Britain faces the wind of change

“THE wind of change,” British prime minister Harold Macmillan informed the South African parliament in 1960, “is blowing through this continent.” The all-white legislature in the land of apartheid gave him the silent treatment. Fifty years later, it’s Macmillan’s homeland that is supposedly being subjected to the wind of change – although it’s more than likely that the ubiquitousness of the phrase owes more to Barack Obama than to the long gone Tory patriarch.


“Change that we can believe in” was among the slogans that helped to elevate Obama to the White House, and took a while for many of his supporters to realize that the change in question was incremental at best. Since then, the waning enthusiasm of his friends and the waxing belligerence of his foes – all too many of whom represent the most retrograde elements in American society – have robbed Obama’s presidency of much of its glow. 


Two years ago, most Americans recognized the need to emerge from the mire into which they had been thrust by George W. Bush, making him the final cog in a wheel that started turning when Ronald Reagan was elevated to the presidency in 1980. It worked, albeit only to a limited extent. But Obama was also able to embody change on the basis of his identity as an African-American, even though his viability as a candidate depended on being able to convince whites that he posed no threat to them. And he most certainly doesn’t, regardless of the stream of insinuations broadcast by Fox News and readily accepted by the Tea Partiers.


None of the prime ministerial contenders in Thursday’s British general election can, obviously, aspire to embodying change of that particular variety. Granted, there’s one constituency in London’s East End where all of the main parties are putting up candidates of Bangladeshi origin, but the men at the helm are all perfectly white. It is generally presumed that the next resident of 10 Downing Street will be David Cameron, and he’s not just excruciatingly Anglo-Saxon but also bears the Eton-Oxford pedigree that has conspicuously been absent for a few decades from the helm of affairs.


But does going back to the days when deference among the electorate returned the Conservative Party to power time and again represent the sort of change that most Britons  seek? Cameron has sought to posit himself as the radical alternative to the reactionary tendencies of the Labour Party, which has been in power for 13 years – but he has been reluctant to admit that Tony Blair’s New Labour was in fact a continuation of the dreadful Margaret Thatcher years.


Maggie hasn’t been an icon that the Tories have referenced too frequently, presumably in view of the bitterness spawned by her legacy. Yet what is one to make of Labour’s admission that its public service cuts would be more vicious than Thatcher’s? 


Cameron has gone to the extent of positing his party as a more “radical” alternative to “reactionary” Labour, and while hardly anyone is likely to take that claim too seriously, the very fact that it can be made at all with a straight face serves as a reminder of the extent of Labour’s drift rightwards under Blair and Brown.


This trend has helped to open up space in the ideological centre for the Liberal Democrats, whose leader, Nick Clegg, claimed at the weekend that his party had replaced Labour as the primary alternative to the Tories. That claim, too, may be hard to swallow without a pinch or two of salt, even though recent opinion polls point to a marginal advantage for the Lib Dems over Labour, with the Conservatives in the lead – albeit not by a huge distance.


Perhaps the biggest irony in this context lies in projections suggesting that even with the lowest total of votes among the three, Labour could end up with the largest number of seats in the House of Commons because of the vagaries of Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system.


Under this system, it is technically possible, in a three-cornered context, for a party to win each and every seat in the Commons with 34 percent of the popular vote. In practice the anti-democratic distortions have never been quite that dramatic, but it’s salutary to remember that five years ago Blair was returned to power with a reduced but nonetheless substantial majority of seats on the basis of 35 percent support for Labour on a 61 percent turnout. That means only about 22 percent of the electorate cast a vote for Labour, which ended up with 55 percent of seats.


The Lib Dems, on the other hand, won 22 percent of the recorded vote but less than 10 percent of the seats. The party and its predecessors have, not surprisingly, long supported electoral reform geared towards proportional representation (PR). One of the main arguments against PR is the likelihood that it would frequently deliver hung parliaments. That particular argument is weakened by the fact that Thursday’s election is all but certain to lead to precisely that kind of parliament, a phenomenon that hasn’t been witnessed in Britain in a quarter of a century.


Given that the Lib Dems are all but certain to hold the balance of power in the parliament that will be elected on Thursday, and with electoral reform a declared precondition of the party supporting or entering into a coalition with one of its rivals, the chances of a change in the system have seldom been brighter. That is a hugely welcome prospect.


Labour and the Tories are, not surprisingly, less than enthusiastic about it, given that both parties have consistently benefited from the distortions that the system unfailingly coughs up. But neither of them has entirely ruled out support for electoral reform. Clegg, who has fared reasonably well in televised debates between the three leaders, has been remarkably ambiguous about which party is likelier to win his support, even though Labour has been relatively more open to the prospect of systemic alteration.


The fact that it is far from clear who will be heading for Buckingham Palace this week to stake his claim to the prime ministership lends a degree of trepidation to tomorrow’s beauty contest (with Brown clearly disadvantaged on that count), but what’s far more intriguing is the prospect that this election may well turn out to be the last one contested on the basis of a discredited and, to boot, insufferable system of popular representation in what is all too often described as the queen of parliaments.



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