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General Elections in the UK, a round-up one week before the vote

General Elections in the UK, a round-up one week before the vote

29/04/2010 - D-7

46 million Britons are being called to ballot on 6th May next to elect the 650 members of the House of Commons, the lower chamber in Parliament, within constituencies that include on average around 70,000 voters. Amongst the Britons living abroad only those who left the country within the last 15 years are allowed to take part in the vote. The UK, alongside Malta, Ireland, Cyprus and Denmark is one of the European countries to restrict expatriate voting the most.
The Conservatives, who for a long time were predicted to be the winners of the election are no longer guaranteed to win an absolute majority in Parliament. For the first time since 1992 the suspense is at its height just one week before the elections which have been qualified as "the most important in a generation," by Tory leader, David Cameron who is calling for "a new start which the country so badly needs." For his part Prime Minister Gordon Brown (Labour) is defending the government's results and is trying to convince Britons that Labour can embody change.
The main novelty in this election, apart from the use of internet, has been the first ever TV debates, three of which have been organized between the leaders of the three main political parties: Gordon Brown (Labour), David Cameron (Tories) and Nick Clegg (LibDems).

The first of these TV debates focused on domestic policy on 15th April on ITV. It took Nick Clegg, who had never enjoyed such a far reaching media tribune, nor had he ever been placed on a level as his rivals, just 90 minutes to become the man of the election. According to a poll 43% of those interviewed declared Nick Clegg "winner" of the debate, 26% quoted David Cameron and 20% Gordon Brown. 9.4 million Britons watched the debate. The Prime Minister, who is generally ill at ease before the media, this time seemed relaxed showing his confidence and playing on his experience as head of government. At the start of the debate a slightly nervous, defensive David Cameron advised for change whilst the Labour leader mainly spoke of prosperity and Nick Clegg, fairness. But above all the Lib-Dem leader succeeded in standing as a credible alternative to his two adversaries and by doing this he raised concern on their part. "I don't know what you think but I think that the more they attack one another the more they are alike," he said addressing the viewers. The day after the debate, "I agree with Nick," became the campaign phrase, five words uttered no less than seven times by Gordon Brown during the debate.
The organization of these TV debates between the main political leaders has naturally helped to bring a personal touch to the election. The personalities of the candidates standing for Prime Minister will therefore be of the utmost importance on 6th May next.

The second debate took place on 22nd April on Sky News and focused on international affairs. Nick Clegg, by far the most pro-European of the three men defended his commitment to Europe explaining that the UK needed its EU partners and that only the union and therefore Europe could enable Britain to be strong enough to settle problems such as terrorism, environmental issues etc ... He also promised to bring home British soldiers stationed in Afghanistan during the next legislature, which both of his rivals contest. Gordon Brown pointed to his experience and maintained his pro-European commitment: "3 million British jobs depend on Europe, our country does half of its trade with the continent and 750,000 companies work for Europe," he indicated accusing David Cameron of "wanting to hem in the UK." "I want to be in Europe but I do not want to be led by Europe," said the Conservative leader. After the debate more than one third of viewers (36%) thought that David Cameron had won, 32% pointed to Nick Clegg and 29% Gordon Brown according to a poll by YouGov.
The third debate will take place on economic issues on the BBC on 29th April.

Nick Clegg's performance during these two TV debates cast doubt amongst the Conservatives and to some extent was the cause of joy amongst Labour. The rise of the Lib-Dems is part of an historic movement which shows that Brits have been turning away from the two main parties over the last 60 years. In 1951 98% of voters chose either Labour or Conservative. In 2005 this figure had dropped to 59% (it was only 40% in the last local elections on 5th June 2009). The "small" parties have therefore regularly been gaining ground.
The Conservatives who see the emergence of a victory but without an absolute majority are extremely worried. Traditionally Labour needs less votes to win their seats thanks to an electoral split that is extremely favourable to it and an electorate which is concentrated in specific regions such as the north of the country whilst conservative voters are spread across the entire country. In addition to this in the south of England the Lib-Dems are often the Conservatives' leading rivals whilst the Labour bastions of the north are better protected against a possible Conservative victory. "Between us there is just a cigarette paper," declared David Cameron with regard to his relations with Nick Clegg. Traditionally however the Lib-Dems are much closer to Labour than to the Tories.

