The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Johnny Foreigner’s Guide to the UK Election (in where I demonstrate a very poor knowledge of UK politics.)

April 10, 2010

So, in Duck ex-pat news it was announced that a general election (a big national election) will be held on 6 May 2010 this week in the UK. At stake are 13 years of Labour rule, debate as to how the economic “recovery” should be protected.
Yet, despite the relative importance of the election, coming as it is during a time of insecurity, I have to say that it feels like basically no one is inspired by it. Politicians here have been hit by a year of expenses scandals (when it turned out that MPs were claiming everything from the installation of duck houses, to bath plugs and the occasional pornographic movie). It’s not really a surprise they did so, of course – MPs are paid quite poorly compared to their counterparts in Europe. But it was the fact that they seemed to bend and manipulate the rules so blatantly which have upset many people. The ongoing scandal has resulted in four MPs actually facing criminal charges.
In addition, house prices have fallen, no one can get mortgages, the government spent billions on the bailout and dramatic spending cuts are needed. Unemployment is still high, we just lost Cadburys to the Yanks (seriously – this was a huge issue) and I just think that people feel battered by the recession and dread of the knowledge of the kind of austerity years that are ahead. Where the US election in 2008 seemed (at least to me) about better days ahead, this election seems to be more about choosing between the rope, knife, pistol (and two separatist-inspired choices – let’s just use the deadly poisoned leek and kilt of terror…. ) Actually, you have a few more scary choices as well (like the BNP – who I’m not going to link to because I don’t even want to Google their name.)
So I thought that I would provide my poorly constructed guide to the UK Election this week where I thought that I would try to at least highlight some issues that other “Johnny Foreigners” may find interesting. Please consider this my comparative politics post for the year.

1.It might be a “hung parliament”

The mandatory joke here, of course, is that if it is a “hung parliament” – with whom do we start?

Right now this seems to be a huge deal for a number of reasons. First, it could give the Liberal Democrats (the third party who hasn’t been in power since the First World War) a lot of leverage as both Labour and the Tories fight to bring them into alliance or onside. For the LibDems, this could be really great (they finally get power) or really bad (internal civil war as to which side to support). For their part, the LibDems won’t say who they will support – and stick to the line that they are actually trying to win (although no one really thinks they can – except Howard Dean).

Second, there is a sense that because of the harsh measures needed for the recession, the fact that there would be a “hung parliament” seems to be unstable and would be sending the wrong message to world markets. There is only so much stock I put in this argument. Canada has had a “hung parliament” for years and they have done alright (although in full disclosure, I’m not a huge fan of the current party in power).

2.There is no UK foreign policy.

I don’t think I’ve even heard “foreign policy” mentioned since the election was called. Rather it’s all about taxes, tax breaks, cutting taxes, etc. (Oh, and of course, who will best protect the National Health Service, or NHS). Let there be no mistake, this is a very naval-gazing election (other than the scary UK Independence Party – UKIP – banging on about leaving the EU and being not-so-secretly racist). Considering the nation is fighting in a war and continues to lose troops on a near daily basis, it’s rather shocking that I don’t think I’ve even heard the word “Afghanistan” out of any of the leader’s mouths.

I wonder if this is because that there is a general consensus on the issue – or if no one really has any bright ideas?

Either way, for this election at least, the UK is less interested in its role in the world than domestic change/continuity. If you are looking for the foreign policy issues, I would suggest checking out this web page from Chatham House and scrolling through a few of their events. For now, it’s the economy, stupid (or as I like to think of it here, “By Jove! It’s the Economy, Chaps!”

3.“Step outside, posh boy”

Rightly or wrongly, growing up in Canada, I tended to view it as a rather classless country – or at least a relatively egalitarian one. Now I know this isn’t true, but I come from a blue collar family where my parents worked hard and improved their lives (stop me when I start to sound like pre-scandal John Edwards). But class IS an issue here (or at least perceived to be one) and it was something I didn’t understand it until I came to the UK. There seems to be a definite underclass here that just doesn’t seem to benefit from anything. To be honest, if you are a poor, white, working class male, you’re probably super not doing well.

