Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Back to partisanship

Anthony Faiola, writing in the Washington Post, suggests that the days of centrist politics in the UK are over.

In Britain, politicians go back to their corners
After a year in which he led the charge for gay marriage in Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron seemed to go back to his roots this week. Serving up red meat to his base at the Conservative Party’s annual conference, Cameron repeatedly blasted the left and offered a core vision of tax cuts, reduced public spending, immigration caps and a war on welfare that would warm the hearts of the American tea party…

With the sprint toward campaign season already taking shape 18 months ahead of national elections, an era in which politicians here were tripping over themselves in a race to the center appears to be coming to a close. Instead, the party leaders in a nation that has long stood as the United States’ closest ally are rushing back to their political comfort zones, highlighting a certain polarization in national politics that has become the new norm on both sides of the Atlantic…

At the Labor Party conference last week, Miliband used his pulpit as leader of Britain’s largest opposition force to lash out at private utility companies for gouging consumers. He offered a dramatic pledge to freeze energy prices for two years should his party manage to take back 10 Downing St. He also vowed to raise taxes on big banks and address Britain’s housing crisis by forcing developers who are hoarding land to “use it or lose it.”…

Cameron and Miliband
Yet, for both Miliband and Cameron, there may be method in their madness.

The Conservative and Labor parties are already waging a “race within the race” ahead of 2015. Cameron’s rhetoric this week, for instance, appeared at least partly aimed at battling a recent swell of support for the United Kingdom Independence Party, whose anti-immigrant message has found eager ears among Conservative voters uneasy with Cameron’s tack to the center on issues such as same-sex marriage…

By the same token, Miliband is seeking to reach out to alienated members of the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third-largest political force, whose popular support has plunged since it entered into a historic coalition with the Conservatives after the 2010 elections. For many rank-and-file Liberal Democrats — and particularly those within the party’s left wing — it amounted to a betrayal of trust that has not been forgiven…

And yet, while Britain’s two largest political parties appear on the surface to be setting the clock back, in truth, both the Conservatives and the Labor Party are, in many ways now, incontrovertibly reformed. On a Manchester stage this week, Cameron at times appeared downright Bill Clintonesque, imbuing his speech with an infectious optimism about turning Britain into a “land of opportunity.”…

Miliband, though perhaps a populist, is also hardly the left-wing firebrand of old Labor, and his bigger problem still seems to be his inability to personally connect with voters. He has pledged not to reverse the Conservative’s fiscal cuts and to match any new spending to budget cuts or new revenue. He also has moved decisively to curb his party’s incestuous financial relationship with labor unions.

Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, said Miliband may indeed veer “slightly” to the left of Blair’s love affair with the free market.

“But by no means is he going back to the dark red days of the Labor party in the 1970s,” Fielding said.

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