British voters get ready to throw the bums out

A deal with the Lib-Dems could have ramifications for reform in Canada

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The Gazette, Wednesday, May 5, 2010

After 13 years of Labour government, the dominant theme of the British election campaign was always going to be change. But the campaign ending with tomorrow's election has moved beyond "time for a change" to "throw the bums out."

The tipping point was Prime Minister Gordon Brown's astonishing gaffe in calling a woman "bigoted" after an arranged encounter where they discussed the hot-button issue of immigration.

How do we know this? Well, he was wearing a microphone, and he and his staff forgot it was still hot .

"That was a disaster," he said, adding that his staff "should never have put me with that woman." Then he added: "Whose idea was that?"

Even worse than the "bigoted" comment, he reminded voters of their working nightmare - the boss from hell.

Well, an election is the voters' opportunity to fire the boss, and that's the likely outcome tomorrow. Competitive with the Conservatives at the outset of the campaign, Labour plunged to third place in most polls after Brown's disastrous comments. One poll actually placed Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats in a narrow lead over the Tories in the mid-30s, with Labour lagging in the mid-20s. But most polls put Conservative leader David Cameron ahead of the Lib-Dems and Labour by about six points, within reach of victory, but probably short of a majority. In the 646-seat British Parliament, the magic number after electing a speaker is 323.

Welcome to the Canadian syndrome, a minority outcome in a majoritarian Westminster system.

The first-past-the-post system favours the old-line parties that designed the electoral map. It is possible, though not likely, that Brown could finish third in the popular vote, but still win a plurality of seats, which would give him the right to face Parliament, and try to arrange a coalition with Clegg.

And Clegg's price for doing business with either Labour or the Conservatives would be simple and sweeping - an ironclad promise in the throne speech of partial proportional representation.

The implications of that for the Canadian Parliament, now in its third successive minority House, are obvious. If the Westminster system on which ours is based is capable of parliamentary reform, then it follows that ours is, too. A "hung Parliament" at Westminster would be a very good day for Jack Layton and the NDP.

The Libs-Dems have surged in the campaign because Clegg is new and different - a Eurobrit of Dutch and Russian parents, married to a Spaniard, whose children have Spanish names. And in the three televised debates, Clegg won just by showing up. The television stage levelled the playing field among the three leaders. He won by exceeding expectations and by reminding voters that the old parties were just that - old.

As for Cameron, he has successfully rebranded the Conservatives as a party of the mainstream rather than one of privilege. In the closing days of the campaign, Cameron has been asking for a majority so that Britain can have a stable government to do what must be done. It isn't a pretty picture. Britain's deficit to debt ratio is 13 per cent - in Greek territory. About half the country's economic activity is related to government. Unemployment is a persistent eight per cent. The immigration issue is volatile, especially in a weak economy, and not because of white Europeans coming in as members of the New Europe, but rather because of concern over Africans and South Asians.

For Brown, seeking his first election to 10 Downing St. after inheriting the prime ministry from Tony Blair, the prospect of defeat must be especially galling.

There are striking similarities between Brown's personal trajectory and Paul Martin's. Both served for three terms as finance minister, and chafed in the role of No. 2. For the longest time, they made a strong team with their prime ministers, Blair and Jean Chrétien, who were in no hurry to leave. When they finally attained the summit, voters were reminded that a capable No. 2 isn't necessarily cut out to be No. 1. In the human-resource industry, they see this every day.

But finally, Brown's problem isn't so much that he was not made for the role. It is that he's the tired face of a tired government. And there is nothing, nothing at all, to be done about that.

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