Days before the May 7 General Elections, a sweep evaluation of British electoral dynamics inevitably raises questions about the impact of economics on electoral politics in one of the world’s major empowered democracies. It is beyond dispute that PM David Cameron in his very first term has measurably recast the UK’s economy indices in recent years. The impact of his policies has encompassed people across the board. According to a recent BBC survey, Britain currently “sustains an employment rate of 73.4 per cent, highest since 1971”.
No doubt, the seamless synergy between Cameron and his Chancellor of Exchequer, George Osborne, has helped in the UK economy’s turnabout. Despite assiduous campaigns, however, the ruling Conservatives are still struggling for a credible connect to people.
The last time Brits voted in a general election in 2010, the economy was still reeling under the impact of the global financial crisis. Deficits and unemployment rates were way up, and Conservative Party leader Cameron ran on a pledge to mend the nation’s finances after 13 years of Labour rule.
Five years of Tory-led coalition government later, Cameron is touting success in halving the deficit and putting two million people back to work, while returning the economy to healthy growth levels and keeping inflation low. His pitch to voters boils down to this: Don’t risk another economic meltdown under Labour. Let me finish the job I’ve started.
Labour leader Ed Miliband counters that the gains of the past five years have been concentrated at the top and Cameron has allowed the rich to get away without paying their share even as the poor and middle class suffer from painful cuts in government services. He’s pointed to record numbers relying on assistance from food banks as evidence that Cameron’s leadership has failed.
Cameron became the PM in 2010 after nearly four terms of Labour governance—three terms under Tony Blair and one under Gordon Brown. Blair himself became PM in May 1997 after four terms of Conservative rule—three under Margaret Thatcher and one full-term under John Major. So, statistically speaking Cameron, who publicly disavowed any interest for a third term, has a good chance of getting back to ‘Number Ten’ for a second term.
But, the level of public disenchantment with electoral politics being what it is, Miliband stands an almost equal chance of disturbing the statistical sequencing. The contest is shaping up as perhaps the most unpredictable in a generation, with Labour and Conservatives running neck and neck. But neither is expected to win a majority, or anything close.
That was also true last time around. But then the centrist Liberal Democrats won enough seats to put the Tories over the top through a coalition agreement that proved unexpectedly durable. This time, support for the Liberal Democrats has cratered, and neither the math nor the politics favour a simple two-party coalition.
The key to who will rule the UK, it would seem, will be in the hands of smaller, special influence political forces, including Liberal Democrats, Democratic Unionist Party, Scottish National Party and UK Independence Party. The immense popularity in certain political boroughs enjoyed by regional party leaders such as Nicole Sturgeon and Nigel Farage could sequentially help either of the big parties, Conservatives or Labour, tilt the scales in their favour, considering Cameron and Miliband appear running parallel as per opinion polls.
Most polls have shown votes split evenly among the UK’s two main parties, but a coalition could be imminent, since neither is likely to win an absolute majority in the 650-seat Parliament.
So the parties will have to get creative. Permutations of three or more parties are being actively discussed, though they would inevitably make for strange bedfellows. It’s also possible that one party could try to form a minority government, and hope the other parties don’t band together to bring it crashing down.
Where democracies are involved, the uncertainty of poll results accentuates overall political tensions. In the resultant environs, a pathway of convenience and compromise is often necessitated whereby political manifestos become irrelevant.
In the meantime, the world’s major stable economies like Saudi Arabia and China, which are essentially non- democratic in character and practices, decisively score over most democracies in addressing real agendas of their respective constituents.
It is time India too drew some useful derivatives in the context that unravels in London and elsewhere in the UK, and puts in place a prudent set of measures to attract professionals from abroad to make “Make in India” a realistic economic dynamic in tune with the rest of the evolved world. As in the UK, any major contemplated economic readjustment in India needs to be beyond mere political sloganeering in technology-driven, scientifically oriented and proficient global economic segments.
Menon is a former additional secy,Cabinet Secretariat