On the other hand, if you do come from wealth it may be a serious liability – if you are a politician. Labour has constantly gone after Tory leader David Cameron’s wealthy upbringing (he went to Eaton, member of super-posh Oxford society, etc) as seen in this mock-campaign poster done by the Guardian which became so popular they made a t-shirt out of it.

Can you be too posh to be politically privileged? I find this so interesting because I really think it would be relatively a non-issue in North America. (Although I think it was, to a certain extent for McCain.) So long as you are seen as having the right values, you’re probably okay. And the cost of running a campaign in the US is so astronomical that I don’t see HOW you could possibly be a politician without money – or at least be of a certain socio-economic class. Anyway, it will be interesting to see to what extent Labour continues to go down this route.

4.Everybody is on the internet. Nobody seems to know what to do with it.

I think this is important because the internet played such a HUGE role in the Obama campaign. Immediately afterwards in the UK there were summits and meetings on what the lessons where with regards to how that technology, particularly for fundraising, could be used.

Unfortunately, I don’t think any of the parties really learned any of the lessons – or more correctly, how to apply the lessons to the UK context. Instead, I think everyone realized they need to be on the internet, YouTube, twitter, facebook, email, etc., but they just didn’t figure out how to link it to anything meaningful. Instead we get David Cameron’s wife on “SamCam” and the first casualty of the campaign – a 24 year old Labour candidate who thought that calling senior citizens “coffin dodgers” was a good idea (not to mention the Tourette-inspired names he called other candidates.)

So what we’re left with is a gigantic effort and amount of information put on the internet that seems to have no purpose and completely failing to engage the general public. This Financial Times piece concludes that while the internet may have an effect, this effect is likely to be accidental (ie: some politician screwing up on his iPhone – or just see the above paragraph) and that, at least in the UK, the public is still using mostly traditional sources like newspapers – even if it is on-line:

Studies in the past few weeks from the Hansard Society, the political researcher, and Ovum, a technology consultancy, both disputed that YouTube, Facebook and Twitter would form a meaningful battleground to rival TV or the humble doorstep.

The other interesting conclusion of the piece is that while political parties may not have yet best figured out how to use the internet, they cannot afford to ignore it either. Ergo, they are having to spend millions of pounds on something that they just can’t seem to figure out. (Although they do point out that Labour’s less centralized approach has resulted in success through sites that have mocked the Tories ad campaign online.

So there you have it – four issues coming out of the battle for Britain’s political future.
I confess that I too find myself among the politically uninspired – yet I wonder if I should consider myself fortunate. What a contrast with Thailand and Kyrgystan this week where most people would probably see this ennui as some kind of insane luxury. Or Afghanistan where it’s a struggle to just have the leader not fire the entire election review board.

For those of you who wish to follow further, here are some websites that you may find useful:
Useful websites:

1. BBC 2010 Election Page: A pretty comprehensive source on the election with polls, highlighted issues, candidate bios, etc. I’m not a huge fan of Nick Robinson, but he’s good and has his own blog on the site here.
2. Political Betting: “Britain’s most read political blog and the best online resource for betting on politics”. No really.
3. UK Poling Report: A poll of polls and useful polling analysis for those of you who can’t just get enough hot poll action.
4. YouGov: Polling/research company in the UK
5.Guido Fawkes: This one is kind of muck-raking, but occasionally fun.
6.Finally, I would suggest following my friend Nick Anstead’s twitter. – he wrote his PhD on the internet in the 2008 US election and has done some work on the issue in the UK. He always has great links and he’s my usual source when I have questions about all things political and British.

Anyone else have a site they could recommend? Anything with laughter at this point would probably be super welcomed.

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Stephanie Carvin is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Her research interests are in the area of international law, security, terrorism and technology. Currently, she is teaching in the areas of critical infrastructure protection, technology and warfare and foreign policy.

Stephanie holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and published her thesis as Prisoners of America’s Wars: From the Early Republic to Guantanamo (Columbia/Hurst, 2010). Her most recent book is Science, Law, Liberalism and the American Way of Warfare: The Quest for Humanity in Conflict” (Cambridge, 2015) co-authored with Michael J. Williams. In 2009 Carvin was a Visiting Scholar at George Washington University Law School and worked as a consultant to the US Department of Defense Law of War Working Group. From 2012-2015, she was an analyst with the Government of Canada focusing on national security issues.
Stacie Goddard