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The fat lady is warming up her vocal chords

By Helen Dale - posted Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Well, it's almost done: Britain goes to the polls this Thursday, the final of the three debates took place last Thursday, and we're still looking down the barrel at a hung parliament.

That said, a few things have started to come clear: Tory support has stiffened while the Labour vote is collapsing in favour of the LibDems in key marginals. This hasn't bucked the broad 'hung parliament' trend, however. Betfair - arguably the most accurate of all the markets - has a Conservative majority at 47 per cent and a hung parliament at 51 per cent. The LibDems, by eating into Labour's marginals, will definitely have a much bigger presence in the House of Commons after May 6, but no-one can say with any certainty just how big they will be.

All this uncertainty, of course, has its origins in a televised leaders' debate. Australians and Americans have become cynical about television debates and things like the 'worm', which means we tend to forget that when they are first introduced, they have a massive, even disproportionate impact. People who listened to the first 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate on radio thought Nixon won, but those who watched it on television -- the first time a Presidential debate had been televised -- saw a pale, thin, sweaty Nixon overwhelmed by a tanned, rested Kennedy. No Presidential debate since has had the same impact, and it's likely that no leaders' debate in the UK will have the same impact as that first debate of a fortnight ago, where the Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg romped home, leaving both Cameron and Brown trailing in his wake. Britain -- whatever happens to its electoral system after May 6 - has now become a three party country, with roughly similar numbers of people supporting each grouping.


To their very great credit, in the final debate, neither Nick Clegg nor David Cameron tried to make political mileage out of Gordon Brown’s dreadful "bigoted woman" gaffe, a gaffe now circling the globe and quite possibly entering permanent geostationary orbit, so widely reported has it been. I have difficulty imagining any Australian political leader from either side of politics behaving with similar decency. Brown’s only reference to the whole sorry episode was also dignified. “There is a lot to this job,” he said, ‘and, as you saw yesterday, I don’t get all of it right.’

“Bigotgate” was interesting for what it revealed about British attitudes, not only to immigrants but to people in positions of power. As Janice Turner pointed out in the Times, there has long been room in British politics for a certain sort of no-nonsense Northern matriarch to make her point. In denigrating Gillian Duffy (of Rochdale, Lancashire), Gordon Brown managed to attack the North more generally, thereby undermining his own party's authority:

The most poignant moment of that dreadful day in Rochdale was when Gillian Duffy asked the Sky reporter exactly what the Prime Minister had said about her in his car. You could see from her beaming expectation that she’d counted on a “marvellous woman!” at the very least. Maybe even a chuckling “she should be in the Cabinet”. But the truth made Mrs Duffy’s face plummet like a sponge when you slam the oven door and I felt fury as well as her shame: Gordon had dissed all my aunties.

For anyone raised in the North, something had happened that defied the natural order. My childhood was run by redoubtable matriarchs like Mrs Duffy: their judgments were to be feared, not tossed aside. Their tongues were as eye-watering as the sudden slaps they could administer to the backs of your legs.

What made it worse for Brown was that Mrs Duffy accepted his explanation about immigration: that is, as many Britons work in Europe as Europeans work in Britain, so it's a quid pro quo. She even told reporters that she'd be voting Labour again. She trotted off to the shops, and then the country proceeded to implode around her. Brown compounded his difficulties by apologising over and over again, like a naughty schoolboy caught nicking lead off church roofs or scrumping apples. The apologies, in the end, probably did more damage than the 'bigot' slur, but I can see why he made them: if Labour loses the North, it is done for.

I am still trying to wrap my head around the thought of Northerners voting Liberal; that, in its own way, would upend a mass of cultural memories. As a Welsh friend here in Oxford reminded me this week, one only has to recall the 19th Century Liberal captains of industry who wanted more representation for the North, but who also owned and ran the mills, factories and mines in which poor Northerners worked and -- often -- died.

Even more striking is the leading Labour paper, The Guardian, endorsing the Liberal Democrats:


Citizens have votes. Newspapers do not. However, if the Guardian had a vote in the 2010 general election it would be cast enthusiastically for the Liberal Democrats. It would be cast in the knowledge that not all the consequences are predictable, and that some in particular should be avoided. The vote would be cast with some important reservations and frustrations. Yet it would be cast for one great reason of principle above all.

In its endorsement, The Guardian acknowledged that under the Liberal Democrat “fairness” rhetoric was a commitment to “resisting the rush to the overmighty centralised state”. Make no mistake, given power, the Liberal Democrats would engage in a 'bonfire of the quangos' the likes of which Britain did not even see under Margaret Thatcher. Their manifesto is riddled with “abolish”, “repeal” and “decentralize”. Many Labour voters (and people on the left generally) still do not appreciate that the Liberal approach to achieving fairness and reducing inequality is via a small state and a steep reduction in income tax. David Cameron pointed out in the third debate -- entirely fairly -- that inequality and entrenched poverty has worsened in Britain since Labour was elected in 1997. At the same time, the state has ballooned in size, much of it areas designed to micro-manage welfare recipients' lives. Surely, the Liberal Democrat policies couldn't do any worse.

That the election is still well and truly up in the air, that the most likely outcome is a hung parliament, that we are all likely to be at the polls again in six months' time voting under a new electoral system is both exhilarating and frightening, for Britain is broke, in debt to its eyeballs. Whoever is elected will have to make public sector cuts the likes of which we haven't seen before.

We are, as the Chinese saying goes, living in interesting times.


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About the Author

Helen Dale completed the BCL at Brasenose College, Oxford last year and is now reading for her MPhil in law at the same college. In days gone by she was a writer and hack, but lawyering now takes up most of her time. She blogs at Skepticlawyer.

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