Upheaval across the sea
(A brief primer on the British system: The country is divided into four ethnically-distinct and differently-administered regions -- England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. England has 85% of the total population. This week's elections took place in England and Wales only. The two major parties are the Conservatives --also called "Tories" -- and Labour, with a large third party called the Liberal Democrats and various minor parties. All three parties are left-of-center by US standards, and are less ideologically distinct from each other than our Democrats and Republicans are. No party is particularly identified with religious fundamentalism.)
Some of the issues in the election would be familiar to Americans. High levels of immigration (some of it illegal), to a country already much more densely populated than the US, have been causing friction. The economy, though healthier than those of Britain's neighbors, is slowing down. A housing-price bubble has begun to deflate. Britain's involvement in the Iraq war is unpopular. And the current Labour government, having been in power for over a decade, is widely felt to be arrogant and out of touch. Unlike in the US, rising violent crime and the erosion of national sovereignty by the European Union are also major sources of discontent.
This week's local-election results gave that government a rebuke somewhat like that given by the American people to the Bush administration in 2006. The Conservatives won 44% of the vote; Labour won only 24%, behind even the "Lib-Dems" with 25%. The Conservatives made inroads in traditionally Labour-dominated areas such as industrial northern England. And one of Labour's most flamboyant and radical figures, London's pro-Muslim mayor "Red Ken" Livingstone, was soundly beaten by Conservative Boris Johnson. (London has one-eighth of Britain's total population, giving its mayor a high national profile somewhat akin to the governor of California.) Overall it was Labour's worst result in forty years.
The next national election may not be until 2010 (in the British system, the ruling party can set the dates of national elections, though the interval between them cannot exceed five years), but the sitting Labour government now feels somewhat like the Bush administration -- a failed and exhausted regime marking time in office while everyone glances impatiently at the clock and waits for them to go away. And go away they will, in 2010 or sooner, based on the foretaste offered by this week's earthquake.
Let's hope our own election this year similarly completes the work of 2006.