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Interview: John O'Sullivan On Britain's Hotly Contested Elections


Conservative Party leader David Cameron (left) shakes hands with Prime Minister, and leader of the ruling Labour Party, Gordon Brown (right), with Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg behind, after the live TV debate in Birmingham on April 29.

Conservative Party leader David Cameron (left) shakes hands with Prime Minister, and leader of the ruling Labour Party, Gordon Brown (right), with Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg behind, after the live TV debate in Birmingham on April 29.

Next week, British voters head to the polls in one of the most unpredictable elections in decades.

What looked set to be a straight contest between the ruling Labour Party and the main opposition Conservatives has now been transformed into a three-party race, with the Liberal Democrats surging in the polls and a hung parliament looking increasingly likely.

John O'Sullivan, a special adviser to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and longtime observer of Britain's political scene who's now executive editor at RFE/RL, gives his thoughts on what to expect.

RFE/RL: What has marked this election out as distinctive?

John O'Sullivan:
It's been distinguished principally by the fact that the third party, the Liberal Democrats, who are seen as the centrist party or maybe a center-left party, have emerged to be the equal of the two main parties.

For about 30 years Britain has had not a two-party system, but a 2 1/2-party system, in which the third party, the "Lib Dems," as they're called, have been present in the game, able to win 50 seats, but never able to present themselves seriously as an alternative government.

On this occasion, because of the leaders' debates -- the first of which was won apparently by the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg -- for the first time in these 30 years the Lib Dems have emerged as the equal of the other two parties in popular support, and possibly in votes and maybe, if it turns out that way, in parliamentary seats, too.

RFE/RL: So the leaders' TV debates -- a novelty for Britain -- have had a transformative impact, you'd say?

O'Sullivan:
I would say there have been two game-changers in the election campaign. The first is the leaders' debate, the very first debate, which pushed the Lib Dems and Nick Clegg to the forefront of the battle.

John O'Sullivan
The second, I believe, will prove to be the moment in which Gordon Brown criticized a woman Labour voter whom he had just been speaking to as bigoted when he got into what he thought was the privacy of his prime-ministerial car -- but he was still wearing a neck microphone and the world got to hear this. I think that's important because first of all, it strengthens Brown's poor personal image as a man who loses his temper, is arrogant, [and] secretive. But more importantly, many people will take it as evidence that the Labour elite, the middle-class elite that runs the Labour party, is privately contemptuous of the white working class with its traditional social views, its conservative and patriotic views, which [the elite] regards as bigoted.

Brown has apologized and everyone has agreed to move on from the issue, but I think this is likely to have a seriously bad impact on Labour's traditional working-class vote, some of which will go to the Tories, some to Lib Dems, and some to third parties. But it threatens to give the Lib Dems an advantage in becoming the main party of the center left, over Labour.

RFE/RL: How would you describe the Liberal Democrats, their constituency, and what distinguishes them from the other parties?

O'Sullivan:
One can look upon the Liberal Democrats as a party of the left, but not a socialist party -- a party that is socially radical, perhaps, interested in promoting or allowing people who express alternative lifestyles, very supportive of ideas like gay marriage, and wanting to see the state play an enabling role in people's lives, but not wanting to see as much state control and control of industry as the Labour Party traditionally has.

No Clear Differences

RFE/RL: There don't seem to be huge party differences on a lot of the main issues. What would you say are the key differences?

O'Sullivan:
You're quite right to say that it's hard to find very strong party differences here, and one of the reasons for that is that the Conservative leader, David Cameron, has made a very determined effort to try to move his party closer to what is called the center, but might in this case be called the center-left.

He has gone out of his way to take up the kind of socially liberal positions I mentioned earlier that the Lib Dems like, such as gay civil unions, a willingness to tolerate and promote people living different and alternative lifestyles in the country, [and] moving away from supporting religion, which the Conservatives traditionally did.

This kind of move to the soft liberal center by the Conservatives has meant that the main issues that are left tend to be economic issues. The bigger issue between Labour and Conservative has been the management of the economy, with the Conservatives being very critical of Labour, and they have a strong case there, but at the same time, struggling to come up with an alternative policy because they don't want to be accused of savagely cutting government spending and public services. So there's been a lot of argument but it's been very hard to see clear distinctive lines.

RFE/RL: Are there any other differentiating issues that stand out?

O'Sullivan:
The other issue that has emerged in a major way has been immigration. The Conservatives have been saying for three or four years that they weren't going to highlight immigration or the control of immigration and they've avoided doing so. But they've been forced to raise the issue by public opinion and because it's one of the few issues in which they do have very strong public backing against the record of the Labour government, which has presided over a large increase in immigration, and the policy of the Liberal Democrats, who favor an amnesty for illegal immigrants in the country.

In a sense, despite themselves, the Conservatives have had to stress this issue and it was an issue that came up in a big way in the final debate between the three leaders.

Economic Plans

RFE/RL: Are the dividing lines any clearer when it comes to foreign policy? It doesn't seem that there are significant differences on Afghanistan, with no party calling for an early exit. Is it Europe, Britain's place in the world, where we see the real differences?

O'Sullivan:
The parties have not been very clear in their differences on issues like Afghanistan. That issue has never really been a major one in the campaign, although there are differences.

But the issue that has become important -- again, an issue that not the parties, but the public, has forced onto the agenda -- is to an extent the issue of Europe and the euro. This was an issue in which at the beginning of the campaign, Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats probably thought they had some kind of an advantage. Quite a lot of the British establishment, including Tony Blair, has favored entry into the European single currency. The Conservatives were isolated in strongly opposing it.

