05/04/2005 - Analysis
On 5th May next, 44,180, 243 British citizens will go to ballot to elect the 646 members of the House of Commons, the Lower Chamber in Parliament. On 5th April last 24 hours after the date that had originally been planned due the death of Pope Jean-Paul II Prime Minister Tony Blair asked Queen Elizabeth II to dissolve the present Parliament; this will take place on 11th April.
The British Political System
Parliament comprises two Chambers, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The House of Commons is elected for a period that may not exceed five years. In reality it is rare for a government to finish its mandate. That was the case however in 1964 and 1997; on both occasions it was to the detriment of the ruling power. In most cases governments opt for shorter mandates and without waiting for the end of their term in office they choose to call on their countrymen to go to ballot at the date which is most in their favour.
The United Kingdom is divided into 646 constituencies and the vote in the general elections is a single majority vote that takes place in one round. This system that has been named « First past the post » in the ilk of the language employed in horse racing, is unequal in the sense that it greatly favours the candidate who takes the lead in the election whether he/she has won 80% or 20% of the votes. Hence during the last general elections on 7th June 2001 the Labour Party that won 40.7% of the vote won 62.5% of the seats in the House of Commons. This system is also catastrophic for the "small" parties who cannot aspire to winning seats unless their votes are geographically concentrated, which in the UK, only happens in the case of the nationalist parties in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
Anyone over the age of 18 can stand in the general elections except for members of the clergy of the Church of England, Scotland and Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church, some top ranking civil servants, soldiers, policemen, judges and legal officers and ambassadors. Any candidate must, according to electoral law, give the running of his campaign to an electoral agent whom he may or may not choose to pay.
At present nine political parties are represented in the House of Commons.
- the Labour Party (Lab), Prime Minister Tony Blair's party, in power since 1997, has 413 MP's;
- the Conservative Party (Cons), main opposition party led by Michael Howard since 6th November 2003, has 166 MP's;
- the Liberal Democrats (LibDem), party led by Charles Kennedy and as the third political party in the country, the eternal victim of British bipartisanship, has 52 MP's;
- the Scottish National Party (SNP), nationalist party lost seven points during the last elections at the Scottish Parliament on 1st May 2003. Led by John Swinney, has five MP's;
- the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), a Irish Protestant Party led by David Trimble, has six MP's;
- Plaid Cymru (PC), Welsh Nationalist Party that came second in Wales during most recent regional elections on 1st May 2003, has four MP's;
- the Democratic Ulster Party (DUP), a Protestant party led by Ian Paisley who took the lead in Northern Ireland in the regional general elections on 1st May 2003, has five MP's;
- Sinn Fein (SF), Irish republican and nationalist led by Gerry Adams, has four MP's;
- the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a Catholic party from Northern Ireland, has three MP's.
What is at stake in the general elections?
After having beaten the record of longevity for a Labour Prime Minister - a record previously held by Clement Attlee (1945-1951) - Tony Blair is determined to offer the Labour Party its third consecutive victory which would be a first in the kingdom's history. "I shall go to the Front Line," he declared on 22nd February in an interview with the News of the World, "what ever the problems and pressures are this work provides me with immense pleasure and satisfaction and I intend to continue. Times are hard but I am a harder person than I was six or seven years ago. We've taken some blows but we can live with them and that is what I'm doing."
The Prime Minister, moderniser of the Labour Party in the 1990's and craftsman of the party's return to power after 18 years in the desert, now wants more than ever to establish his party, re-christened New Labour, at the centre of the political arena promising "prosperity for all." In his declaration announcing the date of the general elections on 5th April, Tony Blair emphasised his desire to continue his activities as head of the country, that he said he was "proud" of doing. He also declared that he wanted to "establish economic stability, continue investment in public services and increase the minimum wage." He promised in a third mandate to concentrate his efforts on healthcare, education, the family and pensioners.