For their part Labour perceive, in the event of a hung Parliament (the name given to a parliament that has no majority in the UK), the possibility of making an alliance with the Lib-Dems and thereby retain power. "If they have not succeeded in achieving what they put forward in the last 13 years who will believe that they can finally do it this time round?" asks Nick Clegg whose interest it is to distinguish himself from Labour during the campaign. He still refuses to say with which of the two big parties he would be ready to form an alliance and allows the courtship of both and at the same time plays one off against the other.

David Cameron repeats that a vote in support of the Lib-Dems would mean continuing with Gordon Brown in power for the next five years. "A Parliament without an absolute majority will be synonymous to instability, uncertainty, potentially higher interest rates and a loss of credit for the UK," he declared in The Times. Kenneth Clarke, former Finance Minister (1993-1997) with John Major and Trade Minister in the shadow cabinet, brandishes the flag of threat in the shape of the IMF. "The obligatory market will not wait, the pound will fall if Britons do not elect a government with sufficient majority for it to be able to do its work and if the markets believe that we cannot address our debt issues and public deficit the IMF will have to take charge of it in our stead," he indicated. This statement was qualified by the Chancellor of the Exchequer (UK Finance Minister), Alistair Darling, as "a desperate tactic"; Vince Cable, the economic affairs spokesman for the Lib-Dems said it was "alarmism of the worst possible kind."

"Voters want more choice and the fact that two leaders are trying to refer to a comfortable past will change nothing. I hope that people will not be scared and will continue to trust their instinct by behaving differently this time round," declared Nick Clegg, adding, "Do not let anyone tell you that the only choice possible is that of the old parties."

"Previously voting for change meant voting for David Cameron. Since last Thursday (1st TV debate) this is no longer the case. The Lib-Dems are benefiting from the depoliticization set in place by the leading parties who now resemble each other – with compassionate conservatism on the part of David Cameron and the Thatcherism in the guise of Tony Blair," says Jacques Reland, Research Director for the Global Policy Institute in London. "The election of a minority government will lead long term to an in depth reform of the electoral system with a trend towards a proportional system," anticipates Tony Travers, political expert at the London School of Economics.

The Conservative Party chose the old power station in Battersea in south London as the venue to present its 130 page electoral programme which is "an invitation to join the UK government." "If you vote conservative on 6th May next you will not only be voting to change the system as a whole," says David Cameron, who promises to give power back to the people.
The programme attempts to be a summary of modernism and tradition. It sketches out what the Tories call "big society", a society in which the State grants most of its power to the citizens and in which the people takes part in decision making. Hence the Conservative manifesto plans for the organisation of referendum on local issues if 5% of the inhabitants in a town ask for it, a 10% reduction in the number of MPs in the House of Commons, the right to kick out MPs who fail in their mandate (as in California), the right for parents to "save" schools and the creation of cooperatives in the public sector. The latter idea came from John Spedan Lewis who after 1929 distributed shares and profits from his company to his employees (69,000 employees share profits at present). David Cameron announced in February that the civil service (except for the army, the police and the law) will be able, if their teams so decide it, to leave the service and create cooperatives or non-profit making companies to the service of the tax-payer. This system will enable savings and improve the efficacy of the service provided (in nurseries, schools etc ..). Cooperative workers would be called to organise their work and decide on their pay as they deem fit. "The country needs a big society and not a big administration. We shall give people the chance to be their own boss and offer citizens a better service," declared the Conservative leader on 15th February.

In the event of victory the Conservatives have committed to adopt an emergency budget and to make major budgetary cuts as soon as they take office in order to reduce public deficit which in 2009/2010 rose to £152, 84 billion, a record level since the end of the Second World War. They hope to go faster and more thoroughly than Labour with regard to cutting public spending and have promised a save an additional £6 billion (6.8 billion €) in comparison with the Labour Programme. The Tories are planning to eliminate the structural share of the public deficit in 5 years. They are due to freeze civil servants' salaries in 2011 and increase the retirement age.
However they have promised increases in spending on the National Health Service, (NHS) in line with inflation and have promised to cancel the 1% increase in social taxes put forward by Gordon Brown's government. They are also promising to reduce taxes of married couples in order to promote the family, raise the threshold whereby Britons have to pay inheritance tax and decrease company tax by 25%-30%. David Cameron has said that he wants to review half of the increases in social charges planned by Gordon Brown.

