LONDON — British voters go to the polls today, and it appears likely that they will boot out the party in power for only the second time in 31 years. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives ousted a Labor government in May 1979, and Tony Blair’s "New Labor" party ousted the Conservatives in May 1997.
Thatcher’s party held on for 18 years and Blair’s for 13 years in large part because the opposition indulged its extremes to the point of becoming unelectable. But long tenure tends to fray even the most successful party. Intra-party feuds become poisonous: The Conservatives quarreled over Thatcherism for a dozen years, and Labor was nearly immobilized by the bitter enmity between Blair and his rival and successor Gordon Brown.
My impression, watching from abroad and this week in Britain, is that in the course of this campaign voters have, to varying extents, rejected both of the two major parties and the third party Liberal Democrats, as well.
Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s strength was that during his 10 years as chancellor of the exchequer, with something like total control over economic and domestic policy, he seemed to manage the macroeconomy well.
But he also presided over a slow and insidious expansion of government spending and employment. When the financial crisis plunged Britain into recession, his reputation for economic management was rendered inoperative. His performance in the three televised debates — the first in British history — made me feel sorry for him.
So did his off-camera, on-mike description of a 66-year-old Labor voter as "a bigoted woman." It betrayed the attitude of left politicians who foster a culture of dependence on government but have contempt for the values of the presumed beneficiaries.
The big story for most of the official campaign period was the rise of the Lib Dems as a result of their leader Nick Clegg’s performance in the first debate on April 15. Clegg damned both parties for mismanagement and bickering — something you can do when your party holds only 67 of 650 seats in the House of Commons.
But the polls indicate that the Lib Dem surge has ebbed. Clegg’s call for legalization of illegal immigrants hurt him in the third debate and so did his past support for Britain to drop the pound and join the euro — a position that’s hard to defend when the Greek fiscal crisis is putting the euro at risk.
That leaves the Conservative Party, led by David Cameron since December 2005, in the lead. Cameron rebranded the Tories as a green party and one that would share the proceeds of growth — that is, until the recession hit. Now the budget deficit tops 10 percent of gross domestic product, and Cameron and his party have been skittish about just how much in the way of spending cuts a Conservative government would impose.
Interviews with voters in Watford, an outer London suburb where the three parties seem about evenly matched, suggest that voters in Britain, as in America, are angry with politicians of both major parties. That anger found a focus when the Daily Telegraph last year exposed multiple abuses of expense accounts by members of Parliament. It’s a problem when you charge the voters for building a moat around your castle or for buying manure for your farm.
The more profound lesson from Britain, though, is that even in the toughest economic times voters do not have an appetite for an ever-larger government. Rather to the contrary. As Tony Blair’s New Labor morphed into something like Old Labor under Gordon Brown, voters started looking for alternatives.
The way the district boundaries are drawn gives Labor an advantage — it is not going to lose light-voting working-class seats. But the Conservatives’ lead in the polls makes it likely they will win more seats than Labor, in which case Cameron will form a government.
The big question is whether Labor and Lib Dems will together win enough seats to deny Cameron an absolute majority and hold one themselves. If so, they may force another election in six months or next year. If not, Conservatives might hold on for four or five years.
Cameron changed the image of his party, as Blair did before him. The difference is that Cameron has aroused nothing like the enthusiasm and hope that Blair did 13 years ago. Hard slogging is ahead for Britain, whatever the voters do.