Labour can be proud of its economic results. Indeed after eight years of Labour government the UK, contrary to its two main European neighbours, France and Germany, is experiencing a period of prosperity: the growth rate is high (3.1%) and the unemployment rate that lay 4.7% in January 2005, according to the International Labour Bureau is dropping constantly and is at its lowest level for 29 years. "If the country understood the reality of its economic projects it would never bring the Conservatives back into power," maintained the Prime Minister when he spoke of the Tory economic programme that in his opinion would inevitably lead to a worsening of public services.
The Labour programme in these general elections is focussed on the economy and public services. Gordon Brown, who has been qualified by Tony Blair as the "best Chancellor of the Exchequer (name given to the Economy Minister in the UK) for the last fifty years, has been the craftsman of continuous growth since 1997, should have an important role to play in the electoral campaign that will be led by Alan Milburn, the most loyal of the Prime Minister's allies. In November 2004, Gordon Brown revealed a major reform programme - the Welfare State at the service of the family - the application of which (in favour of children, parents, handicapped, the aged and the poorest) will however be very expensive. The Chancellor of the Exchequer will rely on the forecasts of major growth in 2005 to finance this programme and is also betting on the increase in fiscal revenue recorded in January last.
Economists however do not fail to mention some threats that weigh over the kingdom's economy: the strength of the pound, high petrol prices, inflationary pressure, exhaustion of household consumption and the slowing of activity in services, a key sector in British growth. At the beginning of March the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Commission did in fact advise the UK to reduce its expenses if it wanted to respect the discipline of budgetary rule mentioned by Gordon Brown himself in 1997. The latter did however defy these recommendations. "The UK has to cast aside any suggestion that would reduce investment in our infrastructures and our public services, whether these come from the European Commission, the IMF or anyone else for that matter," he declared.
In terms of foreign policy the war in Iraq seriously damaged Tony Blair's image amongst public opinion which in the majority was against any military intervention. The polemic over arms of massive destruction, that were finally never found, as well as the suicide of government expert David Kelly severely discredited the Prime Minister's word. But the latter takes entire responsibility for the choices he made although this means he might provoke his own electorate. "With regard to Iraq I had to decide: is the world better without Saddam Hussein or not? At the end of the day I think it is better without him but I never disrespected those who had a different point of view. This decision was incredibly difficult but I believe I chose the right path," he declared. Eight thousand British soldiers have been deployed in Iraq, eighty-six of them have died since the start of the intervention.
In his constituency of Sedgefield near Newcastle upon Tyne in the north east of England Tony Blair, who has been an MP there since 1983, will have to face, amongst others, several difficult candidates. The first will be Reg Keys whose son Thomas was killed in Iraq in 2003 just a few days before his 21st birthday. "Responsibility for having led this country into an illegal war must be taken," declared the candidate, who is supported by a group of journalists and other personalities. David Shyler is also challenging the Prime Minister - Shyler a former member of the secret services accuses Tony Blair of having lost his credibility and blames him for the "lies about the Iraq war."
On 30th March last 17 Labour MP's signed a declaration in which they maintain their opposition to the conflict and say that "they will do everything in their power to end the occupation of Iraq." It remains that the war has become of secondary interest to the electorate over the last few weeks and that those disappointed by Labour, like the opponents of the British intervention in Iraq do not appear to be ready to vote for the Tories who are still suffering from their image of an ageing party that is not in line with modern society.
The Conservative Party, led by Michael Howard since 6th November 2003 and one of the oldest political parties in the world, does not seem to be in a position to assert itself on 5th May next. The party is still Margaret Thatcher's orphan and suffers from its ultra conservative image amongst a majority of the British. Likewise for the last two years it has not succeeded in really creating any problems for Tony Blair who had nevertheless been weakened by the Iraqi affair. In these elections the Conservative Party will be pushed along by the Australian Lynton Crosby, the man who enabled the re-election of Conservative Prime Minister John Howard in 2004.
