Tony Blair has finally
fired the starting gun for the General Election and announced, to nobody's
surprise, that the nation will go to the polls on June 7th. Seemingly,
Labour are going to win at barely a canter: the polls have been rock
steady at 50% since early March, with the Conservatives
and Liberal Democrats languishing on 30% and 13% respectively. How has
Labour managed to get itself into such a massively strong position?
And how can that lead -- seemingly invincible -- be challenged?
The Labour machine must still be pinching itself: never before has a
government managed to retain such a lead for so long. For a party which
is perceived by many (including many of its supportors) as arrogant,
duplicitous, and manipulative, the idea that they may return to office
with an enhanced majority -- perhaps of over 200 -- must seem to them
almost miraculous. The fact that they have managed to stay so far ahead
can be put down to three people: Gordon Brown. Alistair Campbell, and
Gordon Brown, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, must take a great deal
of credit for putting Labour in the position it is. Respected -- perhaps
unexpectedly -- by the City, particularly since freeing the Bank Of
England from his overall control, Brown has made Labour look seriously
credible. For the first time in Labour Government history, there has
not been a run on the pound. Labour has also managed to avoid the Euro
question -- although this cannot be put off much longer -- and it is
generally thought that there is a firm hand on the economic tiller.
Campbell has assumed the Prince Of Darkness mantle after Peter Mandelson's
demise, and has made the role his own. The role is, of course, to divert
flak from the Prime Minister. Campbell has taken it upon himself to
be the new "hate figure" -- but as he is not actually part
of government (really, he isn't) -- the leadership itself is far less
vulnerable than if the Prime Minister himself were permanently on display
(Blair is far less visible than either Margaret Thatcher or John Major).
While not loved these days, Blair is grudgingly respected, and maintains
a healthy personal lead over his main rival, William Hague.
Hague has a major problem on his hands. Many people feel that he lacks
gravitas, and, while respecting the "good honest Yorkshireman",
consider that he has led his party down a right wing cul-de-sac. He
also has had some PR disasters, the most famous being the notorious
"Carnival Baseball Cap": something which Blair has largely
managed to avoid.
Since becoming leader of the opposition Mr Hague has overseen a string
of policy modifications, clarifications and straightforward U-turns
in his bid to haul his party back from the wilderness. Entering a make
or break test of his political career, the agenda for government he
is asking voters to back follows traditional Conservative themes of
lower taxes, smaller government and a sceptical approach towards Europe
For all of their public confidence, William Hague and Shadow Chancellor
Michael Portillo must be worried men. Even with the current government's
lacklustre handling of the foot and mouth
crisis, with the NHS still showing few real improvements, and with police
levels at a 10-year low, Labour support has had no serious threat since
the party swept to victory in 1997. Many Tories would consider that
halving the Labour majority -- or even reducing it to double figures
-- a significant victory. The chances are, however, that Labour will
do almost as well -- if not better -- than they did in 1997. What must
the Conservatives do to stop Labour returning with an equal -- or even
Cynics would suggest
"dump William Hague", but the solution is, of course, to focus
on the issues. Despite the major parties' inability to really put "clear
blue water" between each other, there are issues over which they
differ. The main one, as ever, is Europe. The Conservatives have promised
to rule out entry into the Euro for the next parliament. Labour have
agreed to a referendum on the matter, which it clearly expects to win.
The Tories will almost certainly be reminding people that a Labour government
will have abolished the pound by 2005.
Education, for so long Tony Blair's battle cry before the last General
Election, will also be a issue over which the Tories can expect to make
up some ground. The groundswell of public opinion is that Labour have
not transformed the classroom. The same is true of the National Health
Service, and Law and Order. Most people feel that Labour has not done
enough; but on this one the Tories will be fighting people's memories.
Conservative policies were widely viewed as destructive -- perhaps it
is too soon for the Tories to be claiming any particular mastery of
these areas of public policy.
At this stage the signs are that things will have to "go negative",
although perhaps not quite as personal as an equivalent US campaign.
Certainly the image of the Labour Party is something of an Achilles
heel, and we can expect many more attacks along the lines of "all
spin and no substance" and "the stealth Chancellor".
The Goverment will undoubtedly relaunch its offensive on "the forces
Both parties, but particularly Labour, are aware that voter apathy is
going to play a major part in this election. Labour voters are far more
likely "not to bother" than Conservatives, and even at this
early stage Tony Blair has warned his party not to assume victory is
guaranteed. Whether his words will have an effect on the population
at large remains to be seen.
We have four weeks to run until Election Day. In that time we will almost
certainly encounter new scandals, new allegations of sleaze, new and
exotic animal diseases, terrible theme songs, and of course politicians.
By the end of it we will have had quite enough -- but at least we'll
be spared the endless speculation of "when the next election will
be". By June 8th, the result will be known. Some will be weeping.
Some will be jumping for joy. And some -- the sensible ones who vote
for one party, but bet heavily on the other, will be doing a bit of
© Oilver Moor