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As Election Campaign Gets Underway, Britain's Politicians Have Trouble Talking About the Future

The May 7 election takes place in a fractured political landscape as voters dissatisfied with traditional ruling forces turn to smaller parties. VICE News looks at how the first week of campaigning played out.
April 7, 2015, 10:50am
Photo via Reuters

Britain's future in Europe was in the election spotlight on Monday, as the largest parties struggled to calibrate their responses to the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which advocates secession from the European Union.

Support for UKIP has swelled in recent years, driven by resentment of immigration from 10 countries which joined the EU in 2004. The issue has become a key battleground in the upcoming general election on May 7, which takes place in a fractured political landscape as voters dissatisfied with the traditional ruling forces increasingly turn to smaller parties for answers.

Prime Minister David Cameron appealed on Monday for traditional Conservative voters to come back to the party.

"They can see the tougher approach we've taken to immigration," he told the Daily Telegraph. "They can see the changes we've made. And I think it's the time for Conservative voters who went off to UKIP — it's the time to come home."

UKIP argues, not without justification, that the only way to limit immigration from the EU would be to leave wholesale. Cameron says he wants to renegotiate the terms of EU membership, and has promised a referendum on the question.

But the Labor Party says an exit from the EU would be a disaster for business. At a speech later on Monday, former Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair was expected to argue: "Think of the chaos produced by the possibility, never mind the reality, of Britain quitting Europe. Jobs that are secure suddenly insecure; investment decisions postponed or cancelled; a pall of unpredictability hanging over the British economy."

Fear for the future, particularly among the young, has become a theme of an election in which voters are arguably more cynical and more divided than at any time for over half a century.

In the closing minutes of a televised debate last Thursday, during the first week of official campaigning, the moderator directed the leaders toward the last part of a question asked by a young woman in the audience.

"If you are elected, what will you do to help my generation feel optimistic about our future?" she had asked.

Cameron briefly mentioned jobs, before moving rapidly onto Ebola in West Africa, and then started thanking the Armed Forces. It was as if he realized he had just a few minutes left to strike a statesmanlike pose, and to hell with the awkward question.

That pose was quickly broken by a heckler, another young woman. "How can you be talking like that when there's homeless people on the streets who've been in the services?" she shouted.

Cameron talked about the importance of supporting armed services charities, but promised nothing.

The other parties had as much trouble connecting. The Green Party candidate pitched in on climate change and the global extinction of vertebrate wildlife. UKIP Leader Nigel Farage talked about the importance of relations with the Commonwealth, the group of Britain's former colonies. He didn't say how it was supposed to help young people, or make them feel optimistic.

Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats talked about the burden of public debt — £46 billion ($68.4bn) in interest payments next year, he said.

Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalists, promised job creation. Labor's Ed Miliband pledged an end to zero-hours contracts, which, he said, see 700,000 people with no guarantee of work from one week to the next. Zero-hours contracts have been widely criticized for allowing the employer to hire workers without offering a set number of hours while also demanding exclusivity — though the government has recently introduced legislation to make exclusivity clauses unenforceable.

It sounded rather less good when Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood pointed out that Labor had voted in favour of the contracts in the Welsh assembly.

"They voted against a Plaid Cymru amendment to end zero-hours contracts in the care sector. So why should people believe what you say on zero-hour contracts?"

Cameron hit back too, pointing out that Labor parliamentarians (MPs) used zero-hour contracts themselves to employ staff, and talking about his own backing from business leaders.

Miliband got the final word: "He thinks that as long as a few corporations and individuals do well, the richest and most powerful, the wealth will trickle down to everyone else. Well we've tried that experience over the last 5 years and it's failed, it's failed."

Somehow Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) who otherwise had a strong showing in the debate with a leftist critique of Labor's policies, got left out.

The exchange captured the trouble British politicians have in talking about the future to those who have the longest to live in it.

