March 26, 2001
The weird thing about the British electoral system is that it at times can give you a feeling that you are in a state of suspended animation. One of those times is the phony war before an early election. In Britain, we do not have fixed terms, but instead the Prime Minister calls the election at a time of his own choosing as long as it is within five years of the previous election. This means that if the opinion polls look solid, or more so than they will in a yearís time, then an election can be called early. Until about a month before the election it is only the Prime Minister who knows the date of the election. So all the campaigning, the leafleting and the poster campaign that goes on before the suspected campaign has an unreal air about it as the opposition parties donít know the date and the government is not going to tell them.
It is one of the many myths of modern British politics that the Labour Party is invincible. They are, we are told, tactically adept, capable of squeezing the biggest advantage out of any situation. The spin doctoring learned at James Carvilleís knee means that they will run rings around the hapless Tories. Why look at 1997, they say. 1997 is a good place to start. The Labour Party won a resounding victory, a landslide even, with a majority larger than the entire Conservative contingent. This was not exactly Blairís idea. He was looking for a narrower majority in order to put the Liberal Democrats in coalition (which most Labour MPs were against), to "remake" the left; indeed his wife consoled him on election night when the large majority came in. In the election before, in 1992, everyone was expecting a Labour win, including the Labour Party who were staffed by the same faces who won in 1997 and are cruising for a supposed victory this time round. Moreover, in 1987, although most people expected a Tory victory they did not expect it to be the landslide that it turned out to be. Again many of the faces were the same, if younger, than today. These invincible spin-doctors of 1997 and today actually have a poor record when it comes to getting the election results they actually wanted. Even if you look at the past four years election management was shown to be poor, they lost to the hapless Tories in European elections, local elections and even regional elections in previously loyal London. In the Labour heartland of Wales, they were badly bruised, but not by the Tories. Usually this would not be such a big issue governments are always behind in mid-term opinion polls. However, the Labour Party was not behind in these polls, it was ahead in double figures, yet it under-performed the polls drastically each time. The Labour machine cannot be relied on to get the results.
All the pundits think that Tony Blair is coasting to a win in May. That fact alone should give pause. Four things seem to be coming to fruition at just the right time, and they are not the short-term tax cuts in the budget or the suspiciously timed trial of the opposition-supporting author Jeffery Archer. The first are the sleaze allegations surrounding the government. Of course, most of the sleaze allegations are mostly small change, with the bigger question of foreign government funds being poured into both main parties being overlooked, but they are still embarrassing. Tony Blairís taste for politicians with a weakness for money is famous, and some of these scandals are ripening. This though is ephemeral and there are far better articles on this in other areas of the web.
There is also the foot and mouth epidemic, which is cited as the most pressing reason for Blair not to call the election a year early. This is a marginal consideration, as the farmers who will suffer are almost entirely conservative voters. Having farmers quarantined on the farm with their postal votes at the mercy of the predominantly Labour supporting postmen may even swing a few semi-rural seats to Labour. Besides the urban antipathy to farmers is legendary, and they cannot expect any sympathy from the towns.
Then there is the economy. Unlike sleaze and animal diseases, this is not peripheral. The fact that the Labour government has not messed up the economy is seen as a minor miracle in itself. Unfortunately, the stock markets, having been hurt by the technology bubble and seeing weakening profits across the board over the next two years, are having other ideas. This is more than inconvenient for Blair. On the superficial level the Labour party has just pushed out a poster purporting to be a film "Economic Disaster II", with pictures of the Tory leader William Hague and his Chancellor Michael Portillo. A number of people assumed that this was a timely Conservative critique of the stock market crash. However, the poor short term prospects for the economy means that Blair is now trapped. If he goes to the country now, then he runs the risk of a stock market crash or a rough day on the currency markets dominating a few weeks of coverage during the election. On the other hand, if he waits then people may feel the economic pain by election time.
The biggest problem for Blair may be the new eruption in the Balkans. The voters were paying enough attention last time round to know that we were fighting on the side of the Albanians and a military outfit known as the Kosovo Liberation Army. Now that Macedonia is exploding, how are we going to react to the KLAís incursions? The European Union (apart from Britain) has never been keen on the KLA, preferring Ibrahim Rugovaís brand of peaceful nationalism, and would love to distance themselves from the KLA. The Bush administration are worried about an implosion in Serbia and Macedonia and so are opposed to Albanian irredentism or at least they are when they donít fully control it. It seems highly likely that the Macedonian branch of the KLA will lose, and that the Macedonian army will be helped by the West.
What will the KLA do then? May be they will just shrug their shoulders, go home and forget about their "brothers" in Macedonia. The more likely outcome would be to turn on their foreign occupiers. They have been denied the right to take over the Albanian lands in Macedonia and Southern Serbia, on which they had been led to expect that the West would turn a blind eye. So how will the disappointment show? Will "rogue elements" of the KLA start attacking NATO troops? I think that this is the most likely scenario, with the 37,000 NATO troops suddenly being hostages. If this happens in the next month how will it play in Britain?
It is often said that the electorate has a memory roughly comparable to that of a goldfish. This is not true, the electorate can remember many things they just need to be paying attention first. The fact that British troops went into Kosovo on the side of the Albanians was remembered, because the electorate were paying attention. What was not remembered by the mass of the British electorate was the role of the Conservative Party at the time. It does not matter that the Conservative Party supported the Kosovo adventure, or that William Hague actually acted as an emissary for Blair and Clinton to shore up Hungarian support for the invasion. On the other hand, it does not matter that Hague opposed a ground invasion at the beginning or that their foreign affairs spokesman at the time skillfully demolished the case for the Kosovo adventure (although he claims he did not). In fact very little of what the Conservatives say in detail actually mattered. If they had come out unequivocally against the war, then it may have been remembered but they didnít so it wasnít. If British troops are suddenly being bombed, shot at or kidnapped by those they were helping two years ago then many British people could turn against the Kosovo war and fast. The undeserving beneficiaries of this revulsion will be the Tories, who will claim to be opposed to putting "our boys in danger".
Many conservatives see it as dreadfully unfair that they are still blamed for Britainís exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. The Labour Party, they will remind you, was also a strong believer in this particular scheme; in fact, they chided the Conservatives for not doing enough to keep in it. The problem was, the electorate did not take any notice. They just knew that they went through a prolonged period of economic pain to stay in an economic system, and that the government had then decided that it was unnecessary after all. From the day that the pound crashed the Labour Party held a commanding lead in the polls, because of revulsion for a policy they supported. The point was that the electorate did not notice what the Labour Party thought of the deflation necessary to keep the pound tied to the Deutschmark. They simply were not paying attention to the Labour Party at the time. Similarly if Kosovo blows up the electorate will not care what the Tories thought of the situation. They will simply know that Britain is being humiliated by the people it was attempting to help two years ago, and that British lives are in danger. The government will be blamed and the Conservatives will be the undeserving beneficiaries of this contempt.
I am not making a prediction of a Tory victory, I still do not believe that it will happen. If the Labour Party does win then I will simply say that this piece was just a speculative article on how they could have lost the election in May. If the Conservatives win, I will say that of course I thought they would win all along, just look at this article. And if Blair does not call the election in May? Well, obviously my article scared him off. You see, no one will remember they werenít paying attention.
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