30/04/2005 - D-7
Just a few days before the general elections on 5th May the Labour Party continues to lead the race in all opinion polls. The most recent of these undertaken by NOP and published by The Independent on 26th April credits Labour with 40% of intentions to vote versus 30% for the Conservatives and 21% for the Liberal Democrats. Labour has won two points in comparison with the previous poll undertaken by NOP, the Tories having lost two and the Liberal Democrats remaining stable. Another poll published on 24th April by The Times and undertaken by Populus provides Labour with 41% of the vote, 32% to the Conservatives and 20% to the Liberal Democrats. "Forget the polls, these elections will be both difficult and closely run", warned Tony Blair, who knows that the race will be a close one, notably in about one hundred constituencies where the gap between the two main political parties is diminishing daily.
In its programme that bears the banner of "Opportunity and security for all in a changing world", the Labour Party promises, amongst other things, not to increase taxes or to extend the range of VAT but to renew or rebuild all schools before the end of the next mandate, to offer free training in the "basics" for all those who need it, to extend the length of paid holidays (four weeks per year) and maternity leave, to increase the minimum hourly wage rate (that would rise from £5.05 to £5.35), to reduce the number of asylum seekers and to set "severe and just" access rules to the UK, to maintain free access to the public health system, to build one hundred new hospitals within the next five years and to reduce the waiting lists for treatment and operations.
On April 13th Tony Blair confirmed that this election campaign would be his last. "I said that the next election would be my last - and at the next elections there will be another leader". The Prime Minister has however dismissed the possibility of leaving 10 Downing Street before the end of his mandate. "I shall undertake a full term in office. And when I say a full term in office that is exactly what I mean". Tony Blair has focussed his campaign on the economic performance of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, to whom he knows he owes much. Gordon Brown was already the craftsman of the Labour Party electoral campaigns in 1997 and 2001. "Tony Blair knows that he needs Gordon Brown who has many allies within the Labour Party and who is seen as the man to have reconciled Labour with economic efficiency", explains Michael Bruter, political expert at the London School of Economics (LSE). The Prime Minister has compared his relationship with Gordon Brown with "a marriage founded on common values", even though he admitted "occasionally both friends might tend to disagree". "In general Gordon Brown is respected - he is the most popular of the main leaders of all the parties", maintained the director of the opinion research group YouGov, Peter Kellner, who added, "Over the last few days Labour has implicitly been saying: vote Blair and you'll get Brown and that is what is attracting voters". The Prime Minister has intimated that if he won he would maintain Gordon Brown in his position saying that he had done "fantastic work managing the economy". Indeed since Labour took power in 1997 the UK has witnessed continuous growth lasting thirty trimesters and an annual rise in the GDP of 2.8%. Many political analysts believe that behind Tony Blair's success they see the future rise of Gordon Brown.
The Prime Minister has focussed his campaign on values. "Voters will have to choose between Labour values - security and opportunity for all for all British families who work hard and for the retired - and conservative values; the interests of the privileged few at the expense of the hard working majority", he emphasised.
He has clearly succeeded in convincing voters that a Tory victory would endanger economic success. On 25th April last 63 company heads (including Charles Allen, director of the private TV channel ITV, Gerry Robinson, CEO of Allied Domecq and Alan Sugar, CEO of Amstrad) signed an open letter in support of Tony Blair in the Financial Times; in their opinion he has provided companies with "a stable economic environment" since 1997. "This is not the time to endanger the stability we have acquired with such great difficulty. The country's future does not lie in the reduction of £35 billion worth of investments in public services", they wrote, making an explicit reference to the measure suggested by the Conservatives adding, "the UK has become a company friendly society and more than 1,000 companies are born daily under the leadership of the Labour Party".
Two days later 67 company heads (including Christopher Gent, PDG of GlaxoSmithKline and Lord MacLaurin, former CEO of Tesco's) granted their support to Michael Howard via an open letter published in the same daily newspaper: "A Conservative government would keep spending and borrowing under control and taxes low whilst the Labour government has a deficit of several billion pounds in its public finances".
On 19th April last Muslim religious leaders and intellectuals called for their fellow worshippers to vote Labour in spite of the party's commitment to the war in Iraq: "Of course we were angry at the Labour government mainly because of Iraq and the anti-terrorist laws but in the next elections the country will face a choice. We are still against the government's choice of military intervention in Iraq and we shall continue to call upon it to draw up a strategy to withdraw from Iraq". Muslims represent 1.6 million individuals in the British population.
The Conservative programme focuses on healthcare, education, security (the creation of 40,000 additional positions in the police force and 20,000 jobs in prisons) along with the control of immigration and the right to asylum. The Tories are suggesting that the UK withdraws from the United Nations Convention on refugees. An opinion poll undertaken on 9th April by ICM for the Daily Mirror revealed British ignorance about the realities of immigration. Only 4% of those interviewed knew, that the number of asylum seekers had been reduced by 65% in the UK over the last two years, dropping from 210,000 to 40,200. 23% of those interviewed believed that the number had tripled or quadrupled and 37% believed that figures had doubled.
