Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Knives and Politics

The three major British political parties have released their manifestos – a kind of blueprint for what they might do until they discover just how bad the situation really is once in office. The situation is serious – all agree – but none are tackling the challenge of debt, disaffection and continued economic uncertainty head on. It is as if the manifestos were written before Britain became a debt loaded country.

The Conservatives are the most radical. They are offering a “power to the people” strategy, in which public services are subject to more local control. Residents would win the right to instigate referendums if 5 per cent of local people backed the move. The Tories also want to see more elected mayors and police commanders. Communities would be allowed to take over pubs and post offices threatened with closure. Public-sector workers would be encouraged to form "co-ops" to run services like nursing teams, schools or other public services. They are focused on changing the way government engages with the economy, reducing some proposed tax increases, changing the way in which government programs are funded. In terms of health, the Tories have promised "real choice" by entitling patients to choose any healthcare provider – including private clinics – within NHS prices, while people would be guaranteed access to a local GP 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Top-down Government targets, such as waiting times for treatment, would be scrapped in a blitz on the "endless layers of bureaucracy and management". Schools would undergo their biggest reform for a generation, with the establishment of state-funded "free schools" run by parents, teachers' charities, trusts and voluntary groups.

The Labour party manifesto is offering more of the kind of government that has been in place since Blair won power in 1997. On education, Labour is offering a new idea: Promise of "a choice of good schools in every area". Where parents are not satisfied, they will have the power to trigger a ballot on bringing in a new school leadership team from a "proven and trusted accredited provider" through a merger or takeover. Up to 1,000 secondary schools would be part of such an accredited schools group by 2015. On the economy, Labour pledge to build a hi-tech economy, supporting business and industry to create one million more skilled jobs and modernising our infrastructure with High Speed Rail, a Green Investment Bank and broadband access for all. Nothing new there.

The Liberals are focused on their usual list of policies: fairer taxes, economic reform, a pupil premium for the poorest children worth some $2.5 billion in all and constitutional change. What is most important about the Liberal manifesto is that it is silent on the idea of coalition or support for a minority government, which is looking more like the outcome of the election. It is not possible to read their manifesto and detect a bias which would favour an alliance with one either the Labour or Conservative parties.

The polls now show a narrowing of the gap, already slim, between the Conservatives and Labour, with one poll having the Tories lead by just 3% - the same as the margin of error. The average is a six point lead – not enough for the Tories to secure a majority government. The British people are having a hard time buying into the idea that David Cameron is a statesman like leader who is right for Britain at this time, but they also dislike Gordon Brown. Trust is the real issue here.

There are three weeks to go. Harold Wilson, former Labour Prime Minister, was fond of reminding his audiences that a week is a long time in politics. A lot can yet happen. Usually at this point, clear patterns of voter interest, concerns and behaviour begin to emerge. Not this time. Most pundits are convinced that there will be a hung parliament and furious efforts are been made behind the scenes to see what alliances and alignments can be made. One insider has indicated that the trade off process from the minor parties has already begun, with Plaid Cymru (the Welsh Nationalists) offering to support Labour under certain conditions.

What is certain is that a large number of the British electorate are yet to show any real interest. The campaign has not got them fired up or engaged. Despite the hype, its business as usual for the majority of Brits. The front pages of the newspapers carry some election news, but are more concerned with gossip and froth than with the future of the country. Front page news today – butchers at one of Britain’s largest supermarket chains have been advised not to use knives, since these are dangerous. It seems that there is more interest in this story than in creating a new golden age of politics.

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