There are certainly lessons that can be learnt from the general elections in the United Kingdom, whose results just a few days ago have shocked contesters, voters and pollsters alike.
The Singapore governmental and election system is very similar to the British Westminster system. Indeed we inherited it from them. However, over the years, due to changes introduced by the PAP and the differences in our political landscape, a like for like comparison in not possible. That said, there still parallels that can be drawn and examples by which we can take heed.
British politics has long been dominated by two main parties – Labour and Conservatives. Labour is seen largely as left-leaning while the Conservatives are seen mostly as a right wing group. In recent years, the Liberal Democrats have become a dominant face as well and in the 2010 general election, entered the corridors of power by forming an unlikely coalition with the Conservatives who were then unable to secure a majority.
If GE 2011 was Singapore’s watershed elections, GE 2015 was Britain’s watershed election. This election saw how the Lib Dems, which swept in as a power-broker in 2010, decimated in just five years.
It also saw how the Scottish National Party, which only had 6 seats in 2010 storming in with a record 56 seats.
It also saw the Conservatives (also known as the Tories), largely viewed as the “nasty party”, consolidate power and Labour’s popularity falling to an all time low. The smaller parties such as the Green Party has also managed to raise its profile while UKIP, better known for its racist outlook, have disturbingly managed to garner four million votes.
Like Singapore, it would be silly not to give the advent of social media some credit for the surprising election results. While the UK has never had the reputation of gagging its opposition, the smaller parties definitely benefitted from having a wider audience as a result of the Internet and its associated technology.
What struck me the most, however, was how ripe and ready Britain was for change. In a series of election related documentaries made by BBC’s Panorama, it was clear that the average Joe was sick and tired of old assurances and broken promises. This is something that resonated with me, as it sounded remarkably similar to sentiments echoed by Singaporeans as well.
As the results of the election show, politicians fail to listen to the voice of the people at their peril.
Traditionally, Labour stood for the working class and the unions while the Tories stood for the elite. Labour did not seek to reinvent itself – or if it did, it was not sufficiently obvious – and relied on old tricks without seeming to adapt to the new economic circumstances.
The Tories, on the other hand, have been seeking to reinvent their image ever since they came to power by way of the coalition government in 2010. David Cameron famously defended gay marriage and has also made concerted efforts to develop a working class conservative image while dumping down its elitist outlook.
What is clear, however, is that the parties that stood firmly for something by correctly understanding and gauging the electorate were those that made the most headway.
To a certain extent, UKIP managed the same. Although it did not win more than one seat due to the first past the post voting system, it did manage to garner a staggering four million votes. They appealed to the sector of Britain that truly feared immigration and were unafraid to state so. While we might not agree with their manifesto, they were clear in their stand.
The SNP also correctly identified its niche and campaigned relentlessly to win a record 56 seats, up from 6 in 2010.
The parties that fared the worst were the Lib Dems and Labour – the parties that appealed to no one and appeared to stand for nothing. At the risk of simplifying things, the Lib Dems, who had much more in common with Labour, got into bed with the Conservatives for short term gains in power, but lost its vision and with that its support base.
Labour, hampered by complacency and its inability to engage effectively with its old support base, now became a party that represented no one. Labour had “allowed themselves to be portrayed as moving backwards from the principles of aspiration and inclusion that are the success of any successful progressive political project”. In short, they were no longer relevant.
Singapore’s political landscape and social circumstances have also altered. While the factors leading up to the change may not be the same, the effects of ignoring the turning tide will lead to the same result. The advent of the Internet, a more globalised citizenry, rising costs of living and an influx of immigrants are all factors that have shifted the political mood in Singapore.
While we can silence the odd blogger like Amos Yee, sue detractors like Roy Ngerg, shut down news sites such as The Real Singapore or demand apologies from Alex Au, there is still the silent majority that will have a voice come the next Singapore general elections. What the silent majority will say depends very much on the government’s ability to gauge the mood of the electorate.
Will cosmetic adjustments be sufficient to win long term? Will suppressing the online media outlets be only a short-term gag on criticism? What are the long-term goals? What is the strategy that enables longevity?
What has been startling clear in the UK elections is that complacency does no one favours. Stand for nothing and you get nothing come polling day. Be plugged in. Genuinely listen. Engage effectively. Think long term. And above all, stay relevant to the needs of the people.
As the Telegraph so aptly summed it up, “As befits an English pragmatist, Mr Cameron caught up with the national mood, just in time. Labour didn’t. So whom does it stand for now?”