Gordon Brown and the next UK General Election
The press, in Britain and in the United States (where some curiosity still exists concerning the man who replaced Tony Blair), has been speculating over whether or not Gordon Brown will call a ‘snap-election’. Some headlines for the same speech from Brown concerning his plans for the future (Brown was content to say, ‘I’m getting on with the business of governing’) closed the issue of an election down and others left the possibility open. This is an ideal outcome for Brown. What are the issues and how does this political process work?
In the United Kingdom, the Prime Minster is not directly elected. The system is that of a Parliamentary democracy, the voters elect MPs and the leader of the majority party (known in advance) forms the Government and becomes Prime Minister. Gordon Brown became Prime Minister when he became leader of the Labour Party in the House of Commons. He was not leader at the time of the last General Election and voters had no direct say in the transfer of power which was essentially a matter for the Labour Party. Brown is widely held to have been the disciplined strategist behind Blair and one much given to the pursuit of prudence and balanced support within the Labour Party. As Prime Minister he has the power to call a General Election. The law requires an election every five years (no Parliament can sit for longer) but a Prime Minister can call a snap election anytime within that time period.
It is widely thought that the power to call an election gives the sitting government an advantage. Brown is unlikely to blow that advantage by revealing his hand too early. Of course, the advantage may be a delusion. An unpopular government is unlikely to win a snap election just because it is suddenly presented to the voters. This present government is not hugely popular nor is it hugely unpopular. Brown is still stamping his authority on the ‘tone’ of political life (he was held up by the terrorist activities earlier in the summer) but he has not really distanced himself much from his predecessor’s policies on Iraq and that may irritate some voters. Although Prime Ministers do change during the course of a Parliament, the new comers can test out their legitimacy by calling an election fairly soon after taking office. This seems ‘fair’ somehow but it is not constitutionally necessary.
The decision is bound to be based on a sense of political advantage. Brown will not wish to squander the element of surprise, whatever the speculation is. It is an advantage that has diminished significance as the legal limits on the life of a Parliament kick-in. A confident government is bound to call an election earlier rather than later.
Will he or wont he? Brown has some political problems to deal with. Labour has been for many years the predominant party in Scottish political life. But in the last election for the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Nationalist Party challenged Labour’s position. Scotland returns to the UK Parliament mainly Labour Party MPs. It is not clear that this will happen if the election were to be called quickly. Brown needs to think carefully about this one. The ‘Brown bounce’ (the increase in popularity that comes just from the fact of a change at the top) has come and is now probably waning nationally. The Leader of the Opposition seems to be recovering in the most recent poll (the Conservative Party is not wholly united on a number of policy issues) and stands neck-and-neck with Brown. This causes journalists to rush into print but it is not likely to influence Brown much. His policy plans have been upset by the terrorist attack, floods and foot-and-mouth but he is someone who works steadily towards his goals. Harold McMillan, a former Prime Minster and friend of President Kennedy, referred to the problems of political life as experienced by a Prime Minister as ‘Events, dear boy, events’. Once called elections are decided by the effectiveness and popularity of policies, and by how unpredictable events are being, or have been handled, and not by the turn of an opinion poll. Brown needs time to get his fundamental policies across. He also needs to think about his own Party’s financial position: elections cost money.
We can say that Brown is unlikely to wait for the Parliament to run its course. But it would be foolish for him to give away his potential advantage by saying too early what he is going to do. He can leave them all guessing whilst taking steps to consolidate the policy initiative and get his Party’s machine into running order. If he is going to have a snap election, spring would seem more likely than the autumn, but who can say? Contradictory headlines about the same concerns suits his present purpose. It is his call. Only he can say. That is how British political life works and it is what makes it interesting.