Party Positions
A beginning look at the upcoming British elections.


John O’Sullivan

Monday the starting pistol for the election on May 5 was fired with the publication of the first political-party manifesto–the equivalent of a U.S. party’s platform but considered more binding on a future administration. By agreement the Tories went first. They produced a short punchy manifesto–only 7,500 words–built around six major themes: more police; cleaner hospitals; lower taxes; school discipline; controlled immigration; and accountability.

One can quibble about each of these: The “lower taxes” promised are not much lower because the Tories have been frightened out of major cuts in overall public spending; more police will not cut crime unless they give up their New Labor role as politically correct bureaucrats schooled in conflict avoidance; public opinion wants immigration cut as well as “controlled;” and so on.

But the messages are both populist and popular. And the manifesto’s form signals that the Tory campaign will be a disciplined and focused one. We are doomed to hear these six themes repeated endlessly until May 4.

This self-discipline is news since the Tory party in recent years has been a byword for internal wrangling and mixed messages. It is thought to be the handiwork of two men: the party leader Michael Howard, and the Australian political consultant, Linton Crosby, whom he imported from John Howard’s successful campaign Down Under. They have imposed these clear and simple messages on their colleagues–and sometimes enforced them brutally. Two candidates have been removed for, in effect, “going off message” and spoiling the party’s presentation of its case.

In addition to focus and self-discipline, Howard and Crosby have also restored at least some of the Tory party’s self-confidence. That may be even more crucial. Since the Fall of Thatcher, the Tory party has had no belief in itself or confidence in its own instincts. It has therefore floundered from policy to policy without ever knowing what it stood for in general. And this psychological uncertainty has been made worse by the so-called “modernizers” who have denounced almost everything about the party, its past and its supporters without producing anything resembling a practical solution to its problems. (Their most frequently advanced idea of a modernizing policy was the tired nostrum of gender quotas in candidate selection. It never seemed to occur to them that this would place too much power in the hands of the party organization and the political elite in general. Or maybe it did.)

Between them Howard and Crosby have overcome this masochistic resistance within the party leadership. They have produced a party platform that reflects both traditional Tory instincts and popular opinion (and John Howard’s last two campaigns.) It is tough-minded but defensible on such issues as crime, immigration, and education. And even before the campaign formally opened, it had forced the government onto the defensive.

The odds are against heavily against a Tory victory–see below. This time, however, they will not lose because they fail to fight.

Today was supposed to see the publication of the Liberal Democrat manifesto. In a cunning electoral feint, however, the wife of Charles Kennedy, the Lib-Dem leader, had a baby. Kennedy promptly announced that “baby day” was more important than manifesto day and postponed its launch. Pundits reckoned that Kennedy had made real inroads into the soccer-mom vote, but Labor and Tory strategists scoffed at the Lib-Dem’s continuing amateurishness since all this will be forgotten by May 5 when the votes are cast. Given the short attention span of the modern electorate, a truly professional party leader’s wife would have postponed the birth for maximum impact to Monday May 2.

Labor’s manifesto is due out Wednesday. So far, however, they are running surprisingly scared. Although Labor is leading in most polls, its lead is small–generally about three percent–and their strategists fear that this support is “soft.”

One reason for that softness is apathy. Labor fears that its supporters are more apathetic than either Tories or Lib-Dems and will simply stay home on the night. But that is not the worst of it. Some left-wingers are the opposite of apathetic: they are organizing tactical voting over the internet in order to defeat Labor MPs, ensure a small majority, humiliate Blair and bring Gordon Brown to power more quickly. Of course, that is a dangerous game. It rests on a conviction that Labor is so certain of victory that they can design an ideal (i.e., much more left-wing) Labor parliamentary party without really risking the loss of the election. If the election is closer than they think, they might inadvertently put the Tories back.

And polls that dig deep warn that the election may not be in the bag. In yesterday’s YouGov poll in the Daily Telegraph, for instance, 53 percent of voters expressed themselves either somewhat disappointed (34 percent) or very disappointed (19 percent) with the honesty and trustworthiness of Blair and the government. The very issue that makes him popular in the U.S.–namely, the Iraq war–is one of the main factors making him distrusted in Britain. Sixty-six of all voters and 75 percent of “the disappointed” told the pollsters that the government was wrong to involve Britain in the Iraq war.

