Britain’s Silent Election

Other peoplersquos elections are usually baffling and boring, which is certainly true of the United Kingdomrsquos coming vote on May 7 indeed, many Britons share the sentiment. The longest election campaign in UK history has been strikingly short of focus. Nonetheless, the campaign contains three important pointers for other Western democracies.

The first pointer is that Bill Clintonrsquos famous campaign slogan from 1992 ndash “Itrsquos the economy, stupid” ndash is itself stupid, or at least insufficient. If it was the economy that would decide Britainrsquos election, Prime Minister David Cameron would be leading a much more confident campaign.

For the past 18 months or so, the UK has had Europersquos fastest-growing economy, and at times has even outpaced the United States. The unemployment rate, now 5.6%, has fallen to less than half that of the eurozone.

But favorable economic indicators have made little difference to the standing of Cameronrsquos Conservatives in opinion polls, and have done nothing to save their coalition partner, the centrist Liberal Democrats, from a severe slump. Too many voters, it seems, still do not feel better off, and for good reason: average incomes have barely begun to rise, following seven painful years.

So the right slogan in this campaign might be, “Itrsquos the living standards, stupid.” Or, more accurately (though more cumbersomely): “Itrsquos the perception of future living standards, stupid, and the perception of fairness surrounding those prospects.” Either way, the point is straightforward: statistical recovery is not enough.

This seems to be why, although it has only a small lead of 2-4 percentage points in the polls, the center-left Labour Party has had the best of the campaign. Labourrsquos leader, Ed Miliband, was widely derided last year as weak, unconvincing, and unlikeable but, perhaps benefiting from low expectations, he has looked steadily more credible and statesmanlike as the campaign has gone on.

The second pointer is that foreign affairs, though rarely a major factor in any countryrsquos national elections, can contribute to a general sense of unease about political leadership. It had been widely assumed that the UKrsquos continued membership in the European Union would be a leading campaign issue, given the rise of the UK Independence Party and Cameronrsquos pledge that, if re-elected, he would hold a referendum on the question by 2017.

Indeed, Cameronrsquos promise is arguably the most consequential issue at stake in the British election: if he remains Prime Minister, there will be a referendum if Miliband takes over, there will not be. Britainrsquos strategic future rests on this choice.

Yet there has been near-silence on this choice. Both UKIP and its charismatic leader, Nigel Farage, have slipped in opinion polls and have struggled to get attention. More important, Cameron has said almost nothing about either Europe or immigration and, though Milibandrsquos clearly stated pro-EU stance has endeared his candidacy to many business leaders, he, too, has played down the issue.

Perhaps this reflects my own bias, but I suspect that this evasiveness on the part of Britainrsquos main political parties has weakened support for them, by diminishing their status as valid representatives of the country. Voters may not list Europe or foreign affairs among the main issues that concern them. But the daily news about migrants dying in the Mediterranean, the war in Ukraine, Greecersquos possible default, the turmoil in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Gaza, Iranrsquos nuclear program, and more heighten votersrsquo awareness that their country needs to be defended robustly, by a government with a coherent foreign policy.

And yet Britainrsquos defense forces are weaker than at any time since the 1930s. The general perception is that Britainrsquos voice in international affairs is less influential than at any time since then, too. Whatever voters think Britainrsquos foreign and defense policy should be, they believe their country should have one.

The final pointer of the UK election may partly reflect the vacuum in national leadership that such silence epitomizes. Whatever the result of the election, the most striking phenomenon will be the rise of regionalism, most notably a surge in support for the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP).

No one can predict whether the SNP might end up in the paradoxical position of joining a coalition with Labour to govern a country that it was campaigning to leave in last Septemberrsquos independence referendum. But the SNPrsquos likely electoral gain is too large to be explained by secessionist sentiment alone. The party appears to be attracting many people who voted against independence but who want more regional autonomy and a stronger voice for Scotland in the Westminster Parliament.

The absence of a broader “feel good” factor from economic recovery, resentment of economic inequality, mistrust of national political leaders, and greater faith in localism: these are the main features of Britainrsquos election campaign. Whether or not they make Miliband the next prime minister (in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, or both), they are likely to characterize elections elsewhere as well in the years ahead.

Bill Emmott, a former editor-in-chief of The Economist, is executive producer of a new documentary, “The Great European Disaster Movie.”

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.