Elections intrigue me. I vote in them, but I tend not to wear buttons, act as a judge in polling places, or even attend the local county party caucus, despite being advised that at said caucus they offer excellent chocolate chip cookies.
I think that elections show the difference between what people say and what they do. I don't mean the politicians, necessarily, as so often what troubles me about politicians is not that they say one thing and do another, but instead that they say they are going to do perfectly silly things, and then promptly set out to do them.
Our last election cycle demonstrated that slightly over half of our US electorate prefers one mode of government, although some of the reasons they cited for their positions in the various interview programs always made me wonder if they would not be happier with a different party than the one for which they voted.
Yet values tend to show themselves in elections. I think of the late 1970s. The UK Labour government
under Callaghan managed to run enough red ink that the UK had to obtain international borrowings, complete with "terms and conditions" more generally applied to third world countries than to "Brittania".
The curious thing, though, was that although this government was replaced by Margaret Thatcher's Tory government, which maintained a hammerlock on government for years, the Callaghan government was in many ways actually brought down by its own party's left wing. In the "winter of discontent", labor strikes against the policies of a Labour government seriously damaged the sitting government. When the next elections came, Thatcher, running on a kind of "nation of shopkeepers" conservatism pulled, as these things tend to be nowadays (in both directions), directly from American election tactics, was able to actually portray her policies as something new and dynamic. The result, of course, was a dozen years in which the labor movement was whittled down. The very same left/Labour folks who had brought down Callaghan lamented the loudest as unworkable coal mines were closed, privatization adopted, and cuts in social services abounded. Mr. Callaghan died recently, and I weonder, a bit, if he was not still puzzled about it all.
Yet I think, sometimes, that there the voters were in some ways saying one thing, and meaning another.
I do not believe that the average UK person of that time was truly a Thatcherite Tory. I thought then, and think now, that if actual political views rather than historical party caucus applied, most UK folks would be somewhere round about where the liberal democrat party positions itself, although, due to the way that the two major parties have the machinery of power in hand, the lib dems run about twenty percent of the vote and a few dozen seats each time. The labor unions that said that they were merely protesting the Labour policies actually ended up bringing down the party most congenial to their views.
These politicos said they wanted more social justice for workers, but in fact they were willing to deliver workers up to a less socially just society, more or less to prove a petty policy point. It's a bit like using Raid rather than a net to capture a butterfly.
The current UK election next month interests me a great deal. When Mr. Blair's "new Labour" took power, it seemed a welcome breath of fresh air from both the tired cliches of the former ruling conservatives and from the impractical solutions of the far left wing of Labour. For a time, it seemed as though the
UK would finally get to have its cake and eat it, too--moderately progressive policies coupled with a fiscal restraint calculated to keep things on an even keel. Besides, there is nothing more enjoyable than watching Mr. Blair during question time eviscerate some hapless Tory who will inevitably accuse "new Labour" of doing some dastardly deed, only to find that John Major's government had proposed virtually the same tactic, only far worse, in the prior conservative government.
Then came the Iraq war. To me, the Iraq war was, two years ago, a mistake. I did not take this position out of some high nobility. For me, it was not a matter of pacificism, as, for example, I was willing to support the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan. I found and find Baathism a terrible thing, and Saddam Hussein a terribly cruel man, well worth deposing. I never doubted that we would win the war.
But I could not see a way we could win the peace. I felt that the end result of the war was that our troops would be tied down in Iraq, unable to magically make it into a democracy, and unwelcome among those who live there. I favored instead a gradual UN strategy, working in concert, and resorting to military action only in a concerted way, when all other options had failed. If no consensus could be reached as to UN action, then I felt that we should not invade with the handful of the willing.
Yet Mr. Blair supported the Bush administration more or less from first to last. As in this country, hindsight proves that the intelligence upon which the Blair administration relied was deeply flawed.
