The Prime Minister of Britain gets to decide when an election will take place. Right now, Gordon Brown has not declared his intention. Everyone expects that it will take place on May 6th of this year. The horses are at the starting gate, but the starter gun has yet to go off. It looks like this could be a classically short election – just three to four weeks. Expect the election to be called in the next ten days.
It will be close. As of today, the Conservative lead is just six points – not enough for them to form a Government, but close enough to the Labour party to make for a hard fight. Even after the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, and his opposite numbers in the Liberal and Conservative party did a television debate, following the presentation of Labour’s budget, the parties remain close. None of them could convince the British public that they had a handle on the country’s finances.
Meantime, Gordon Brown is enjoying a renewed sense of energy. Boosted by a strong endorsement by Tony Blair and a weak performance to date by his opponent, David Cameron, Brown is beginning to look statesmanlike. He has weathered accusation of being a bully and a bore, and has started to appear as a strong man with a soft spot for his family. He is changing his appearance and starting to look, well, smart.
Cameron, in contrast, is looking hapless. He just can’t get his mojo to work, as they say. A speech on the family went nowhere and his rhetoric of change, mirroring Obama’s during the US election, just sounds vacuous. His strong stance on the economy, which is attracting strong support from British industry, is weakened by members of his own party undermining his policy.
Labour has focused its big guns on attacking the Conservative finance spokesman, George Osborne. They don’t like his elitist background – wealthy family, public school and a good university. But their major concern with Osborne is that he is proposing policies which challenge the tax and spend strategy Labour is fond of. But Osborne is smart. He has secured support of the leaders of industry for a campaign aimed at lowering a tax on employers and employees which Labour intends to raise. He has connected this to a strategy for job creation and is winning the argument that tax and spend will slow recovery, increase debt and cause more and more to become dependent on the State. He is fast becoming both the lightening rod for attack and the bedrock of a fight back by the Conservatives.
Osborne is also suggesting that there is a lot of waste in Government – something the Government denies. Yet the budget brought down by Alistair Darling just a few days ago also seeks efficiencies and more effective government – around $20 - $25 billion a year. In a nanny state where over a third of the population receive state subsidies, waste and inefficiency is inevitable.
What the general public have yet to realize, but will as soon as the election starter gun goes off, is that this election is about more than the economy and finance. It is also about the nature of Government. Labour believes in big government, central planning and high levels of target setting and accountability measurement. One example of the change that the conservatives envision is in education. The manifesto commits the Conservatives to developing vouchers which will follow the child, reforming the system so that Charter schools can be created to meet student needs and restoring the role of parents, teachers and community in designing education. Modeled on developments in Sweden, the strategy is one of ending the state control of the system and enabling massive privatization.
They have a similar strategy for health. Rather than insisting that services be provided by the National Health Service – the third largest employer in the world – the Conservatives will permit state employees to privatize the services they offer. They will also give real authority to local health providers and reduce the power of central government.
This major ideological difference will become a campaign focus during the election – it will rival the economy as a deciding issue when voters stand in line to vote.
The betting is still on a hung parliament – no one party having a sufficient majority to command the levers of power. In this event, the Prime Minister may be given some considerable time – some suggest up to a month – to form a coalition. Britain is used to a change of power within twenty four hours of the election result are known. Sir Gus O’Donnell, Secretary to the Cabinet and the most senior public servant, recently told a Commons committee that it would be up to the Prime Minister to decide when to resign even if the Conservatives had the majority of the seats in the house. It will be tense and interesting.
Right now it’s the phony war. When Gordon Brown calls “start” we can expect fireworks. It is the most important election since Thatcher stood down.