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Lessons from across the Pond

BY JONATHAN GROVES | APRIL 29, 2010 7:30 AM

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The British election is heating up.

While Conservative Party leader David Cameron may have positively rebranded modern conservatism in the United Kingdom (all while trying to compare himself with President Obama), in the past few months he has squandered his lead.

Currently, the Conservatives hold a narrow lead over the Liberal Democrats, with the Labour Party in third place. The election is scheduled for May 6.

All this means the Conservatives have seen its seemingly easy win slide toward a situation in which it may have to share power with the Lib Dems or deal with another five years of Prime Minister Gordon Brown. This is a bit of a rosy projection, given that the Lib Dems leader, Nick Clegg, will get to decide who his party will join in a coalition.

But it isn’t just an interesting election. It also has holds some interesting lessons for American politics.

First, thank God we don’t have a three-party political system.

Currently, British businesses are shaky in the coming years because of the predicted hung Parliament. UI political-science Professor John Conybeare said businesses are worried because coalition governments (the result of hung Parliaments) often result in stalled legislation.

Conybeare said that because the Lib Dems haven’t ruled Britain for approximately 100 years (when they were just the Liberal Party) no one is quite sure what kind of liberals they will actually be.

British businesses are wondering if the Lib Dems are pro-business classical liberals or if they are the leftists that we Americans call liberals.

Next, some advice for Democrats: The Labour government is, frankly, tired after having ruled Britain since 1997. Adding the parliamentary-expenses scandal (which actually affected every party) with Brown’s fiscally irresponsible ways, and you have a British public that is worried sick about public finances and ready to take it out on the Labour Party. There are similar parallels with Democrats and their spending habits. Democrats are expected to take major hits in this November’s election. They should alter their irresponsible spending policies.

Now for the Republicans’ advice: Conservatism is conservatism. Many pundits fault Cameron for being fuzzy on some of the issues and not looking substantially different from Brown. However, pollsters have concluded that Cameron and the Conservatives see poll increases when he talks about tax cuts. The lesson: You can’t beat a liberal by being as liberal as he or she is. Stay on message.

Britain had its first televised election debates this election season (America’s first were in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon) and these have afforded Clegg a chance to present himself as a fresh alternative to Brown and Cameron. Given the poll numbers, the British have enjoyed him as a third option in the debates, but most can only know so much about Clegg given the short time he has had in the national spotlight.

This interesting note brings me to my final piece of advice for the American public: Make sure you study up on prospective candidates long before they gain the spotlight. Since Clegg is so new to most of the British public, one would have to think many Britons know little about his politics.

Yet if Clegg were to compose part of the government, he would ultimately control much of the government’s policies.

This problem of having an unknown politician burst onto the scene reminds me of Obama. Would Americans, if they understood who he was before 2008, have elected Obama as the British might elect Clegg?

Here’s hoping the British get it right.


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