Mr. Blair finds himself in the curious position of being a deeply unpopular prime minister with an unassailable majority. As the UK electoral system permits the party in power to choose, to some extent,the timing of elections, Mr. Blair called an election to win another term while the winning remained possible.
When this election cycle began, I figured that this might be a horse race. Left/Labour folks kept saying that they would stay home rather than vote the Blair government back in. The liberal dems made noises that they might finally, decades after Labour deposed the Liberal Party as the party of the left, be able to make an electoral difference. Although the current UK conservatives are a fairly rudderless and programme-less lot, they took a page from American elections. Fortunately for all concerned, they have largely not tried the "God, Money, Heterosexuality" platform of our last US election, but instead have gone with that tried-and-true American west coast chestnut, the "let's bash illegal immigrants" approach. Of course, this strategy is not entirely effective as a matter of being distinctive, as the labor left also has its job protectionsit anti-immigrant wings.
In light of the extreme lack of charisma of the right in the UK right now, I suppose I should not be surprised that Labour is nursing a massive lead in the opinion polls. Yet the entire process reminds me of my axiom--voters say one thing, and do another. A solid majority in the UK says they are anti-war and largely anti-Blair. They also say that they do not trust the conservatives with government, as the conservatives were also, in some measure, pro-war, and seem lost in some reverie for Thatcherism entirely lacking in Mrs. Thatcher's political savvy and sense of the moment.
But the voters may say all that, and yet they will not do anything about it. The liberal dems were anti-war, and have a moderate left agenda which still is probably closer to the UK public's views than
either major party. Unlike with, say, Nader in this country, a vote for a liberal democrat will not automatically put a George Bush into power. The reality, though, is that while voters say they do not want the government they have, they will actually put it back into power because the economy is workable and people largely really only care about the local economy. High flung speeches make great alternative rock songs and wonderful talk show fodder, but they don't really sway elections.
It's not that I think that Blair will be PM for life. I suspect that his own party will eventually depose him, ironically, just as Mrs. Thatcher was ultimately undone by her own side. Even with his mis-judgments about Iraq, Mr. Blair must be given credit for bringing down the right with a more centrist government that is, notwithstanding some timidities and compromises, a real improvement over the conservatives that preceded it. Iraq will, in the long run, be Mr. Blair's Achilles heel in the history books.
Still, the opinion polls are curious things--people dislike Blair, and will vote for him in droves.
I'm relieved in one sense, as I do not want another Tory government.
But it must be a curious thing to be a liberal democrat, and offer a program not that far from what people say that want, but a million miles away from what they will really vote to have.
I must admit, with chagrin, one non-hypocrisy the past few months have demonstrated. Certain members of our US house of representatives proclaimed in past elections that if they had power, they would roll back or make illegal anything progressive they could. For all his unfortunate and scandal-laden flaws,
I will say this for Mr. Delay, a politician whose policies and approach I deeply dislike. His electioneering talk as a fiery newly elected politician was not mere hot air. He has consistently, even in power, done things one might suspect one would say one would do only because one is a back bencher unlikely to ever taste power. Yet our electorate put his party in power despite a solid Democrat turnout. It's a time for moderate people to be chagrined.
Who knows, though? Labour always polls higher figures in the opinion polls, as the UK left, like our own more modestly left left, tends to talk a good game and then not show up to vote. Perhaps the voters in the UK will surprise me, and give the only credible anti-war party real power, rather than its polite 21 percent return. It's almost a moot point, as it is now that we are in Iraq, the leaving of Iraq without creating worse chaos is nearly unmanageable in the short run. In any event, unfortunately, there appears to be every prospect we have ultimately eliminated an Iraq, but created another Iran.
I hope I am wrong,though, and that the January Iraq elections, the exciting events in Lebanon, and the first faint flickers of democracy in Afghanistan prove to be a trend to a more free Middle East.
It continues to amaze me how elusive and difficult democracy and social justice can be to achieve.