Fragmented and cynical

Fewer voters every year identify with any political party. Whereas once almost all voters backed one of the two main parties, now just over 60 percent do. Trust in government is in long-term decline, and according to a 2013 poll, the main emotion voters feel toward politicians is anger.

It is young people who are the least committed to any party, the most cynical, the most angry, and the least likely to vote, the polls show.

The fact that seven leaders were featured in the debate was itself a product of a more fractured political landscape. At the last general election, only three — Labor, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats — would have been regarded as worth hosting.

But UKIP now expects to receive one in 10 votes. The Green Party has a larger membership than both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats. And the SNP looks set to seize many of Labor's old Scottish strongholds, to become the third largest party in parliament.

Polling for the two largest parties is now neck and neck, with Labor and the Tories on 34 percent. Either could emerge a few seats ahead in the new parliament, pollsters say.

A working majority of either party is unlikely. Miliband would have to rely on SNP votes to defeat a Conservative-Liberal alliance, although he has ruled out a formal coalition. The Conservatives will probably depend again on the Liberal Democrats, who have propped up their rule for the past five years, but whose support looks set to collapse in a pile of their own broken promises.

The UK's first-past-the-post electoral system discourages political dissent, unless it is regionally concentrated. The Liberal Democrats looks set to receive one third of the Tory vote, but take one tenth of the number of seats. The SNP are expected to take a quarter of the Liberal Democrats' vote UK-wide, but win four times their representation in parliament. UKIP, with greater support than the Liberal Democrats, is likely to return between one and three MPs.

Broken economy

Political cynicism has been augmented by increasing inequality, particularly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and the last five years of spending cuts under the Tory-Liberal coalition.

One person who sees how that plays out on the ground is Darren Hill, a parliamentary candidate in the constituency of Shipley in Yorkshire, northern England.

It's a diverse place.

"You've got old factories and mills that are still being developed," he told VICE News. "It goes from urban poverty to millionaires' mansions. There's a lot of rural poverty in Yorkshire too. People struggling to get on the housing ladder and stuff like that."

He's standing for Yorkshire First, a small local party, having recently let his Labor membership lapse. Before that he used to hang out with anarchists — "they had the best parties" — who came to seem too academic and too disconnected from blue-collar life.

"It's former mill towns. People have lived the last 40 years of de-industrialization and getting shafted by London. Even more right-wing people are responsive to the idea [of a new party]," he said. "It really pisses me off, because it seems like they were just shoving more money into really developed urban areas and leaving the mill towns to rot."

He isn't sure that he will take even 5 percent of the vote, but he perceives a change in the way people talk about the mainstream parties, and how receptive they are to the idea of an alternative.

"When you talk to people, and you're canvassing, it's the first time that I've not had people be arsey with me, or pissed off. If you are handing out Labor leaflets, or a lot of political stuff, you get quite a negative reaction from people. But with us people stop and chat, because they are bored of the same old parties."

The coalition's tax and social security policies have shifted income from poorer households to wealthier ones, according to a study by the London School of Economics. The increasing cost of energy and housing has seen disposable income fall. Although Britain's economy grew faster this year than other major advanced economies, real wages also fell more rapidly than in those countries during the three years of the coalition government for which data is available.

Although 1.8 million more people are now in work compared to five years ago, 40 percent of those are self-employed and 700,000 people are now on zero hours contracts. The average income of the self-employed has fallen by around 30 percent, and according to some calculations more than half of them are now living in poverty.

Meanwhile, the deficit, which was supposed to have been eliminated during this parliament, has proven stubbornly hard to bring down.

But Labor has struggled to explain their economic narrative — that too-harsh cuts harm growth and tax receipts, and hence do as much to keep the deficit up as overspending — and the Tories are still better trusted on the economy.

The public perception that Miliband is weak and a little geeky has also held Labor back.

The party also faces a campaign financing challenge. The Conservative Party not only has the backing of wealthier funders, they changed the law late last year in order to increase campaign spending limits by a quarter, handing them a larger advantage over Labor.

Follow Tom Dale on Twitter: @tom_d_