some Labour MPs are calling on constituents to undertake “tactical voting,” to cast their ballots for the Lib Dems in unwinnable counties in order to prevent the Tories from winning an outright majority.
Whatever the UK’s 50 million eligible voters decide tomorrow, and whichever party’s leader enters 10 Downing Street later this month to form a new government, the era of Labour Party dominance will soon be over.