The Tory text addresses "the simple expectations and values of the British, people who respect the rules, others and who are responsible", declared Michael Howard. Some Conservatives would however have liked their leader to abandon his favourite topic of immigration in order to embark along the path of lower taxes but Michael Howard did not listen to their requests. "I clearly said that I would make no promises that I could not keep", he repeated.
The Conservative leader has been leading a virulent and what might be called an aggressive campaign, something rare in British political life. "These general elections are a chance for you to tell Mr Blair to get out", he maintained on 27th April in a message to voters. Not a day passes without the Tory leader calling the Prime Minister a "liar", providing many examples of when the Labour leader did not tell the truth. "If he can lie and take us to war he can lie to win these elections", repeated Michael Howard.
For their part the Liberal Democrats have called on voters to turn the election into a referendum on the Prime Minister's honesty. They have however distinguished themselves from the Conservative campaign that they have qualified as "the most negative type of personal campaign". The country's third political force has resumed its battle against the war in Iraq. "Many people will remember the continuous Liberal Democrat opposition to the war in Iraq, reflecting the views of millions of our fellow countrymen. Many will remember that the Conservatives agreed with Tony Blair and George Bush", declared Charles Kennedy the party's leader. The Liberal Democrats, who are standing as the only real alternative, are the only ones to announce their intention to increase taxes. They suggest the transformation of local taxes that are at present based on the surface area of accommodation, into a tax based on income.
Not even the recent bankruptcy of the car manufacturer MG Rover, leading to the redundancy of five thousand, nor the slight rise in unemployment levels in March will enable the Conservatives to reverse the opinion poll trends that favour Labour. According to standards set by the International Labour Bureau (that include the unemployed who receive no compensation) the unemployment level in March lay at 4.8% versus 4.7% in February, which represents 29,000 additional jobless. The National Statistics Office also says that the unemployment rate is rising, with an increase of 11,000 people lying at 2.7%. Nevertheless in the UK, 75% of the working population are in employment (versus 63% in France), the highest level since the statistical gauge was created in 1992. Apart from between December and February last the number of unemployed dropped by 100,000 people, the number of those in employment rose by 48,000 and the number of hours worked increased by 1%.
For the time being Europe is the major absentee from the electoral campaign. In the polls the relationship between the UK and the European Union is only ranked ninth amongst voters' concerns far behind healthcare, housing, immigration, pensions, crime and terrorism. Europe however is one of the subjects on which the political parties are not agreed. Labour officially supports (on condition of satisfying five precisely defined criteria) the UK's entry into the Economic Monetary Union (EMU) and defends the European Constitution whilst the Conservatives are firmly against both. Whilst the ratification of the European Constitution will be one of the primary subjects to be tackled by the new government after the general elections Europe is totally absent from the ten main points that summarise the Tory party programme.
In his constituency of Folkestone-and-Hythe, near Dover, Michael Howard is incidentally due to stand against the president of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), Patricia Holdsworth. She accuses the Conservative leader of hypocrisy about Europe. "Michael Howard's party has a programme in terms of immigration that would be illegal within the framework of European laws and yet Conservative MP's are financing campaigns for the 'yes' vote in countries that are organising a referendum on the Union's future Constitution", she declared.
The "small" parties have also started their campaigns. There are 3,518 candidates (722 of whom only are women) from 211 different parties - that are often are quite fantastic such as the Fight in Jam Party or the Elvis Party or the Party for New Mopeds and the New Millennium Bean Party - who will be standing on May 5th. Most candidates will not win the necessary 5% vote to have their £500 deposit returned; this is a deposit they have to deliver in order to stand in the election.
In spite of a system that goes against the "small" parties the Greens do hope to gain one or two MP's in the Chamber of Commons and are relying on two constituencies: Brighton Pavilion, where they came out ahead during the European elections on 10th June 2004 and Lewisham Deptford.
Veritas, a party created by former Labour MP Robert Kilroy Silk, a MEP elected on 10th June 2004 in the Midlands under the banner of the UK Independence Party, is also standing in this general election. The party is suggesting the establishment of a single income tax rate of 22%.
Finally the Party for Peace and Progress (PPP) led by actress Vanessa Redgrave chose to put forward Babar Ahmad as their candidate; he is at present imprisoned for terrorism and under an extradition order on the part of the USA.
On 5th May the British will elect 646 MP's to the Chamber of Commons, since a reduction of 72 to 59 constituencies in Scotland led to the reduction of 13 seats in parliament. According to research undertaken by the University of Plymouth the new electoral cut should deprive Labour of 10 seats, with the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party all losing one seat each.
Just a few days before the election there seems to be little in the way of Tony Blair winning a third term of office as Prime Minister. Only a low participation rate might damage Labour. This rate was particularly low in the last general election on 7th June 2001 (59.4%), and it will be one of the keys to this election. The poll undertaken by Mori and published on 27th April in the Financial Times, declares the mobilisation of the Conservative electorate at 80% versus only 64% of Labour voters, which must be of great concern to the Labour Party.