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They're Off!
Oliver Moor

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 William Hague.

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 m
outh 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 greater majority?

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 of Conservatism".

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 both.

© Oilver Moor

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