Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Brown versus Cameron - Game On!

This time last year the Conservative Party in Britain was thirteen points ahead of Labour in the opinion polls. Now it is just six points ahead and falling like a stone. What is going wrong?

David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, modelled a lot of his campaign strategy on Obama’s successful bid for the US Presidency. Outlining the need for change, being general about what change meant and decrying the failures of the party in power were, he thought, enough to unseat an unpopular Labour government. What he failed to notice, until recently, was that the disappointment with Obama’s performance and the emptiness of the mantra “yes we can” is palpable. Over a year after starting health reform, Obama is still stuck in the mud. Climate change and energy security has not even started the torturous journey through the Senate. The US economy is still not mending. People demand more than a mantra. They want specifics. Cameron has to start talking action plans and detail.

The second thing that Cameron’s team has failed to do is be consistent and coherent. On the family and the tax benefits he intends to provide for married couples, but not others, he is vague. Different Conservative spokesmen have said different things about where the needed cuts to public spending would come and what the impact would be. Some potential cabinet ministers are briefing against their colleagues as they jockey for position and power.

Some of the policies – on education, for example – are not easily explained. While creating more independence for schools and freeing them of many of the centrally imposed administrative constraints may be helpful, Cameron and his team have said little about what they will do with high stakes testing or what changes they see in the curriculum. Given that the curriculum and testing are the central issues affecting performance, the policy position seems interesting, but hardly relevant.

On the National Health Service (NHS), the worlds third largest employer after the Chinese Red Army and the Indian Railway system, Cameron has made clear that they will focus on outsourcing services and improving productivity. Despite a fifty page policy document, most voters don’t see much difference on this crucial policy area between the political parties.

The most critical failure, to date at least, is the apparent inability for Cameron to show a consistent style of leadership which connects to the British people. Like Blair before him, Cameron is a master of rhetoric and the poignant phrase. He is also a chameleon. Lizards don’t do well in appealing to a cynical, disengaged British public who think all politicians are snakes. Still angry at the expenses scandal, which milked millions out of the public purse to support the fancies of elected officials, the public are looking for someone with moral authority who can inspire a generation. So far they are disappointed. Cameron is seen by many as from an elite background, he is a multi millionaire and appears somewhat aloof. He is disconnected from the day to day struggles of the electors and speaks a language which many find “high falutin” – the kind of language one expects from a “toff”.

Gordon Brown, not exactly a poet or sensitive touchy-feely kind of man, is someone Britain knows. He is volatile, relentless and very focused. He and his team have done a lot to position the Conservative party as a reckless, cost cutting bunch of over educated stuffed shirts who, given the chance, will wreck the carefully built social and economic structure of Britain. Despite evidence that none of this is true, the public are beginning to believe it. Brown is painting the Conservatives into a corner. A hung parliament or Brown clinging to power by a small majority looks increasingly likely.

Given what is happening in Europe – the precarious state of the Eurozone, confusion over the future of the European Union’s future, lacklustre economic recovery and strains between the traditional powers of France and Germany versus Spain, Portugal, Greece and Ireland – the outcome of the British election has broad significance for the EU. Brown will be a supporter of fiscal responsibility in the EU and Cameron is, at best, lukewarm about many aspects of the Union and its policies. The quiet hand of Europe will be rooting for Gordon Brown.

There are just eight and a half weeks to go before the expected poll date in Britain. It will be an interesting period in British political history – well worth keeping an eye on.

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