It seems that Germans had little interest in the UK general election campaign. Rather, the birth of the Royal Baby dominated the headlines in the past week. Neither the debate about non-doms nor the bedroom tax has found any resonance in Germany. Although a few articles have been written in national newspapers about the leader’s TV debates, UKIP or the party’s campaign pledges, Germany’s sparse media coverage of the British election campaign has neither been exciting nor positive.
Indeed, the election campaign has focused mostly on domestic policy issues such as healthcare, immigration or the economy. None of these issues make it particularly interesting for continental Europe. Not even the Conservative promise of an in/out referendum on membership of the EU has been a game-changer in this campaign. The German media provided more coverage of UKIP’s campaign during the EU elections in May last year than they have during the current general election campaign – after all, everyone now knows who Nigel Farage is.
It seems that British politicians place less value on the UK’s relations with European partners, or the conflict with Russia, than they do on bedroom or mansion taxes. This inward-looking campaign has led the German media to comment that Britain is turning its back on world politics, becoming nothing more than a “province”. These harsh words reflect the negative perspective Germans have about this campaign, as Britain doesn’t seem to grasp its own importance for Europe and within the EU, retreating instead into debates about nationalism or regionalism. From a German perspective, this election campaign signals the considerable uncertainty the British people have about their national identity and more generally about the role of their country in the world. They are finally experiencing a more unstable and changing political landscape, which other European countries have been dealing with for several years now.
In particular, the uncertain outcome of this traditionally very stable and predictable party system has been a subject of discussion. The largely respected daily newspaper “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” entitled one of its articles “The Island of Vast Uncertainty“, asking whether the United Kingdom is becoming unpredictable, as neither the Tories nor Labour were able to impress the majority of the public. Whether smaller parties are going to be able to propose real alternatives also remains questionable: for Germany, the British Greens are not fit for leadership when promoting ecological radicalism, the SNP stirs up hatred towards London, whereas UKIP fiddles with nationalism and useless EU-bashing.
As for the candidates, none of them have really seemed to convince the German media. David Cameron has been blamed for his smarmy business style and lack of voter credibility: “The British Prime Minister dabbles in the campaign: he bores the youngest and eats hotdogs with a knife and a fork. This is proof for his opponents that he remains an arrogant snob”, comments “Die Welt”, a conservative daily newspaper owned by Axel Springer. Ed Milliband, whose leadership qualities were initially eyed with suspicion, has slowly become more credible with some successful speeches.
Interestingly enough, the reversals in both the Labour and Conservatives’ campaign strategies have hardly been picked up on. Labour has been rebranding itself as the party of fiscal responsibility, whereas the Tories have started to put forward traditional Labour arguments. Only the centre-left “Süddeutsche Zeitung” commented on this “political cross-dressing” in the campaign, labelling it as “slightly absurd”. Especially on the part of the Tories, this should primarily be viewed as a strategy for paving the way for future coalition negotiations rather than as proof of a genuine reversal of policies.
So what happens next? The outcome of the general election is likely to transform the political system in the UK, says the same paper. Despite the high probability of a hung Parliament, there is little pre-election talk of coalition. British politicians therefore make little sense to Germans, where it is usual for parties to openly discuss preferences in order to find consensus and pave the way for viable policies adapted to reality. This seems particularly surprising given that this general election may have consequences for the current British electoral system, which would now seem to be failing to adequately represent the choices of the British electorate.
Navos, like PLMR, is a member of the Global Communications Alliance, a network of independent communications agencies with a global outlook