05 May 2010

The British election

Tomorrow Britain holds a national election. The Labour party, moribund and unpopular after 13 years in power, is expected to lose, but the other main party, the Conservatives, may not win outright due to a surge by a third party, the Liberal Democrats.

The Conservatives, despite their name, occupy ideological ground similar to the Democratic party in the US (Britain is more socialist and somewhat more socially liberal than the US), while the Labour party is, insofar as the term means anything anymore, more "left-wing". The "LibDems" somewhat resemble our libertarians, most saliently in favoring high immigration (and an amnesty for illegals currently in Britain), but they accept the socialist character of the country and are usually viewed as a leftist party.

But in its recent record, Labour somewhat resembles the Bush administration without the religious craziness. It irresponsibly ran up debt during the good economic times and left Britain ill-equipped to handle the recession. It allowed high immigration to continue despite strong public opposition. And it participated in the unpopular Iraq invasion. Immigration and the economy are the biggest concerns of voters, with erosion of British national sovereignty by the European Union also being significant (an important difference between US and British politics is that in Britain the threat to national sovereignty from a multi-national organization is real, not imaginary). The Labour party is on the wrong side of all three issues.

The LibDems are also on the wrong side of at least two of them, favoring not only an illegal-alien amnesty but deeper integration into the EU and the adoption of the EU's floundering common currency, the euro. The party's surge in popularity seems mainly due to the good performance of its telegenic leader, Nick Clegg, in TV debates. As Conservative leader Dave Cameron has begun hammering the LibDems' on their pro-immigration stance, their poll numbers have begun to subside again. Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown is wounded by last week's gaffe in which he was caught referring to a voter with concerns about immigration as "bigoted", hardening his reputation as an arrogant elitist out of touch with ordinary people's feelings.

Why is immigration such a major issue? Part of the problem is history and identity. Unlike the US, Britain has not experienced high levels of immigration in its modern history, until the last few decades. At present there are 6.7 million foreign-born people in the country, or 11% of the total population; the proportion has not been anything like that high for almost a millennium, and some British-born people of immigrant stock are not well assimilated. Britain doesn't define itself as a nation of immigrants as we do, and has little experience to guide it in dealing with such large numbers of migrants (there are about 2.8 million Muslims, many of whom have proven especially resistant to assimilation). Another real problem is population density. Britain is slightly smaller than my state, Oregon, but has 60 million people, one-fifth as many as the whole US. Density in the north-central English industrial region may be the highest in Europe. Many people feel overwhelmed.

So why isn't Cameron running away with the election? Partly because voting behavior in Britain is often linked to social class, which is much more culturally entrenched than it is in the US; working-class people are suspicious of the Conservatives, and historically they have good reason. The LibDems feel like a fresh new presence, and some voters seem unaware of their actual positions on immigration and the EU.

Another complication is the presence of two smaller parties. The UK Independence Party is dedicated to withdrawal from the EU and also opposes high immigration. If everyone voted purely according to their views on the issues, it would probably win the election. It is, however, new and much less organized than the main parties. It also embraces anti-science crackpottery and, overall, it doesn't give the impression of being ready to run the country. On the American political spectrum the UKIP would fall somewhere between moderate conservatives and teabaggers, but again without the religious loonies.

Then there's the far-right British National Party, whose founder was an open racist and admirer of Hitler and whose current leader embraces Holocaust denialism; it also opposes homosexuality and interracial marriage and favors economic isolationism (though it has also proposed re-annexation of Ireland!) -- in short, the BNP is lunatic-fringe and essentially fascist. But like the UKIP, it could receive a substantial vote in protest at the bigger parties' dismissal of mass concern about immigration and the EU -- a grim warning of what could happen in any country when mainstream politicians refuse to address such concerns.

The best outcome would be a clear victory by the Conservatives. Labour has badly mishandled the economy and pretty much everything else; the Conservatives pose no ideological threat to socialism and do not harbor the kind of paranoids and religious crazies who make our own Republicans so dangerous. The actual outcome will probably be much more complicated.

Andrew Sullivan has a round-up of analysis here.


Blogger Ajax said...

Voting floaters go Lava-Tory...

05 May, 2010 08:01  

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