The Tory programme plans for major tax reductions, a reduction in public debt and a restructuring of public services (closure of 168 public organisms and 235,000 civil servants' positions) that should enable savings of 35 billion pounds (51 billion euros). The Conservative party is also promising to reallocate 23 of the 35 billion pounds to an increase in the hospitals, schools, transport, police, and retirement pension's budget.
Finally the Tories were somewhat shaken by recent unwelcome incidents in a campaign that has already been proven difficult. Howard Flight, the party's vice-president and the craftsman of the economic programme witnessed his speech to conservative militants - whereby he maintained that the Tories would be able to achieve even greater budgetary cuts than the 35 billion announced in their electoral programme - published in the press. On 25th March last Michael Howard forbade him from standing in his constituency of Arundel and South Downs (Sussex) under the Conservative Party banner. "We do not promise something before the elections in order to do something else afterwards. We shall not do something in private and another in public. Everyone in the party must be committed to this. Otherwise he will be excluded," maintained the Conservative leader.
The third political party in the country is the Liberal Democrats standing as the only real alternative to the ruling power. In March the party purchased an entire page of advertising in three dailies (The Independent, The Times and The Daily Mail) to lay out the "ten good reasons to vote LibDem". Just like their Labour and Conservative adversaries the LibDems place healthcare and education at the top of their priority list. Hence they commit themselves to reducing the size of classes and to establishing a new taxation rate of 50% (versus 40% at present) for all on annual revenues of over £100,000 (140,000 thousand euros). This measure - which Tony Blair qualifies as "somewhat dangerous", since it would "include a lot of people and not just the super rich"- would affect 419,000 British, i.e. 0.9% of the kingdom's tax payers. The profits would be used to improve the state of the country's healthcare system. The LibDems also promise to abolish university entry fees that have doubled since Tony Blair came to power. Hence if in 1997 a student required £5,792 (8,400€) to finance his degree, the same university course would cost him 17,150 € today. This sum incidentally is due to increase over the next few years since Labour voted in 2004 for an increase in fees applicable at the start of the university year in 2006.
LibDem leader, Charles Kennedy reminded the public of his party's opposition to military intervention in Iraq and also expressed his desire to live in a "more just country". "We are against the war in Iraq and will ensure that such an unjustified and illegal act will never happen again," declared Menzies Campbell, the party's Foreign Affairs spokesperson.
Labour victory - a foregone conclusion?
According to all of the polls Labour should win for the third time running in the general elections on 5th May. The last three surveys published in the press last weekend all announced a Labour victory. The Mori poll that was published in the The Observer and The Sunday Mirror announced a wide lead (7 points) on the part of Tony Blair's party (40% for Labour, versus 33% for the Tories and 20% for the LibDems), the ICM poll for the Sunday Telegraph credits Labour with 38% of the vote versus 34% for the Conservatives 20% for the LibDems. Finally the survey by YouGov and published in the Sunday Times forecasts 37% for Labour versus 35% to the Conservatives and 21% for the LibDems. Nevertheless on Friday 8th April a poll by YouGov for the Daily Telegraph only placed Labour one point ahead of the Tories (36% in favour of the Labour Party, versus 35% for the Conservative Party and 21% for the LibDems). One third of those interviewed in the same poll thought Tony Blair would make the best Prime Minister (34%, versus 26% who said they would be in favour of Michael Howard and 16% for Charles Kennedy).
Finally the participation rate that was the lowest in eighty years in 2001 (59.4%) is again forecast to be low. It might even, according to a number of polling institutes, not rise above the 50% mark. The participation rate that had been dropping since the 1950's dropped even further after Tony Blair's rise to power declining in 2001 below the 70% mark for the first time ever. In a letter published on 6th April last in the Daily Mirror, aware of the problem of the rising abstention rate, Tony Blair made an appeal to Labour voters. "On 5th May your vote will be vital in deciding whether this country moves forwards or whether it regresses with the Tories," he wrote.. The probability of a high abstention rate and the high number of voters who are still undecided might finally make this general election a more open one than had been forecast by the opinion polls.
Reminder of general elections on 7th June 2001 in the UK
Participation rate: 59.4%