British Politics are Getting Interesting Again!

LONDON: There are three reasons for this. The first is that – unthinkable as it sounds – an increasing number of people believe it possible that the Scots could vote to leave the United Kingdom when the referendum takes place next year.  Secondly, despite pressure from the Obama administration in the United States and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, there is still a real prospect that a referendum on British membership of the European Union, could lead to the UK’s withdrawal. Business people and political observers I’ve met this week believe either or both would be a disaster for Britain.

But of more immediate interest is that, following the party political conference season, where political leaders head out of London for less glamorous cities and decidedly unglamorous seaside towns, the battle lines between the two main parties are more clearly drawn.

New Labour, created by Tony Blair, is now dead, buried and all but forgotten. It has been replaced by Old Labour, reminiscent of the seventies when I was the BBC’s economics correspondent, and was rewarded with a close-up view of the Callaghan government’s steady slide into deficit and disaster, culminating in the collapse of the pound and an IMF bailout.

Prime minister David (“call me Dave”) Cameron appears to have gone the other way, staunchly defending big business – and its right and need to make big profits – and, in his conference speech, repeatedly and contemptuously referring to the Opposition leader Ed Miiband, as “Red Ed”.

Having upset the Tory right by straying mostly into the middle ground of politics – necessary to maintain the coalition with the Liberal Democrats – Cameron played to his erstwhile critics by announcing a new policy: All Under 25s must ‘earn or learn”.

Cameron suggested that under the next Tory government young people would no longer be eligible for welfare. He said:” Today it is still possible to leave school, sign on (the dole), find a flat, start claiming housing allowances, and opt for a life on benefits…we should ask, as we write our next manifesto, if that option should really exist at all”.

Instead young people should have a “clear, positive choice” – go to school or college, do an apprenticeship, or get a job”.

By contrast Ed Miiband, who has gained in confidence and in popularity within his party, has been adopting a populist approach, reminiscent of Denis Healey’s “soak the rich until the pips squeak” line until the former chancellor learned the error of his ways. Miliband promised to freeze rapidly rising energy prices, and to tax big companies. He claimed that electricity companies had been overcharging customers for years. The Labour left loved it.

But, as we know in Australia, the left don’t win elections, and if he is to prevail in 2005 Miliband will have adroitly to move back to the centre ground, especially as the government’s austerity package appears to be working.  After years of misery, Britain’s economy is now heading the European growth league, and matching Australia’s.

Cameron’s aim is to win enough seats for the Tories to rule in their own right, so they can dump the coalition with the Lib-Dems. At this stage that looks like a big ask. The xenophobic UK Independence Party, and its friends in right-wing media, will eat into the Tory vote. At this stage it looks more than possible that the Coalition of the Unwilling my still be shaping British politics post 2015. And if the Scots vote to leave the UK, Labour will lose its key seats in Scotland, where the Tories have none to lose. 

– Colin Chapman is the President of the AIIA (NSW)

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