Tuesday, April 23, 2024

PETER WICKHAM: Lessons in British approach to elections


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THIS BRITISH ELECTION is historic because it comes on the heels of Britain’s first modern peacetime coalition government. We in the Caribbean have become familiar with coalitions recently with the People’s Partnership in Trinidad and Tobago, which is nearing the end of its term, and St Kitts and Nevis’ Team Unity, which recently commenced its sojourn.

In the UK, the coalition was approached with some amount of scepticism as it was the Liberal Democrats’ (Lib Dems’) first term in government since its formation in 1988 and there was concern over whether or not they could find sufficient common ground with the conservatives to last five years. Previously, the Lib Dems had struck a historic agreement with Labour (1997 Lib-Lab pact), which was made redundant by the size of Blair’s win in 1997, but commentators there always presumed the Conservative-Liberal marriage would always be awkward.

The basis of this successful coalition was outlined in a document entitled Coalition: Our Programme For Government. The agreement was extensive but effectively the Lib Dems agreed to support the Conservatives in Parliament (for the most part) and for this they received the office of Deputy Prime Minister, a share of Cabinet portfolios, a fixed parliamentary term and a referendum on proportional representation (which the Conservatives did not support).

Both sides clearly knew what they wanted from the other, were honest about their intentions and did not renege from any major commitment. The prudence of the coalition experiment will perhaps be best judged in terms of a swing towards the Liberals, which would mean that its supporters are satisfied with its performance in government.

The same test should perhaps not be applied to the Conservatives since their gain or loss of popularity is likely to have more to do with how well or badly the public compares them with Labour and its leader at this time.

The dissolution of parliament in the UK and the early days of the campaign provide a sound example of the type of politics we ought to be moving towards. The dissolution there was not a subject of mystery as it often is in these parts as Prime Minister Cameron indicated his intention to hold the election on the first Thursday of May 2015 and dissolved Parliament accordingly.

There was no secret date in the “back pocket” as Manning did in Trinidad, nor was there an unnecessary constitutional debate over the meaning of “election due” as was the case in Barbados and Antigua.

This UK approach therefore demonstrates an enviable level of political maturity, which was also reflected in the leadership debates. Certainly, there was some amount of discussion regarding the format of the debates, but at no time was there any possibly of there not being a debate.

Sadly, leadership debates are still approached in this region on an ad hoc basis and there was none in recent elections held in Barbados, Antigua, St Kitts or Trinidad, which deprived those populations of a valuable opportunity to compare leaders.

It was also fascinating to watch the presentation of manifestos, which is being done more than 20 days before the election and allows voters an opportunity to digest them and also for analysts to do their fact-checking. Comparatively, we tend to have manifestos released the weekend before the election, which means that they are of little use in helping voters determine whom to support.

The format for presentation was also impressive since both leaders presented their proposals to large and interactive audiences that were invited to pose questions in meetings that were carried live. In the Caribbean the norm is to present at a public meeting and if journalists have the opportunity to interrogate the leaders it is certainly more of a haphazard affair.

The manifesto pitch of both major parties this time around is simple and speaks to a clear message. Labour is promising budgetary and fiscal responsibility, which is a veiled admission that it appreciates the extent to which it was perceived to be fiscally irresponsible the last time it was in office.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, have presented a “right to buy” focus which they argue will result in 1.3 million more British families owning their own homes. This is, of course, a throwback to the successful Thatcher policy of the 1980s which created a revolution in home ownership by pushing down interest rates.

This policy speaks to the further development of the family, which has emerged as a hallmark of Conservative policy and does this in a way that is counter to the “tax and spend” approach Labour has been accused of.

Initial polls had placed the Conservatives ahead by a 39 per cent to 33 per cent margin and suggested that the Tory lead was being driven by Cameron’s comparative popularity. This statistic, although early and subject to change, demonstrates the extent to which a day in contemporary politics is a long time. In 2010, when Labour lost narrowly, it was generally agreed that the Conservative-Liberal coalition would meander sufficiently to ensure a Labour victory in 2015, especially since this weak coalition would have to restore fiscal discipline, which is never popular.

Of course, I cannot help but wonder if Labour had been led by the elder Miliband if it would be this unpopular. Clearly, the younger Miliband is now struggling and this shows the extent to which Cameron has successfully defended what in cricket terms would be known as a “full toss”.

Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES). Email: peter.wickham@caribsurf.com


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