Of Labour's lost issues

Print edition : May 26, 2001

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The June 7 elections to the British Parliament may see Labour's return to power, but will the victory be as sweet as in 1997?

INTIMATIONS of a mid-term general election in Britain had been in the air for so long that when Prime Minister Tony Blair finally announced it on May 8, widespread voter fatigue was already evident, raising fears of a significantly low turnout on polling day, June 7. Worried by reports that a substantially large number of voters were not sure if they would stir out of their homes that day, the very first thing Blair did after announcing the election date was to impress upon his foot soldiers the need to overcome voter apathy. They were told to go into the election as though it was "on a knife's edge", and to devise an imaginative campaign to engage the voters.

Prime Minister Tony Blair greeted by students of the St. Saviours and St. Olaves school in south London on May 8, where he announced that the general elections would be held on June 7.-JONATHAN EVANS/REUTERS

A low turnout could be bad news for Labour not because it threatens in any way the party's prospects of an outright victory (as its lead over the Tories remains indomitable), but because it could considerably reduce its victory margin. A substantial erosion of Labour's majority in Parliament would not only be seen as the beginning of the revival of Tories' fortunes at a time when their morale seems to be at its lowest in years, but it could also have implications for Blair's primacy within his own party. There is already talk of a likely power struggle sometime later in his second term and a loss of anything over 80 seats could only hasten it.

In the 1997 elections, people voted Labour with their feet in what was an almost fanatical effort to get the Tories off their back. There is no sign of a similar motivation this time - mainly because a Labour victory is taken for granted and therefore many people who voted last time just to ensure a Tory defeat are likely to take it easy this time. "It is going to win anyway whether we vote or not," is a common refrain and Labour strategists fear that the party could become a victim of such complacency.

A large turnout is more crucial for Labour than for the Conservatives who have a committed vote bank that turns up on polling day, come hail or storm. Labour on the other hand pulled off its impressive victory last time largely on the strength of floating or non-committed voters who are not governed by party loyalties. Getting them to the booths on June 7 and ensuring that they vote Labour would require all of its organisational skills, it is said. But like all scare stories, this one is too exaggerated. In fact, successive opinion polls in recent weeks give Labour an even bigger majority than it got in the last election.

LABOUR'S difficulties, if any, are kidstuff compared to the daunting task facing the Tories. They have the difficult job of getting enough people - outside their tight support base - to vote for them. According to all indications, the popularity ratings of the party and its leader William Hague are at its lowest and there is genuine fear that it might not be able to match even its 1997 performance.

An in-house poll by the Conservative party shows that it could be heading for its worst electoral debacle since 1906 when it won only 157 seats. Hague's leadership, already being questioned by both the liberals and the hardliners within the party, would be clearly on the line in the event of a particularly depressing electoral performance. His rivals have already started to jockey themselves into position, and the joke in political circles is that it is the "election" after the general election that would be more interesting.

As for the general election, its one-sidedness and the voter apathy has prompted The Times to call it a "phoney election". For over a month, it has been running a daily column under that heading recording, for posterity, the banalities of what is turning out to be the dullest run-up to a British general election in recent years. On a typical day, it catalogues the number of politicians who appeared on television the previous evening; who promised what to the voters; the number of party-wise press releases; and the parties' fluctuating fortunes - the only fluctuation being a steady decline in the votebank of the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

For all the gloom that has descended on the Tories, however, they have not lost their sense of humour and are still trying hard to make a fight of it, even if it is restricted to the propaganda war. A Tory poster, which made even Labour smile, shows a hugely pregnant Tony Blair beside a slogan in brilliant red saying:"Four Years of Labour and He Still Hasn't Delivered" - a take-off on a 1970s Saatchi and Saatchi family planning advertisement that asked men: "Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?" Labour's targeting of Hague is less effective, and its most talked-about poster, featuring Hague, with a caption:"Vote Labour or This Man Will be Your Prime Minister", has not quite made the same impact.

The Liberal Democrats have decided against a personalised campaign and their leader Charles Kennedy has said "no" to a poster playing on the party's theme that Labour and the Conservative are two sides of the same coin. The poster has the shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe's boyish haircut supermimposed on the deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's face - and the caption reads: "Whatever's happening to British politics, it's not healthy." People are asked to vote for the Lib. Dems to discover "another way". That the poster will not be seen in public prompted The Independent on Sunday to lament: "What a shame that humour is the price to be paid for fighting clean." The party however would persist with its theme of a "plague on both your houses", and offering itself as the third alternative if people wanted better public services, more equitable distribution of resources and a less presidential style of governance.

