UK General Elections May Personify the Decline of Democracy
by Manuel L. Quezon III
Commentators in Britain are virtually unanimous in opining Tony Blair’s re-election will be a close run thing. The British prime minister seems to enjoy a built-in advantage. As one commentator, Iain MacWhirter, explains it, “it took just 26,031 votes on average to elect a Labour MP, but 50,347 to elect a Tory” in 2001. These electoral odds still likely apply.
Other British political commentators seem to share the consensus that Blair’s Labor Party has a better chance of squeaking past to victory, than the opposition Conservatives have to manufacture the 10 percent lead in the opinion polls needed to win a majority and to form a government. MacWhirter adds that Blair is also benefiting from a “so-called ‘masochism’ strategy of going around the country inviting people to vent their spleen at him.”
The May election is, then, Blair’s last hurrah. He says he wants to be PM the third time around, but isn’t planning a fourth term — not that politicians’ denials of ambition should ever be taken at face value — and he is banking on his own media savvy and eloquence, the inherent organizational strength of his party, and a built-in advantage for his fellow MP’s in holding on to their seats.
This virtually guarantees Blair the satisfaction of holding on to power under circumstances that give him a fair chance of organizing an honorable relinquishing of the party leadership to Gordon Brown, whom Blair had tried to muscle aside, but trotted out again to bolster his reelection bid. It also means that the Labour Party can enjoy another term as the government, while the Conservative Party suffers yet another defeat. If it loses, as it is expected to lose in May, the Conservatives will have been out of power for 8 years, approximately the same amount of time between the last Churchill wartime administration, and Churchill’s restoration as prime minister in time for Elizabeth II’s ascension to the throne. That period was spent by Churchill and other Conservative leaders rebuilding the infrastructure of their party; just as Labour spent the Thatcher years reinventing itself until it won with Blair.
In a sense, then, British democracy is being fought the old fashioned way. For all his surface glamour and glitz, Blair is fighting the Tories on the basis of machinery: the on-the-ground party organization serving as the infantry to step in on ground softened by media artillery barrages. Blair uses communication Blitzkrieg style; his television ads (including one that a Scottish newspaper says may be illegal because it was apparently filmed in the House of Commons) are the Stuka divebombers that wreak havoc in the opposition’s ranks. But the foot soldiers for both parties are getting grayer and thinner on the ground. There are fewer and fewer fresh recruits.
Blair’s recipe for victory, after all, takes into account the apathy of younger voters. One survey reveals a minority of only 27 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds claim they will definitely vote. Blair can thus rally the party, he can count on a kind of political inertia to safeguard a majority of Labour seats, and after “venting their spleen” by shouting at him, young people will more likely than not, not bother to cast their votes against him. Young people in Britain have made life uncomfortable for Blair, not least because his former freshness in the public perception has been replaced by his being made to appear as yet another cynical politician aging instantly overnight as his rhetoric turns out more fluff than substance (at least when it comes to Iraq).
It may be that the young Britons of today who won’t vote, will be the older Britons of tomorrow, who still don’t vote. Which points to the significance of Blair’s reelection campaign today. Even if he wins, even if his parties hangs on to power by the skin of its teeth or with a comfortable majority, a Labour victory might be one last triumph of the will. More than one commentator in Britain has pointed to the ever-growing minority of non-voters which soon enough, may become a permanent, non-participating majority in British elections.
This means the end of truly popular democracy in Britain. In a generation, or less, democracy may be once more, along the lines of the elitist, professional sport among political thoroughbreds that it was in 17th to 19th Century England. If Britain only obtained universal suffrage in 1928, and the 2005 elections show a continuation of the decline in popular participation first observed in 2001 (at 59 percent, it was the lowest turnout in a general election), then Britain’s period of popular, majority-driven democracy, was quite brief.
So long in the shadow of the United States, Britain, ironically, may continue following in America’s wake: A place where the conception and rhetoric of democracy is increasingly unable to match the more remote, less representative, and generation-irrelevant reality of elections as they actually take place.