May 14, 2001
All the metaphors have been used up. The starting pistol has been fired, they are out of the starting gates, etc., etc., etc. I am bored already. If Iím bored, a registered political junkie, what are real people thinking? However we will go through the paces whoís in, out, up or down in the British election on June 7. Oh, and whatís at stake.
The most important difference from a non-interventionist point of view is Europe. It is dreadfully easy to say that as both parties are committed to remaining in the European Union then this is not really an issue. This is poisonous rubbish. The Conservatives are advocating policies that can only logically lead to a British exit from the European Union. The demand to repatriate powers from the European Union is heresy to most Eurocrats. The proposal to legislate the supremacy of British law over European law strikes at the heart of acquis communitaire, or European Law. A Conservative government, no matter how unlikely, will be a step towards withdrawal even if only by disappointment and broken promises.
Defence is another area where the Conservatives are surprisingly radical. There opposition to the European Defence Initiative has been skilled and effective; it is a shame that most opposition to European initiatives have not been as deft. Similarly the Conservatives have actually invoked, gasp, national interest when opposing such adventures as Sierra Leone and East Timor. They did back the Kosovan war, although they were said to have been opposed to a ground invasion at first. This is not to say that they are actually in favour of the national interest, or British independence, they just want a slightly more distant and friendly overlord in the shape of America. On a range of issues from the Hainan incident to son of Star Wars, Blair has found that the main criticism of his conduct has been that he is too aloof from America. This is a shock to the rest of the world.
There are a number of other differences between the parties on international issues, from foreign aid to the definition of free trade, but the defence and European aspects are probably the most important. With a few odd exceptions, such as their hawkish stance on Zimbabwe, the Conservatives are better than their Labour counterparts, at least in terms of foreign policy. One must not let the perfect be an enemy of the good, or at least the marginally better.
On paper, the Labour Party will romp home. They are about twenty points ahead in the polls. In fact, if the Conservatives do well or they do badly in the media, the opinion polls show remarkably little correlation with this meaning that a good Conservative performance will hardly shift the opinion polls. However, there is one problem with this picture the history of elections in the UK since Labourís victory in 1997.
Labour has actually done well in only one of the many elections since 1997 that for the Scottish assembly. In every other election, they have done badly because in every other election they have not really fought. In Scotland there was a real chance that the Scottish Nationalist Party would challenge Labour, and for a while the Nats where ahead in the polls. In the last few weeks Labour regained the lead and pushed their voters out. In every other election, they have come out badly. The annual local elections went from disappointing at the beginning of their term, to disastrous at the end of it all the time while their were holding double digit leads in the polls. Similarly in the European Parliament elections, they held almost exactly the same lead in the polls as they do today and yet they suffered their worst result in a national election since 1983. In Wales they lost outright control of one of their heartlands, and saw a swathe of their safest seats fall to a bunch of mystical Celtic nationalists. In London, the Tories won a large majority of the first past the post seats in the Assembly elections and this was one of only two (out of six) English regions that Labour had won in the European elections. Considering their opinion poll lead, why does Labour have such a bad record in the polls?
This coming election will probably the most technical in living memory. The conservatives are, it is commonly admitted, doing better than their pathetic opinion poll figures would suggest. This has been the case in both the 1997 election (although opinion pollsters try to disagree) and much more spectacularly in 1992 where there was an unpredicted Tory win. This, however is small beer compared to two factors that have had a dramatic effect on the elections throughout Labourís term, differential turnout and tactical voting.
In 1997, tactical voting came in a big way. Left wing voters, who had long been split between Liberal and Labour (and in Scotland and Wales the nationalists) suddenly decided to throw party differences aside and vote for whoever had the best chance of beating the Conservative. To an extent this has continued, with the Liberal Democrats winning two sensational parliamentary by-elections against the Conservatives. On a general basis this has meant that the Conservatives have done far better in those elections where the traditional boundaries were not followed than in those where they were. However, the driving force of tactical voting, hatred of the Conservative government, has obviously dissipated. This could mean big losses for the government if left wing voters go back to their traditional parties.
The other big factor was that of differential turnout, quite simply whether one partyís voters were more or less likely to turn out to vote. In 1997, this hit the Conservatives badly as many of their more right wing supporters decided that it was just not worth voting for them. Similarly many traditionally rather apathetic Labour supporters just could not be held back from voting for the Labour Party. This is going to go in reverse this time, as many left wing and working class voters (not the same thing) just sit at home. This will be increased by the opinion polls that show Labour cruising to a comfortable win. Why bother to vote when a party that you do not particularly like is going to win an easy victory? The conservatives will have their own problems with turnout as well, although it will not appear that way as many of their voters come back from their silent protest at the last election. Differential Turnout will be to this election what hanging chads where to the last one.
This is not to say that the conservatives will win. Even if all of these factors (the opinion polls, the decline in tactical voting and differential turnout) each have the effect of a 5% increase in the vote it will still mean a 5% lead for Blair. However, if I was laying bets on this early in the game, and I am not, then I would say that putting bets on a much-reduced Labour majority would be good now. There are other possible complicating factors. There is an undeclared war in Kosovo with the KLA (where three British servicemen have died "accidentally). The stock market could crash at any time, but one must assume that with less than a month to go things will remain stable. The election is still Labourís to lose, however never underestimate the ability for Mr. Blairís team to mess it up.
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