The Prime Minister stands as the defender of the middle classes. Labour chose the slogan "a fair future for all". Labour presented its programme on 12th April in Birmingham. This plans – at least until 2015 – for a proportional increase in minimum wages (introduced in 1999 and which lies at present at £5.80 per hour) as well as increases in civil servants' wages (these had been capped at 1% in 2011/2012 and 2012/2013). It does not include increases in income tax but does not exclude increases in VAT. Labour, which is accusing Conservative of endangering recovery by wanting to cut public spending too fast and too much, intends however to eliminate half of the public deficit in four years. "If the Tories had been able to reduce spending last autumn as they would liked to have done we would still be in recession and not in the period of recovery which we have succeeded in reaching," declared Gordon Brown, adding, "If they do it in June in the emergency budget they are putting forward the danger of recession will hover again over the economy and it will be difficult to restore confidence." Labour are promising free healthcare for people in great need, a 2.5% increase in pensions and 1.5% increase in child benefits. Three public services are at the heart of Labour's electoral campaign: education, healthcare and security.

Labour also hope to transform the House of Lords into an elected assembly and reform the electoral system by adopting a new means of voting in the general elections – the alternative vote that will enable voters to rank their candidates they want to give their votes to in order of preference. This project would be put to referendum on October 2011. "Labour and the Lib-Dems have the same ideas and the same determination to reform the political system which is not the case on the right," repeats Gordon Brown.

The Lib-Dem programme is 110 pages long and fosters four main points: the reduction of the public deficit, the reform of the education system, a constitutional reform to avoid a repetition of the expenses scandal (nearly 400 MPs embezzled money from the professional expenses compensation system in order to pay back their own personal spending) and a reform of household taxation. The party wants to simplify the taxation system, arguing that some tax-payers take advantage of the complexity of the system and they promise that any household earning less than £10,000 (11,300 €) per year will be exempt of income tax. The Lib-Dems think they can save £15 billion by giving up the Trident nuclear submarines which comprise part of the British dissuasion force. To reduce the public deficit they want to limit pay rises in the civil service and introduce a bank tax. "We shall create a totally different banking system, we shall take the banks to pieces from top to bottom," says Nick Clegg.

Many personalities have committed to this exciting electoral campaign. Actor, Michael Caine, a former Conservative who was won over by Blairism in 1997 has returned to his original party and is supporting David Cameron, likewise Billy Roach, the hero of Coronation Street, singer Phil Collins and actor Billy Murray. Labour enjoys the support of model Naomi Campbell, singer Lily Allen, actor Patrick Stewart, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, singers Geri Halliwell, Peter Gabriel and Harry Potter author JK Rowling who says, "poor, vulnerable families will be better treated by Labour than by the Tories under David Cameron." Finally David Radcliffe, the actor who plays the role of Harry Potter and actor Colin Firth have both committed to the Lib-Dems.

In this electoral campaign the Labour Party has lost the electoral support of The Sun which has sided with the Conservatives. "After 13 long years in power the government is lost. Now it has also lost the Sun," ran the daily's headline in January. The weekly News of the World announced on 27th March that it also now supported the Conservative Party. The newspaper declared that it was modifying its editorial line because "the country is crying out for change."

Finally former Prime Minister Tony Blair (1997-2007) Tony Blair gave his support to Gordon Brown as he spoke in his former constituency of Trimdon (North East) on 30th March. Many political analysts wonder however whether the support of the former Prime Minister, who is the subject of high feeling, particularly because of the war in Iraq, really is an advantage or not.

The polls are formal: whilst everyone was expecting the election to bring Labour against the Conservatives – matters are now being played off between three parties. The latest YouGov poll, published by the Sunday Times credits the Tories with 35%, 28% for the Lib-Dems who run ahead of Labour with 27%. Another poll by ComRes, published by the daily The Independent puts the Conservatives ahead with 34%, 29% for the Lib-Dems and 28% for Labour. According to Ipsos-Mori Nick Clegg's party is running third with 23% behind David Cameron (36%) and then Gordon Brown (30%).

Just one week before the election the question to be asked is can Labour succeed and stay in power by forming an alliance with the Lib-Dems or will the perspective of a hung parliament in which the Lib-Dems would play a key role finally scare off voters and lead to a vote largely in favour of the Conservatives?
Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN