It is official. Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, was awarded the title of the worst dressed man in Britain by GQ Magazine this week. It’s the least of his worries. More serious is the fact that the Labour Party he leads is going into a general election in May with hardly any funds. The party has been forced to scrap a planned manifesto meeting of its National Policy Forum on cost grounds and has around £7 million ($13 million) to spend on a four week campaign, expected to take place in late April for a vote on May 6th.
In 1997, when Blair led the party to an overwhelming victory, it had substantial funds donated by a range of private companies, trade unions and individuals. Now most of its funding is coming from trade unions, who expect certain policy positions to be taken in return.
The Conservative Party, widely tipped to form the next Government, even if it is a minority government, has some £25 million ($42 million) at its disposal, with more funds likely to arrive as the election call is made. In the battle for advertising space, TV commercials, manifesto distribution and candidate support, the Conservatives are already significantly ahead and have momentum.
Meantime the Liberal Democrats, who have had no real funds since the second world war, have a great deal of what has come to be known as “hung” capital. If, as some commentators expect, the race is closer than was expected and there is a hung parliament, the Liberal Democrats could hold the key to power. By reaching a basic agreement with one party on the key issues, they could offer support to a minority government, probably led by David Cameron. While Nick Clegg protests that he has no interests in being a second fiddle player, that is what he will be. When the results are in, the horse trading will begin.
Last week Gordon Brown lavished praise on the Liberal Democrats, while before Christmas David Cameron made another overture to the Lib Dems, highlighting areas of agreement between their parties on issues ranging from constitutional reform to civil liberties. The courtship is on.
The period between now and March will be the period of the phony war when the parties “test run” election platforms, slogans and strategies. The real campaign will start in March. But the phony war will be interesting, since the fundamental shape of the campaigns will be established. As this develops, the media will begin to form their view of the election and its likely outcome and the polls will show the reaction of the electorate. As things stand, Cameron is not doing as well as he should be doing if he expects to win an outright victory. Time will tell if he can pull significantly ahead to capture the prize of a majority government.