This election campaign is officially underway at last, and it promises to be the most important in over a decade.
No surprises when Mr. Blair yesterday called a general election for May 5th. So long as nothing major goes wrong in the next month, it’s as good a time as any for him to seek that third and final term. However, Labour will have to do some hard work over the next month. Unlike 1997 and 2001, where it would have been near impossible for them to lose, 2005 is a much bigger challenge.
The big reason is Iraq. I know many people who would be quite happy to vote Labour again this year if it wasn’t for the war, which Labour will try and push to the back of people’s minds. Luckily for them, the Conservatives will have to let them, as they supported the invasion, leaving only the Lib Dems to bring it up. In many areas, a Lib Dem victory will be at the hands of the Conservatives anyway, helping rather than hindering Labour.
Some polls now have the two main parties “neck and neck” – which is stretching things a little. Most commentators still expect Labour to win, although turnout is the crucial factor. Conservative voters are much more likely to vote than Labour voters, who might be tempted to stay at home or register a protest vote for the Lib Dems or some other party. Even so, with a strong economy, Labour aren’t exactly despairing.
It’s a tactic, of course, to try and make the race seem as close as possible, because it motivates your voters to get out there. The media love it because it makes everything much more exciting. It also keeps the parties together and focuses on the opposition, instead of tearing each other apart.
Personality will also play a big role in this election. Unlike ‘quiet man’ Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard is a more formidable opponent. (Having said that – I’m watching Prime Minister’s Questions now where he seems to have rehearsed a dodgy pantomime performance with his MPs – never mind.) His biggest problem is that he’s seen as, well, nasty. Which is not surprising, given that he comes loaded with his record in the last Tory governments.
Mr. Blair, on the other hand, has simply lost trust with the voters. Many will be voting Labour in spite of, not because of, the leader. He’ll need to triumph his government’s record, not himself, which is now forever associated with George W Bush. And there’s the little matter of his successor as well. Who will follow Mr. Blair? Gordon Brown is popular in some places, but doesn’t have the ‘Middle England’ appeal of the Prime Minister.
So prepare for a month of baby kissing, stump speeches, dubious statistics and scare mongering. Posters, party election broadcasts and endless news reports. And once you’ve made up your mind, vote, and then get ready for a fascinating new five years. The first Labour term was about managing the transition after 18 years of Tory government. The second was supposed to be about delivery, but the war cast a long shadow over it. Third time lucky, or sudden twist in the tale? You decide.
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Sorry – only 29 more days to go though!