IN an election as terribly one-sided as this, however there is little interest in issues. So, while the Tories are running an essentially negative campaign highlighting the "gap" between what Labour promised when it came to power and what it has - or has not - delivered, Labour is focussing on its "achievements" (for instance, for the first time in a quarter of a century the total number of unemployed persons is down to less than a million) and projecting its agenda for a second term.

Outside day-to-day concerns such as the state of public services, a better deal for pensioners and working parents, and taxes, there are two main issues at the heart of the current election campaign: asylum/immigration/race; and Europe. And on both the Tories have scored the first goal, putting Labour on the defensive. They have been able to tap successfully the latent British xenophobia to drive home its charge that Labour's vague asylum policy is turning Britain into a "soft touch" for asylum-seekers. Hague was widely criticised for a speech in which he accused the Blair government of turning Britain into a "foreign land" but it has struck a chord among grassroots Tories; as indeed have the "racist" remarks of some right-wing MPs of the party such as John Townend who was forced to apologise for saying that unchecked immigration was turning Britain into a "mongrel race". Even a liberal newspaper like The Observer admitted that "no one doubts that his (Townend's) views are shared by many". "With 75,000 people applying in the U.K. last year, everyone knows that asylum and immigration will be a key issue in the election," it said in a report acknowledging that asylum seekers did see Britain as a "soft" touch.

Blair's concern that Tories are ahead on this issue is reflected in his promise to tighten the asylum rules. In a recent article in The Times, he was at pains to defend his government's asylum policy and counter the Tory charge that he was trying to "silence" the debate on the issue. The Times noted that Blair's intervention was an "acknowledgement that, despite their own difficulties on race, the Conservatives have struck home with their accusations that Labour wants to stifle the asylum issue."

Similarly, on Europe, Labour is seen to be "responding" to the Tories' Europhobic campaign rather than leading from the front. Reports suggest that the Labour campaign would counter the Tories' "foreign land" theme by "saying something grand on patriotism and Britishness". It seems that the Tories' attempt to narrow the campaign theme to the issues on which they think they are strong, is working.

A pro-Labour commentator admitted that the party "fears that the campaign will be hijacked by subjects that are not its natural territory" but defended Labour's "reactive" rather than pro-active campaign thus:"If Labour has learnt one thing from its wildnerness years, it is this: if your opponent decides to fight on an agenda that you are not comfortable with, the worst thing you can do is ignore it." He however acknowledged that in the process Labour was losing out on the "vision thing", and some of the messages were confusing its supporters.

The charge that Labour continues to be obsesssed with "spin" and "presentation" rather than substance, was reinforced by Blair's choice of the venue to announce the election date - an inner-city girls' school which has dramatically improved its performance with a generous government handout. In his bid to be seen as a man of the "people", he departed from the sensible tradition of breaking the news first to the media at the doorstep of 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister's residence. The result, as anyone with his ears to the ground would have told him, was predictably disastrous - the media ridiculed him and the Tories went to town alleging that he was guilty of exploiting schoolchildren for political purposes and using a state-aided school for party propaganda. Even Labour sympathisers such as The Guardian thought that the "whole event stank of spin doctors' sweat".

Similarly, the party's decision to come out with a "pledge card" - a catalogue of promises - is seen as handing over ammunition to the Opposition since most of the pledges are simply "reheated" versions of the 1997 card which Labour critics still wave at it as a reminder of its "non-performance". "What troubles us more (than the Tories' criticism) is that, despite commanding a huge lead in the polls, Labour did not dare offer a bolder set of pledges than these. Why did the party not risk a programme that may genuinely have excited the nation - a platform that would have demanded a mandate?" asked The Guardian in an editorial which said that Labour had disappointed both in "style and substance".

Indeed, it will remain an enduring mystery as to why Labour's campaign is so defensive despite its unconquerable lead while the Tories have been remarkably aggressive even as defeat is staring them in the face. Whatever happened to Blair's "killer" instinct?

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