But the Greek crisis and the problems that the euro now faces means that the entire issue has shifted to the advantage of opponents. In the final debate this week Nick Clegg was on the defensive over Liberal Democrats' support for entry into the euro. And both the Conservatives with David Cameron and Labour with Gordon Brown -- who as chancellor had prevented the government and Tony Blair from joining the euro -- were able to claim they had been proved right by the monetary crisis in Europe.

RFE/RL: The parties have been reluctant to state exactly how they would tackle Britain's deficit -- in terms of spending cuts, possible tax increases. Did we learn any more from the leaders' debate on the economy, or are they likely to be coming clean by polling day?

O'Sullivan:
My educated guess would be that they will not want to discuss the issue at all, and if they are forced to discuss it by the media, they will take refuge in generalities.

There are two reasons for this. One is a reason that always exists, that if you specify a particular cut, you make an enemy of some important part of the population. So from a political standpoint, if you face an election, you probably don't want to make specific pledges to cut. You probably want to keep the argument general. The second reason is that the level of cuts that are going to be needed to stabilize Britain's fiscal position in coming years is very high indeed and will be very painful.

This week the governor of the Bank of England said in a private comment -- that became public -- that the party that won this election would become so unpopular that it might then be out of power for the next 30 years. Everybody recognizes that these things are, so to speak, general truths. So you have a clash. On the one hand, no one wants to be unpopular now as a result of specifying cuts, everybody knows that very major cuts are going to be coming, and that whoever makes them will be unpopular then. To that extent, Britain in this election campaign has been living in a spendthrift fools' paradise.

Who Are The Conservatives?

RFE/RL: The Conservatives began the year in a much better position in the polls. Why don't they have a stronger lead now?

O'Sullivan:
I think it's happened in part because people have been uncertain about what the Conservative Party stood for as a result of its move to the center and its desire to no longer appear to be what people called "the nasty party." But the point about being the nasty party was that this meant you were prepared to tell the nation unpleasant truths, like the fact that you were going to have to cut public spending very severely in order to stabilize Britain's finances.

The Conservatives in the last four years can't claim to have been any more honest and truthful about the state of the economy than Labour. They supported Labour's economic policy and Labour's belief that it had moved forward to secure prosperity. They didn't forecast there was going to be an economic and financial crisis, and therefore they didn't have the authority of having forecast these things, which would have given them a good basis to, in a sense, win support now.

RFE/RL: Nonetheless, Cameron did get a poll boost after this last debate. Can he still "seal the deal" in the final week before election day?

O'Sullivan:
I think the debate had three effects. It wasn't exactly a game-changer but it was a catalyst. It strengthened and reinforced existing tendencies.

The first is that the Conservatives have a small lead over other parties. They're winning something like 34, 35, 36 percent of the total popular vote. The second was that the debate seemed to confirm the fact that Labour was slipping back and in danger of being replaced by the Liberal Democrats as the main party of the left. And that again was the impression from last night. The third change was that what emerged in the debate as the important issues that people care about -- immigration and the euro -- they are issues that tend to benefit the Conservatives more than the other two parties.

Those three things mean we will probably see the Conservatives emerge as the largest single party.

Coalition Talk

RFE/RL: Other than the three main parties vying for seats, could other parties leave their mark on this election?

O'Sullivan:
This is a very important point that most of the polls are not discussing at the moment, nor are most of the pundits. And that is that 12-15 percent of the electorate say it will vote for other parties. Five percent say they'll vote for the UK Independence Party, the anti-European party, 2 percent for the fascist British National Party, 2 percent for the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, and there are other parties like the Greens and Northern Ireland parties.

Normally these parties get 3, 4, 5 percent. They're now getting 12, 13, 14, and 15 percent and it could well be that that will distort the election results in ways we can't yet see. Certainly David Cameron thinks so, as he's already put out feelers to the Scottish and Welsh nationalists to see if he can get their support in the event of a parliament in which he needs other parties to help him get a majority.

RFE/RL: In the event of a hung parliament, what are the likely scenarios? Would the Liberal Democrats be a coalition partner, or a supporter of a minority government?

O'Sullivan:
If the Conservatives emerge as the largest party in votes and seats, it will be hard for the Liberal Democrats not to say that they will deal with them. But they will demand a change to proportional representation in the voting system. Cameron himself has said he will discuss this, though he is opposed to it.

I would guess he would go further than that, that he would be prepared to offer something like a referendum down the road on the new voting system and that might be enough to win the Liberal Democrats and sustain a Conservative government. But a lot of his own party will be very opposed to any concession on proportional representation and they may deny him the right to form that coalition government or to form a minority government that rests on liberal support in parliament.

RFE/RL: Are there other likely scenarios?

O'Sullivan:
The other [scenario] is that after an initial attempt to do a deal with the Conservatives, Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats decide they can do a better one with Labour -- but not with the current prime minister, Gordon Brown, who is really unpopular with almost everybody, including many in his own party.

In those circumstances, Labour leaders apart from Brown would prevail on him to resign, and someone more acceptable to the Liberal Democrats would emerge as the new leader of the Labour Party over time, and there would be a Labour government or a Labour-Liberal coalition. That we should consider to be a real possibility, and one that is probably the single most likely result.

But in these circumstances, when you have any number of people jockeying for power [and] a number of small parties in parliament selling their support to the larger parties, it's very hard to know what's going to be the result. My guess is that this would be a temporary situation anyway, and such a government would not last more than two years.

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