The UK’s 2005 General Election is a peculiar affair. The Labour Government is desperately unpopular, but the polls stubbornly put them ahead.
The feel on the ground - from anecdotes told by members of the Cabinet from their time campaigning, to diehard doorstep volunteer veterans, to sophisticated party polling - seems to bear out deep dissatisfaction with the political status quo that renders things much less predictable than those unchanging polls might suggest.
Advance Australia Fair
The Australian flavour of the Conservative campaign is quite strong. The highly publicised presence of Lynton Crosby at the helm has prompted comparisons between the Conservative and Liberal approach. There are several ultra-efficient Liberal staffers at Conservative Campaign Headquarters, too. One benefit of this is the knowledge of winning they bring to the camp - a much needed injection of optimism borne of experience.
Several policies are Australian in origin too. For example, the points system for immigrants has been advocated for some time by the Conservatives, and has now been taken up by Labour.
Finally, the tactics smack of the Antipodes. Michael Howard said this week, “we are 2-0 down at half time” - but that voters should “send a message to the Government”.
This evokes memories of the Borbidge campaign in Queensland’s 1995 election: this tactic saw the Goss Government decimated as people registered a “protest” vote against the incumbents, whom the opposition said were sure to win. Hence the strange spectacle of Labour frantically telling the press that Michael Howard is wrong, and that the Conservatives are much closer than he suggests!
An uphill struggle
Under the UK’s voluntary-voting, first past the post system, an electoral bias strongly favours Labour (pdf file 864KB). There are a variety of reasons for this. It has tangible and significant results. If the main parties received the same number of votes, Labour would still have a healthy majority. The Conservatives obtained a slim majority in 1992 with a larger share of the vote than that which yielded a landslide victory to Labour in 2001. This leaves the opposition requiring a double-digit swing if it’s to form government.
It may be hard for those outside the UK to understand it, but the quality of school meals has been a significant issue in the election. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has campaigned via a very popular TV show to improve the quality of school meals. All parties now pledge to improve the quality and provide healthy options, and in addition the Conservatives pledge to ban junk food outright.
Hygiene in hospitals is also high on the agenda. Shockingly, 5,000 people die every year from MRSA in the UK - more than die on the country’s roads. The Government has been very slow to act on it, but Labour’s defence - that the Conservatives can’t be trusted with the NHS given the history of privatisation - seems to be holding up. Conservative attacks on poor management and long waiting lists on the NHS (particularly the use of the evocative case of long -suffering patient Margaret Dixon) have been scoring points.
Perhaps unsurprisingly to those acquainted with campaigns by men called Howard (and run by men called Crosby), immigration is also playing a big role in the campaign. My views on this are set out elsewhere in On Line Opinion.
School discipline has been pushed to the forefront of the debate through a combination of party political efforts (it’s one of the Conservatives’ strongest issues) and of apolitical compliance. A forthcoming documentary shows undercover footage shot by a teacher in classes severely disrupted by abusive pupils. The events apparently featured in it have stoked the discussion.
Meanwhile, the third party - the Liberal Democrats (traditionally the biggest victims of the electoral system, once gaining fully a quarter of the vote but a mere 3.5 per cent of the seats) - have not as yet exploited to the full the area that distinguishes them most strikingly from the other parties and is their strongest appeal - their opposition to the Iraq conflict. As this piece is written, it seems their attack on this front is just beginning.
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