With the next general election looming and the leaders about to embark on their final party conferences it is looking increasingly likely that the number of people choosing to vote will remain well below the levels of recent years. What exactly is it that makes the British stay away from the voting stations whilst our American counterparts are experiencing record levels in their turnouts and have a young charismatic leader in Barack Obama bringing hope to millions?
There was a time when the UK could have laid claim to being a country schooled up and genuinely interested in its politics and current affairs. Of course, these days had the luxury of being able to witness captivating, though not necessarily politically correct leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Harold Wilson take centre stage and vehemently argue for what they believed in. However, now the country is forced to stomach the bumbling character that is Gordon Brown and watch David Cameron brown-nose his way to the top of the ladder (whoever heard of an Oxford graduate from Eton being just one of the lads?)
Political parties in the UK used to actually stand for something at one point in time. One could readily identify Labour as left leaning, the Tories as right and the Liberal Democrats as somewhere in the middle. However, we have Tony Blair to thank with his introduction of ‘New Labour’ for the demise of political interest in this country for the time being. This most recent re-branding of what was once a democratic socialist party has seen them move into a much more central, and some might say meaningless, position. Furthermore, in its attempts to regain its status as the ruling party, the Conservatives have adopted a similar approach, attempting to make the party more attractive to young liberalist voters. The Lib Dems have, of course, been long regarded as very much a wasted vote with there being no real expectations that the party will seriously pose a challenge in the upcoming election. All this causes the three parties to very much be in the centre for political ideology with our current leaders turning the elections into an out and out popularity contest.*
This means of course that voters have very little to choose from in terms of differences between the factions which, therefore, will lessen the collective desire to actually go down to the polling stations on election day. Indeed, within the next year the population can expect to hear the same tired claims of tax decreases, rises in public spending and a general improvement in living standards under whichever regime can convince us that they in fact will, this time, bring about a new start. It is, generally, considered the case that the more individualistic the party beliefs the higher the proportion of voters in any given ballot. This is certainly prevalent in recent British elections where the turnout percentage has dropped alarmingly from close to 80% in 1974 to as low as 59% in 2001. Compare this to those on the other side of the Atlantic in which the most recent Presidential election resulted in the country experiencing its highest turnout since 1960 and general interest in political happenings amongst the population seems higher than ever.
So what exactly is it that has reignited the interest in a nation which previously was renowned for its low turnouts and general indifference to current affairs? Interest in elections from 2000 onwards reached before unheard of excitement as the nation was able to witness intensely close battles between two admittedly similar parties. Of course this cannot always be attributed to a charismatic leader (George W. Bush anyone?) but, in the form of Chicago State native Barack Obama, the US has found its man. America has always been a country which has prided itself on producing captivating candidates from the reassuring Roosevelt to the handsome JFK and, now, to Obama and his promise of a new hope. Indeed, another former President Bill Clinton has been in the news recently using his charms to ensure the release of the two journalists in North Korea.
Of course it is Obama who can be thanked for this new found optimism in America, despite questions beginning to arise over some of his policies. The new President maintained a mantra of change and more change without necessarily getting into specifics over his strategies to the adoration of growing numbers of watchers during the course of the 2008 campaign. To provide an example of the universal appeal of Obama, both he and Hilary Clinton held separate rallies to support their case to head the Democratic ticket in Puget Sound in early February of last year. Whilst Clinton could merely muster 3,000 supporters on her night; Obama was met with 20,000 frenzied fans and was forced to turn many more away*. Witnesses to his many speeches on any given night will testify how powerful and encapsulating he was without ever really recalling exactly what his stated aims for the country were. This is not to criticise Obama but to emphasise just how taken in the public were with his nationwide charm offensive. Notable in his rallies was the sheer number of children hanging on to his every word (something Gordon Brown could only ever dream to experience at one of his conferences). And that in itself is the current difference between the two countries with the youth in the UK preaching from the hymn sheet that politicians can never be trusted whereas the new generation of America are insisting that now is the time for positive change.
Looking at the number of celebrity endorsements for Obama over the past year highlights the unprecedented levels of interest generated by his one man campaign to bring politics back into the spotlight. Who else could bolster their candidacy to lead the country with backing from such figureheads as Oprah Winfrey and Robert De Niro? Would Gordon Brown ever be able to call on support from the likes of Stephen Fry or Sean Connery in his quest to regain his position as Prime Minister? In fact, the new President was even able to receive the backing from arguably the biggest hip hop star on the planet Jay-Z who has dedicated a number of his songs to Obama. This is coming from a man (Jay-Z) who made his living off a genre which has gained popularity through rejecting the government and all other systems and providing a new outlet through which teenagers can show their own desire to rebel: revealing just how in love America is with its political leaders at the moment. In stark contrast, we British are able to find empathy for our current frustrations with the current political climate through increasingly popular satirical programs such as ‘Mock the Week’ and ‘Have I got News for You’ where our beloved politicians are ridiculed on a consistent basis by the panels whether it is over policies or even just on appearances.
This brings me to something crucial in the differences between, particularly, Barack Obama and Gordon Brown. And that is image. Here we have one man who’s calm and reassuring smile during these hard times in the credit crunch could be found on billboards, magazines and television adverts during the campaign. Indeed, this was reminiscent of Roosevelt’s endearingly relaxing fireside conversations broadcast to the nation during the ‘Wall Street Crash’ many years ago – a mere coincidence perhaps? Contrast this to pictures we are forced to endure of a tired and harassed looking Brown being continuously mocked throughout the media and even enduring challenges to his leadership by his own supposed allies within the party. How can someone who has to fend of disputes within his own camp possibly be able to win over an entire nation in which 59% of people regard him as too lightweight for the job*? It has been reported that relations are strained between both Brown and Obama and who can blame the PM when his counterpart can rely on the outrage of millions when any sort of propaganda attack is made against him. This is in reference to the recent scandal in which a portrait of Obama depicted as ‘The Joker’ with the word ‘Socialism’ across it started appearing throughout America. Certainly Brown would never receive the same backing if anything similar occurred for him.
With Brown reportedly 13 to 15 percent behind Cameron in the polls it is looking more and more likely that the country will be welcoming a new Prime Minister come May. But the question is, does anyone really care?