Monday, October 08, 2007

Brown's big gamble

As expected, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has made a new announcement on whether to call a general election in the UK. His decision was surprising: there will not be an election for at least one year. Brown claims he was simply waiting for the political party conference season ended before making any accouncement. (Sure...)

This decision was surprising for several reasons. First, persons close to the Prime Minister were hinting that an election may be called. Secondly, the Prime Minister said nothing to quell rumours an election would be called. Thirdly, Brown seemed up for it: he travelled to Iraq to make an announcement on a further reduction of British troops during the Conservative Party conference. (This was a particular no-no as Brown promised to make no such announcements without consulting Parliament, which he never, in fact, did. Of course, Parliament meets again today...rather shocking that he could not wait an extra few days to make the announcement, acting akin to Blair in the attempt to steal headlines, use the military as a political football, and spin positive headlines in his direction.) Fourth, the Labour Party were clearly consulting polls over the weekend, allegedly also using illegal robocalls to assess the likely outcome of an election next month.

There are reasons not to go to the polls quite yet. First, Brown has been Prime Minister only a shortwhile --- it might be helpful for him to take more time defining his term in office (and distancing himself from Tony Blair). Secondly, daylight hours are fewer in winter: this tends to keep turn-out results low (which always help the rightwing, who are more willing to brave rain, dark, etc.). Thirdly, there is no immediate need for an election as such: he can sit tight for quite a while with a decent majority.

However, in my view, his waiting is a big gamble (and probably a mistake). First, when the country voted in the last general election, it was not for Brown to become Prime Minister. His mandate to rule is in at least some sense incomplete. A successful election would solve this worry. Secondly, the country is clearly entering into worse economic times. Bad economic times = poor election results for the incumbent. Thirdly, given the way that constituencies are drawn up, it is not enough for the Conservatives to win an equal total percentage of votes: in fact, they must do at least six percent better (or more). The Conservatives are doing much, much better, but it is very doubtful that they would win an election even if they won a majority of the national vote.

The gamble is that in a year or so we will not think of Brown as a wimp afraid to test his political metal and we will see a decent, not dithering, economy with no more bad news from Iraq and a Conservative Party unable to further capitalize on any gains. All of this seems wildly unlikely. The Conservatives smell blood and can claim a victory in effectively scaring Brown off from calling an election. There is increasing tension between the US and many states in the world with Iran (all very highly worrying), along with an alleged import of nuclear weapon-related materials found by the Israelis in Syria. The repercussions of the Iraq War continue to be felt and things may get worse still than better --- none of this helping Brown.

Brown seems to think this gamble makes sense. World affairs may not reach crises proportions. The housing market may not crash. The domestic economy remains strong, even if weaker than expected. His worry must be (a) inevitable comparisons with Blair and negatively so if Brown was unable to gain as large a majority as Blair had been able to [currently, very likely] and (b) the greater difficulties of making political changes (and define his term in office) with a very small minority or hung Parliament.

I am not a betting man. I would have gone to the polls and won a fairly certain victory now rather than leave things to chance: a week can seem like a year in Politics and one year in the real world is, well, a major gamble. I doubt the gamble will pay off. It will be interesting to watch what happens.

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