I'm not sure what I can tell you about the British elections except that Labour will win and nobody will care. Mainly, we'll all be glad the whole tedious business has ended. Campaigns here are mercifully short, six weeks from the time the prime minister calls an election until the actual vote, but this time it's been a long, long six weeks.
Even the press have had a hard time churning out their customary sneers, innuendo, distortions, and fantasies. They've barely bothered to concoct the usual hysterical warnings of imaginary dangers if the wrong man gets elected or outlandish promises of innumerable benefits if the right one wins. When British reporters can't stay interested long enough to get hysterical, you're dealing with a seriously boring situation.
The hacks can't get around one glaring fact. The Conservatives haven't got a hope in hell and the Liberal Democrats have somewhat less.
A poll today, the day before the election, puts Labour's support at 41 percent of the voters, the Conservatives at 27 percent, and the Lib Dems at 23 percent. Twenty-seven percent is less than the lowest point in the polls the Tories reached in the two previous elections, in 1997 and 2001. They lost both. Twenty-three percent is better than the Lib Dems have done in any election since 1985, but it's still behind the Tories. We might dislike the Lib Dems less than we used to, but we still don't like them.
The Conservatives have two serious problems. For one thing, they've lost most of their issues --Tony Blair and Labour, using the triangulation strategy Dick Morris devised for Bill Clinton, stole them. For another, ever since Margaret Thatcher was forced out in 1990, most of the Tory upper ranks have been idiots. Michael Howard, the latest Tory leader, seems to have a working brain, but he can't think for all of them, tempting though it must be for him to try.
And what he gains in intelligence, he loses in personal appeal. His alleged colleague and undoubted rival, Anne Widdecombe, once famously described him as ``having something of the night about him.'' Nobody was quite sure what the hell she was talking about, but the phrase stuck, and it does capture Howard's rather Nixonian lack of likability. It also might evoke another problem for Howard: some suspect Widdecome was referring obliquely to his heritage as a Romanian Jew, a double-barreled description that one strata of the Tories would rank along with pederast-puppy-killer as the epitome of not our sort.
The Liberal Democrats have neither of the Tory problems. Their policies are clearly distinct from Labour's. They promise higher taxes, ever-growing state intervention in the economy, and an appeasement-based foreign policy revolving around the principle that in any conflict between the civilized world and the grimmer sinkholes of the third world, civilization is wrong. Those are not Labour positions. They used to be, but Labour abandoned them when it got tired of losing elections. Seizing on policies an opponent dropped because the voters couldn't stomach them seems flawed, somehow.
Charles Kennedy, the Lib Dem leader, at least is a likable sort. Everybody agrees he's one of those blokes you'd be happy to run into down at the pub and have a drink with. Everybody also agrees he's one of those blokes you're entirely likely to run into down at the pub having a drink, or a series of them. Parliament has a fine tradition of tired and emotional members, but the last one to become prime minister was Winston Churchill, and he had Hitler as an enemy and Stalin for an ally. Nobody begrudged him the occasional eye-opener. Kennedy may get less slack.
So Tony Blair and Labour have got an open field ahead of them. More or less. They might stumble over the war in Iraq before they reach the goal. So far as I can tell, the only people in the U.K. who still wholeheartedly support the war are Blair, eight or ten of his close associates, and me, and I'm not a citizen yet and can't vote.
But opinion on the war is disjointed. Polls show a majority of the electorate think it was a mistake. On the other hand, those who say it will determine how they vote are in single digits. People are paying more attention to the economy, to crime, to the state of social services, especially schools and the National Health Service, and a host of minor, highly local issues.
Now that I think about it, those local issues may cause Labour some grief, too, precisely because they are local. National polls, concerned with national issues, don't pick up on them. But a substantial number of the voters in Upper Clot may be seriously pissed off about the removal of the old horse-watering troughs from the town square. Sputum Dells could be furious about the inexplicable refusal of the police to arrest that madwoman on Spasm Way who obviously has been poisoning the badgers who live down her lane. If Upper Clot and Sputum Dells are now represented by Labour, and the voters retaliate against their members of Parliament, Labour could suffer some nasty and unexpected reverses.
It sounds absurd for a national government to concern itself with the state of repairs to local primary schools or whether cameras should be used to enforce speed limits on country lanes. It is. But for all practical purposes, the U.K. has no local governments. Rudimentary town and borough councils exist, but their function is more administrative than legislative or executive. A few years ago, firefighters in London went on strike. The national government called out military units to provide emergency fire-fighting services. The national government had to act because it was the relevant authority. Parliament sets the wages for fire brigades. Try to imagine Congress negotiating with the New York City fire department. Or, for that matter, the Valdosta, Georgia, fire department.
If the national government is going to decide how much the fireman in Upper Clot gets paid, it's taking the risk the voters in his immediate family may not like the decision it comes up with, and they may act accordingly. A fireman who's got enough relatives could tip the balance in a close race just by telling the family they can't afford the usual holiday at Blackpool this year.
For that reason -- among others; we haven't touched on some hot-button issues like immigration -- it's not easy handicapping a U.K. election with any confidence. In 1992, the voters returned the Tories to power under John Major. Fair enough, but the voters in Bath got rid of their member of Parliament, Chris Patten. He was a leading light among the Tories and one of the few in the Thatcherite-dominated party who seemed unlikely to throw your grandmother out of her council flat to make a point about the superiority of private property over government-funded housing. I never saw a plausible explanation of why the good people of Bath decided they'd had enough of the Right Honourable Mr Patten. But now that I've been here a while, I suspect an unconscionable delay replacing some cobble stones in the town centre might well have done him in. If Tony Blair finds himself leaving No 10 Downing Street in a hurry Friday, try to find out how the vote went in Sputum Dells.
Larry King is an American-born expatriate I know who lives in London. He is not the talk show host, nor is he the author of The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. From time to time, he contributes a Letter From Europe to my column. Below, I list the letters that have appeared so far.
Larry King's Letter from Europe: Very Little Happens in August (Sep. 6, 1999)
Larry King's Letter from Europe (Feb. 2, 2000)
Larry King Takes Over The Column: Spring in London (April 10, 2000)
Of Twits And Things (July 24, 2000)
Larry King on Eurostar (March 19, 2001)
Joe Brancatelli and Larry King on Rail Travel (March 26, 2001)
Larry King on Foot and Mouth and British Tourism (April 2, 2001)
Larry King on 9/11 (Oct. 15, 2001)
Larry King on Lords and Dukes And Journalists (Feb. 11, 2002)
Larry King on Presidential Greatness (March 4, 2002)
Larry King on British Broadcasting (March 11, 2002)
Larry King on England, the U.S. and the Middle East (April 29, 2002)
Larry King on the case FOR the war with Iraq (March 24, 2003)
Larry King Deconstructs A Blunkett Remark (August 19, 2004)
Larry King On The British Election (May 9, 2005)
Larry King On 7/8 Bombing (July 10, 2005)
Larry King: Bye Bye Blair (May 28, 2007)
Larry King: Thoughts On The State of Journalism and Teaching (January 18, 2008)
Larry King Letter from London: American Ex-Pats Vote (May 19, 2008)