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David Miller: Lesson For NZ From The UK Election

David Miller Online: The Fallout From The UK Election And What Lessons New Zealand Can Learn

The only people who appear excited by the result of last week’s British general election are the historians who are enthusiastically chronicling the precedents that were set, and those who subscribe to centre- left manifestos and beliefs in other parts of the world. It would appear that in Britain the result seemed such a forgone conclusion that the celebrations where rather muted and most people could not be bothered to vote. Therefore, with Tony Blair now regarded as the most powerful peacetime Prime Minister Britain has ever had, is this victory not as convincing as it seems and why should the centre left in this country be wary when looking to draw comparisons with voting trends in this country?

Prime Minister Helen Clark not only offered her congratulations to Tony Blair on winning his second term in office, but also used the occasion to draw comparisons between New Zealand and the United Kingdom. In her statement, Ms Clark claimed that, "in both New Zealand and Britain, voters are opting for pragmatic centre-left governments with positive and inclusive visions for the future. Those visions combine the rebuilding of public services with the push towards 'smarter' knowledge-based societies and economies. The rebuilding of Britain, like the rebuilding of New Zealand, is a long-term project. In winning a second term, Tony Blair has received strong endorsement for his project of building an inclusive society and a strong economy”.

The victory for the Labour Party in Britain was not so much a victory for ideology, but the fact that at present the country still has no credible opposition. The wounds inflicted on the Conservatives following the first Blair landslide in 1997, remain as open as ever and while the Liberal- Democrats took seats off both parties, they still have a long way to go before the shake their third party tag and become a political force.

The Tories campaign never got off the ground and unfortunately for William Hague, he never had the charisma to connect with the British voters the way Mr. Blair did. Mr. Hague was seen as being very much in the shadow of former Premier Margaret Thatcher, a point not lost on the Labour spin doctors and ever since he assumed the leadership of the Tories, has always given the impression that he was merely a leader for the short term until the party could settle its differences and once again focus on the future. As well as the problems at the top, the Tory policies failed to stand up to public scrutiny. The Tories appeared to focus their campaign on issues concerning the economy and the debate over Europe, two issues which did not bring them the rewards they might have hoped for at the ballot box. British participation in Europe has been at the centre of the national debate for many years now, and it is a subject that regularly succeeds in splitting the Conservative Party. Mr. Hague himself is anti-Europe, however as much as there are fears over giving up the pound and loss of sovereignty to Brussels, the stance of Britons towards entry into Europe even with its common currency appears to be softening. Mr. Blair has indicated there will be a referendum on Britain’s entry into the Euro, and while this will no doubt stir feverish debate in Britain, it would be of no surprise if the result is a yes vote.

It does appear that the forces of the centre-left have gained the ascendancy in a number of western countries, including Germany, France and the UK and it appears only a matter of time before John Howard’s right wing coalition is bundled out of office in Australia. With an election looming in this country those on the centre-left can feel confident of repeated success. Labour remains well ahead of National in the current polls and the support currently enjoyed by the Green Party holds up, then they could well be part of the next coalition government. However, the warning signs are there.

It must be noted that over half of all registered voters in Britain failed to turn up to the ballot box and there was a feeling among voters that there was little alternative than to vote for Mr. Blair. Now the second term has begun, Labour must concentrate on delivering on the promises made back in 1997 and the problems it still encounters and for this reason there has been a second election victory for the Labour Party in the UK, but little in the way of a honeymoon. Key sectors of the British economy, such as health and public transport, appear to be in a bad as shape as ever and while it celebrates becoming the first labour government to win back to back elections, it must also reflect on voter disillusionment and apathy.

It is for these reasons the centre-left in New Zealand must be wary when attempting to jump on any passing bandwagon that might be driving by in the wake of Mr. Blair’s victory. British Labour enjoys a fractured opposition that is still struggling to gain any unification, momentum and even a new leader, while suffering from voter apathy and serious problems with the health, education and public transport systems. These issues have been used by both ACT and National in a bid to score points off the government here, however ACT is still polling below the 5 percent threshold for seats in parliament and National need to find renewed energy and direction if it is to unseat Labour from office. The similarity with the UK is that New Zealand’s health and education systems are also under pressure and need more funding, hence it might not pay to make too much of Mr. Blair’s second victory. It appears that in the uncertain world of politics, the one thing that is assured that even the most shining of careers always ends up with a defeat at some stage. The centre-left in New Zealand may well care to remember that.

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