Echoes of UK elections past

As Britain prepares to vote on May 6, the election of 1992 is on many people's minds.

    Major was saved in 1992 because people trusted him to handle the fragile economy [AP]

    Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, has announced that the country's general election will take place on May 6.

    From the state of the economy to the personalities of the leaders involved, many people are comparing the campaign to the surprise result of the 1992 election.

    A prime minister regarded as a decent chap but not quite up to the job.

    An unpopular government fractured and disunited with talk of possible coups against the leader, and the country facing a huge financial crisis. 

    It could be a summary of Britain now, but it's actually a description just ahead of the 1992 UK election.

    There are some surprising parallels. 

    In depth

    In 1992, John Major had taken over as prime minister from Margaret Thatcher who had won three consecutive elections. Gordon Brown did the same in the wake of Tony Blair. 

    Neither leader had won a popular mandate. They were put into the top job without an election by their party, which held power. 

    Major was constantly fighting the splits, particularly among Thatcherites who believed he was moving away from her governing ethos and principles. 

    Brown has fought a number of challenges from those still loyal to Blair. Both went into elections behind the opposition. And like 1992, this election result is not a foregone conclusion.

    These uncanny connections are giving Brown's ruling Labour party hope, fuelling a belief that like Major, the polls can be upset; that an incumbent government can come from behind and win even in an economic downturn. 

    At the time, it seemed an unlikely victory clawed from an expected defeat, and the established leader was preferred to the untried challenger by the voters.

    Flawed argument

    But here's a word of caution. Historic parallels are never exact. And this one is flawed for several reasons.

    Firstly, David Cameron, the current opposition Conservative leader, the man who wants to be prime minister, is not an obvious electoral liability. 

    His approval rating is the highest of any of the UK party leaders but Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader in 1992, had an approval rating in the minus range. 

    Cameron's approval rating is the highest of any of the UK party leaders [EPA]

    Kinnock dragged down the Labour vote. People didn't see him as prime minister.

    Major's premiership was seen as a significant change from the Thatcher years, bringing a softer "one nation" Conservatism to the country.

    It gave the country a feeling that there had been change. And that's the message being preached day in, day out by Cameron.

    Brown is seen simply as the next in line for New Labour despite all his protestations that he's different from Blair.

    And then there are the polls. They had the Conservatives neck and neck with Labour for much of 1992, falling behind only in the weeks before the election. 

    This time around, Labour has been below the Conservatives in the polls for more than two years.

    The closest they've been is just four points behind, the gap at times has been as big as 20. 

    Fragile economy

    Famously on the night of the 1992 election, the exit polls declared the result too close to call. They were seriously wrong. The Conservatives won with a working majority. 

    Major was saved because people trusted him and his party to handle the fragile economy. It's what Gordon Brown is banking on as well.

    While we're talking about dates, the electoral maths makes the Conservative party's hopes of winning even a one seat majority seem remote.

    They have to win 117 extra seats, a swing to them that hasn't been seen since the 1930s.

    And yet, like 1992, this might be a good election to lose. After the Conservatives won in 1992, the cuts they had to make to recover from the financial crisis led to widespread public disillusionment and anger. 

    When they went to the polls in 1997, they were routed and have remained out of government since.

    Perhaps historical parallels aren't always welcome.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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