Britain goes to the polls on May 5

news: Britain goes to the polls on May 5

BRITAIN’S election campaign started slowly, overshadowed by an informal truce for the Pope’s funeral and the Royal Wedding. But early news that Longbridge-based car-maker MG Rover planned to axe 6,000 workers triggered a visit from Trade Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, and an outpouring of concern from the main parties.

Last Monday’s Labour Party broadcast featured edited clips of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in earnest conversation. Perhaps this was designed to quell media reports of a persistent feud between the two men. Blair also indicated he planned to keep Brown as Chancellor if Labour won a third term, denying rumours that he would be moved to the Foreign Office. Labour election posters contrasted the experience of Blair and Brown against their respective opposite numbers, Conservative leader Michael Howard and Shadow Chancellor Oliver Letwin.

Unlike in previous elections, policy differences are now blurred. Both parties promise to safeguard a strong market economy and cut bureaucracy in the public sector. The ideological wars of the past are over and socialism is now the preserve of the odd far-left MP or George Galloway’s Respect Party. The Conservative manifesto says Britain is being governed with the wrong values and needs a different government to meet its “full potential”.

The key battlegrounds of the campaign are likely to be crime and immigration, issues on which Howard senses he has Labour on the defensive. The Tories want 40,000 more police officers and 20,000 more prison places, and have promised to boost defence spending by 2.7 billion pounds. The Liberal Democrats aim to boost police numbers by 10,000.

Last weekend, Howard described immigration as “out of control” and said the issue “should not be swept under the carpet”. Labour Cabinet Minister, Peter Hain, accused the Conservatives of “scurrilous, right-wing, ugly tactics”. The Tories want to introduce annual refugee and immigration quotas, open up an offshore asylum-processing centre, create a new border police and withdraw from the UN refugee convention. Labour, on the other hand, says it will introduce tougher rules on settlements and deportations.

The previous Home Secretary’s admission that he did not know the number of illegal immigrants residing in Britain created an open goal to the Tories. Labour will almost certainly continue to accuse the Conservatives of ‘scaremongering’ and ‘playing the race card’ by exploiting what many see as its incompetence over asylum. The Conservatives will react by claiming that Labour is running scared of an open debate and resorting to smears.

Meanwhile, both main parties will be trying to strengthen their ‘tough on asylum’ credentials in order to curry favour with the tabloid press. And the rebuttal units and counter-rebuttal units in both main parties will be working at high speed. The Liberal Democrats under Charles Kennedy can claim to occupy the high moral ground by saying that the two main parties have descended into the gutter.

The war in Iraq is perhaps not such a potent issue anymore and Blair is probably very happy about that. The Tories may try to resurrect it, but they don’t have that much room for manoeuvre because they also supported the war. Their line of attack will focus on the fact that Blair misled the nation.

I suspect that Howard’s age (pushing 64) will become an issue, moving as we are into an era when younger leaders take over. Also, his allegedly tainted role in former Conservative governments will make him a target. Howard, on the other hand, will try to exploit divisions between Blair and Brown, and claim that Labour is planning secret tax hikes. Labour will counter that the Tories are planning secret spending cuts, particularly in key areas such as the National Health Service, always a vulnerable issue for the Tories.

Unlike the last two elections, both walkovers for Blair, the forthcoming contest looks much closer with opinion polls showing a small single-figure lead for Labour.