And opposition to the war is allied to another reason for popular distrust. Almost exactly the same percentages (63 and 79 percent) expressed anti-Blair sentiments because of the “culture of spin and deceit at the heart of this government.”

Labor has huge advantages to offset these signs of softness. The electoral system is so biased towards Labor that the Tories must win about six percent more votes to win an equal number of seats. Blair must therefore be considered the firm favorite. But he realizes more than his admirers that this election is not yet won.

It is widely believed in Washington that the Tories are weak on Iraq. Here is what the Tory manifesto says on the topic: “If a Conservative Government ever has to take the country to war, we will tell the British people why. Mr Blair misrepresented intelligence to make the case for war in Iraq, and failed to plan for the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s downfall. It is nevertheless the case that a democratic Iraq would be a powerful beacon of hope in a troubled part of the world. So we believe that Britain must remain committed to rebuilding Iraq and allowing democracy to take hold.”

A little more measured and less passionate than Tony Blair’s personal position–though a great deal more satisfactory than that of most Labor ministers and MPs–but firmly on the American side. On the longer-term and more vital question of the common European foreign and defense policy, moreover, the Tories are somewhat closer than Blair to the U.S. They would oppose the European constitution which imposes a common foreign policy and they believe that European cooperation in defense should occur only within the framework of NATO–a commitment on which Blair is very slippery.

American conservatives and neoconservatives who pine for a Blair victory should consider two points. First, Blair is a personal phenomenon with a short remaining shelf-life. Within a few years he will be replaced by a leader, probably Gordon Brown, who is more reflective of his party. And, second, that a Labor victory even under Blair would entrench the European integration in defense and foreign policy that might deprive the U.S. of British (and Italian, and East European, and Baltic) support in some future Iraq crisis.

British elections have a unique feature–the party political broadcast. This is a five- or ten-minute propaganda film, shown on all television channels, in which the party gets professional help to present its point of view. Monday night, for its first PPB, the Labor party had very up-market assistance indeed in the person of Oscar-winning film director, Anthony Minghella.

Since everyone knows that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown detest each other and that Brown will almost certainly try to oust Blair from Downing Street in the event of a large reduction in the government’s majority, the Labor campaign has set out to demonstrate that they are the warmest of friends. The Minghella film rather overdid this. It showed Blair and Brown in the softest possible focus, seated around a bottle of Highland Spring water, swapping the sappiest platitudes and earnestly agreeing with each other about everything.

One was reminded of the line from that Tory wit Canning: “A sudden thought strikes me: let us swear eternal friendship.”

It would, of course, have been almost impossible to disagree with a line like this from Brown: “Every child is precious; every child is unique; every child is special; every child deserves the chance to develop its own potential.” But as Tom Utley wrote in the Daily Telegraph, if your own friend said anything like that in the course of a conversation, you would instantly assume that he had been drinking something much stronger than Highland Spring bottled water.

My own guess is that the British electorate is simply too cynical to be impressed by this sort of thing. Its soupiness requires the suspension of disbelief. This may be granted for a romantic movie like Minghella’s The English Patient, but it is unlikely to be extended to the practiced patter of politicians.

Labor was, incidentally, taking a risk by employing the director of a movie called The English Patient when the National Health Service remains dire despite Brown’s massive injections of public money. Waiting lists for treatment are so long that the plural of patient is said to be patience.

Yesterday, for my Chicago Sun-Times column I rang up William Hill, the famous London bookmakers, and asked about the odds on the election. They were offering odds on which party would win the largest number of seats as follows: 1-12 on Labor (i.e., place $12 and get $13 back if Labor emerges with a plurality of electoral districts); 6-1 on the Tories; and a whopping 66-1 on the Lib-Dems.

William Hill assures me that American can bet on British elections. So how should you bet?

My investment advice to Sun-Times readers was that those odds were about right for the Lib-Dems, a little too favorable to Labor, and distinctly mean towards the Tories (and therefore good for you, the punter.). My own judgment is that the odds for a Tory plurality should be no better than 4-1.

So putting $100 on the Tories at 6-1 would be a risky bet but one with a decent pay-off. Bet now before an avalanche of bets from Chicago reduces the odds.