Chile and Britain: left alliances, right futures

Chile’s two decades of political experience until the election of a centre-right president in 2010 hold lessons for Britain’s divided and wounded centre-left, says Justin Vogler.
Justin Vogler
11 May 2010

The temptation to see a Chilean parallel to British experience is one of the enduring motifs of feature commentary on the South American country. Andy Beckett, in his book Pinochet in Piccadilly: Britain and Chile’s Hidden History (Faber, 2002), explores the theme in a more substantial way by identifying a curious tendency for the two countries’ politics to echo one another. The events of 2010 - the election of the centre-right Sebastian Piñera as Chile’s new president on 17 January following two decades of centre-left governance, and now the accession to power of the Conservative Party’s David Cameron in London (in coalition with the Liberal Democrats) after thirteen years of Labour rule - offers a new twist on an old theme.

The echoes

The modern era offers several examples of such interplay. Most of the lasting consequences of Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular government of 1970-73 in Chile, for example, mirrored the legacies of Clement Attlee’s Labour government of 1945-51: among them state-owned extractive industries and free milk for schoolchildren. When Allende was replaced in a violent coup d’etat by General Augusto Pinochet, Chile became the laboratory for the kind of neo-liberal reforms later associated with Margaret Thatcher. And in the 2000s, Britain’s tame “New Labour” project ran parallel to the moderate reformism of Chile’s centre-left presidents, Ricardo Lagos (2000-06) and Michelle Bachelet (2006-10).  

The new similarities are, if anything, even starker. In January 2010 the business-friendly rightwinger Sebastian Piñera won power in Chile after the centre-left fielded a dour party heavyweight called Eduardo Frei (see “Chile’s political turn”, 20 January 2010). Frei, like Britain’s now-departed prime minister Gordon Brown, was a fixture of a ruling oligarchy who ignored repeated opinion-poll warnings that people did not want him as leader, and insisted on running because (in effect) it was “his turn”. Also like Brown in the British election campaign of April-May 2010, Frei complained bitterly in his fight against the showy Piñera that the media were focusing on image rather than “substance”.  

There is more. In both Chile and Britain, skewed electoral systems unfairly rewarded the first two political forces and punished the third. And in both elections, media-savvy young outsiders - respectively Marco Enríquez-Oninami and Nick Clegg - seized much of the media’s attention - in large part because they were articulate, sounded fresh and reasonable, and represented neither of the two “old parties”.  

The difference

An obvious difference between the two elections stands out, however. In contrast to what happened in Britain’s parliamentary vote, Chile’s second ballot in the presidential vote produced an incontrovertible and legitimate winner. Many will draw the lesson that multiparty elections are best decided with a run-off if no one wins a majority in a first round. This system guarantees a winner with a clear majority (even if it does not afford representation to smaller parties), and can be used in parliamentary elections (such as the French national assembly) as well as more commonly in presidential ones.

Some analysts in Britain are foreseeing an early second general election to clarify the result of the first (despite the agreement of the two parties in the new coalition to institute fixed-term parliaments). Many observers too argue that the imbalances of the result (including the Liberal Democrats receiving 23% of the vote but only 8% of the seats) makes the case for a proportional-representation system to replace the current first-past-the-post one, though this is far more likely to produce an inconclusive result. In any case, all electoral systems have their drawbacks; and the implications of the two electoral sagas of 2010 offers three other lessons.

The lessons

The first is that the image-substance dichotomy invoked by Eduardo Frei and Gordon Brown is misleading, if not bogus. It can in fact be argued that because politics in today’s globalised world is primarily about representation and identity, image is substance. Policy of course is important, but so is the image that a leader projects and the way that her or his image reflects, and helps mould, the collective identity and aspirations of the electorate.  

Chileans rejected Eduardo Frei not because his policies were wrong but because they saw him as a sour-faced old man who did not know how to smile. His persona just did not capture the culture of today’s Chile. Similarly Gordon Brown, for all his experience and competence, lost the British election because voters did not see themselves reflected in his perceived awkwardness, aloofness, and dour seriousness. There is nothing wrong with this and the stone-faced men of politics need to stop telling us that there is.  

The second (and related) lesson is that opinion-polls matter, and the politicians who ignore them and rely instead on their party standing and manifest destiny do so at their peril. In Britain, Gordon Brown became prime minister in June 2007 and figurehead of Labour’s re-election campaign in 2010 despite copious evidence that the vast majority of the public did not want him as their leader.

The polling evidence was clear from the outset of the British campaign that the probable outcome was the victory (outright or qualified by failure to win an overall majority) of a Conservative Party that most of the electorate rejected. Why then didn’t the centre-left parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats - neither of whom could alone win the election - join forces to avoid defeat?  

In part, the answer is Liberal Democrat reluctance to work with the unpopular Brown; in part, that party tribalism (and fatalism) are deeply ingrained in British political culture, where there is deep suspicion of electoral alliances (and coalition governments - which is one reason why the agreement on 11 May 2010 to form a Conservative-Lib Dem government is so remarkable).   

The third lesson of Chile and Britain’s elections lies here: that alliances should be formed before elections, not after them. This is common practice in countries such as Chile, and for a good reason: it means that electors know exactly who they are choosing, and don’t opt for Nick Clegg only to discover that they have voted for David Cameron. It also means that politicians can work through their differences and establish who they can (and cannot) work with before constitutional uncertainty forces them into tense negotiations.  

More important still, pre-election alliance-building means that like-minded coalition partners can avoid standing against each other in marginal seats. The fielding of unified Labour-Lib Dem candidates in the British election would have almost certainly produced a parliamentary majority that reflected the preferences of the majority of the electorate. It would also have meant that the two parties could have used their scarce resources more effectively and thus competed better with a Conservative Party bankrolled by the offshore millionaire Michael (Lord) Ashcroft

In Chile, it took a bloody coup and seventeen years of a murderous rightwing dictatorship before the Christian Democrats and Socialists finally accepted the necessity of working together in what became the Concertación. The same period of Conservative rule (1979-97) failed to generate the same coalescence in Britain; and now, after thirteen years of Labour single-party rule, the centre-left Liberal Democrats have chosen to join in government with the Conservatives. The social and economic consequences of this outcome might eventually convince the British centre-left to bury pride, transcend tribalism, and create a successful political project. Along the way, it might even have something to learn from Chile.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData