So, Tony Blair has called an election for May 5th, despite a successful prosecution for election fraud in Birmingham yesterday. He’s not being brave, just pragmatic. He will win. Not because people like him or his policies, nor because of the success of his policies (high tax, no results). He will win because people don’t see a viable alternative.
The most obvious alternative is the Conservative Party. Since they lost the last election they have had several leaders[i]. The current one is Michael Howard, of whom one colleague said “there is something of the night about him” – this was Anne Widdicombe (also known as Doris Karloff due to her rather bizarre appearance), about whom one could say that there was something of the “extremely odd”. Howard has done a lot to focus on policy, to get the message across that the Tories are ready to govern and that “less government is more effective than more government”. He wont win. He is not personable, people don’t trust the Tories after Thatcher/Major and the electorate will worry that cutting £25-30billion in public expenditure will make things worse (it would help a lot).
The other choice is the Liberals and Charles Kennedy. He is a bright boy who entered the house as the youngest member in his early 20’s and has been a politician ever since. He took a strong stance on Iraq (against it when everyone else was for it), which will stand him in good stead with his own party and some disaffected Labour supporters. Liberals can always say what they want because the odds on them having to implement anything are so long. But he will gain seats.
The real issue facing the electorate is Blair’s successor – Gordon Brown, currently Chancellor of the Exchequer. Brown is quietly seizing control of the party, is a strong believer in bigger and more centralized Government (both of which are real mistakes) and is very vindictive to those who oppose him. He is who the electorate are actually voting for, since Blair has already indicated he will step down during this next term (most British people I know don’t believe a thing Blair says, so they don’t believe this either).
While Iraq will be an issue, the real issues which the election could affect are these three: (a) the role of Britain in the new European Union under the new constitution; (b) the dreadful state of Britain’s public services, which need less money and more change; and (c) the security of Britain in terms of both policing and anti-terrorism. There are several side issues, nonetheless important – the future governance of Northern Ireland, reform of the House of Lords, the rural strategy (a significant issue, since foxhunting was banned there is a sense that Labour doesn’t understand or like the countryside) and the environment.
Four opinion polls published today suggest Labour's lead over the Tories has slipped to between 2% and 5%. They suggest the Lib Dems trail the Tories by between 10 and 16 points. But one of the polls also suggests the Tories are 5% ahead of Labour among those "certain to vote".
So we will see. It will be interesting.
[i] In 2001 the Conservative party, which had come to be seen as anti–European Union, was again trounced at the polls by Labour, leading Hague to resign. Ian Duncan Smith was chosen to succeed Hague but served only two years as party leader before he was replaced by Michael Howard.