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Keith Rankin: The New Conservative Dragon-Slayers?

Hague and Portillo: the new dragon-slayers?

Keith Rankin, 7 June 2001

If I was a betting man, and if Ladbrokes was nearby, I would be betting on a "hung Parliament" in Britain tomorrow. I don't think Hague, Portillo, Widdecombe will lead the Tories to victory. Nor do I think Labour will lose. But I do think that the chances of a Conservative win are greater than the odds being quoted. More importantly, I think that an accommodation if not a coalition involving the Liberal-Democrats is much more likely than most of the pundits suspect. To put numbers on it, I would rate the probability that Labour will not win outright as about 20%.

There are three psephological issues: complacency-cum-apathy, a widening divide between London and the English provinces, and a do-it-yourself proportional representation campaign that has apparently struck a chord.

For the first-issue, we should look to the election, conducted under similar circumstances, in June 1970. Then, the polls all pointed to a comfortable Labour victory; ie to the return of the Wilson-Callaghan government. Instead, the Conservatives gained an overall majority. Edward Heath became Prime Minister and Anthony Barber became Chancellor of the Exchequer (ie Treasurer).

The polls were not wrong. It's just that many people who stated a preference for Labour in the pre-election polls in fact did not vote. It is generally understood that many of the non-voters did not vote because they believed Labour was "home-and-hosed" and therefore did not need their votes. Probably, however, many persons who indicated a preference to pollsters or not registered, or never intended voting. Pre-election opinion polls tended not to ask whether a person would actually vote on election day.

The June 1970 British election is one that Winston Peters can point to as supporting his proposal to ban the publication of pre-election political opinion polls (see my March Party Madness on Scoop). The fact is though, that the support for both parties was weak in 1970. The Tory victory reflected a general lack of an endorsement of the Government of the day. That election result was no more contrary to the principles of democracy than any FPP (first-past-the-post) election.

What then became interesting is that the Heath-Barber government adopted an expansionary macroeconomic policy of the type and scale that has never been seen since. This government was, initially, anything but "conservative". Indeed it is generally true - in New Zealand and Britain - that Labour governments have been more "prudent" with respect to macroeconomic policy. A significant increase in planned government spending in 1971, financed by a rapid expansion of the money supply, coincided with a boost to global demand arising from huge American current account deficits that were in part caused by the Vietnam War.

The result was the only genuine bout of demand-inflation (overheating) in Britain since 1920. There was also a huge blow-out in Britain's balance of payments; a spending blow-out that led, among other things, to two years of unparalleled prosperity in New Zealand.

The hapless Heath-Barber government was overtaken by events. First the 1973 war between Israel, Egypt and Syria; the war that led to the first global oil price shock. Second, the time was ripe for the opponents of Keynesian expansionary macroeconomic policies (policies designed to, above all else, to deliver full employment) to pounce. Anthony Barber became the first casualty of the kneejerk response to the new environment.

The Heath government now took on a similar aura to that of the Muldoon Government. In the winter of 1973-74, the UK sharemarket crashed, inventories built up to record levels, fuel was rationed, factories worked three-day weeks as the Heath government tried to impose a wage freeze on, among others, the coal-miners who almost everyone agreed deserved a pay rise.

In February 1974, the miners' strike forced an election which was almost a dead heat. Labour - still under Harold Wilson - formed a minority government that depended on a number of 'Celtic nationalists'. A second election was called in October. Labour gained an overall majority of three seats.

The main economic failure of the Heath-Barber government had been in the timing of its policies. They inflated when an expansion was already underway, and they retrenched exactly when a sharp contraction was taking place. Policies intended by Keynes and his economist disciples to stabilise a nation's economy had the exact opposite effect.

As an afterword to this story, we might note that the Blair-Brown Labour Government took the final steps to taking macroeconomic policy off the agenda of British politics. (Ruth Richardson did something similar in New Zealand, especially with her 1994 Fiscal Responsibility Act.)

As was the case with Heath and Barber, a Hague-Portillo victory might well lead to more radical policies than anything on offer in Britain in 1992 or 1997. Of course we will probably never know.

Many former Conservative voters who switched to Labour or Liberal-Democrat in 1997 will not vote Labour today. Under the first-past-the-post voting system, the dominoes that tipped so many seats to Labour in 1997 can just as easily unravel this time. (Remember 1975 in New Zealand?) Especially if, as I suspect, the Labour tally falls to below 40% of the total vote. Even in 1997, Labour got well under 50% of votes cast, a smaller proportion than the losing Democrats got in the USA last year.

Provincial England is in crisis. Labour depends on a split between the Conservatives and the Liberal-Democrats to hold their provincial seats, or on 1997 Liberal Democrat voters tactically voting Labour.

That takes me to my final point. There is a campaign by anti-Conservative Call for Democracy electoral reform advocates to educate the British public about tactical voting (and about eventual alternatives to FPP). Under FPP, tactical voting takes place (and always has taken place since the three-party era of the 1920s) in every constituency. (In New Zealand under MMP, such voting only took place in 3seats: Coromandel, Tauranga, Wellington Central. Ironically, because tactical voting is no longer normal in New Zealand, it has become much more apparent in those electorates where it did happen.)

Basically, the tactic is to get Labour voters to vote Liberal-Democrat where Labour cannot win, and to get Liberal-Democrat voters to vote Labour where Labour can win. Call for Democracy even have a vote-swapping campaign, where some Labour voters pledge to vote Liberal Democrat in return for a Liberal Democrat supporter in another constituency agreeing to vote labour.

This is a de facto system of proportional representation. It could even get the Liberal Democrats the number of seats (100 plus) that they would receive if New Zealand's MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) electoral system was being used in Britain. Hence my belief that there is a good chance that, while Labour will be the biggest party on Friday, it may not have the 330 seats it needs for a majority in the House of Commons.

Various opinion polls suggest that there will be a huge amount of tactical voting.

One problem for Labour - or New Labour as the Blair-Brown government likes to be called - may be that tactical voting can work both ways. Many who voted for the LibDems in 1997 will in fact prefer a Conservative to a Labour government. They may vote Tory in order to help topple a Labour candidate, even though they would rather vote Liberal-Democrat again.

Or some 1997 Conservative voters may vote for a well-placed Liberal- Democrat in the hope of toppling a front-running Labour candidate. We should note that the Liberal-Democrats, unlike New Zealand's Alliance, are perceived to be a centre rather than a left-wing party; and a provincial rather than a London party.

There is an underlying swell of English nationalism that New Labour should not discount. The trouble that I have, however, is conceiving of a wizened young man called Hague and an alleged euroscpetic called Portillo as being the leaders of an Anglo-Saxon revival. They seem as likely successors of St George as a man called Wang following Winston Peters as leader of the New Zealand First Party.

P.S. Political cynics might like to play Splat the MP. But watch out for that left jab.

© 2001 Keith Rankin

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