UK Election Watch

By Gino Persaud

With a few days left to the May 6th polls, the UK now bears witness to one of the most gripping electoral battles in many years. It is a critical election and it has aroused great interest among otherwise apathetic voters. This is reflected in the current political climate wherever I go; there is quite a bit of excitement, anxiety, sharp exchanges-as sharp as the British can be-and all the other emotions that usually accompany closely fought elections. A UK citizen of Guyanese heritage with whom I spoke recalled a similar atmosphere during the 1997 elections and the euphoria that enveloped many following Blair’s victory, paralleled only by great disappointment at the Labour party’s subsequent stewardship.

Gordon Brown is in the battle of his life to win his first election since inheriting office from Tony Blair. Conservative Party leader David Cameron currently leads the polls, while for the first time a third party, the Liberal Democrats led by the charismatic Nick Clegg, has made an impact and is now second in the polls.

Brown conceded to the Observer that Labour was going into the elections as the underdog. Trailing in the polls, he didn’t help his situation with his recent description of a voter who questioned him on immigration issues as a “bigoted woman,” not realising that his microphone was still on. However, the Prime Minister has on his side his effective financial management of Britain during and after the global financial crisis, with policies and critical decisions that have undoubtedly steered Britain out of recession. And he reminds the electorate of this fact at every opportunity. Tony Blair has been called in at the last moment to campaign for Brown, in what the Liberal Democrats call a desperate move by Labour.

The nation witnessed a meteoric rise in Clegg’s popularity following his performance on the first of the BBC’s three televised debates. (The debates are in themselves historic, since it is the first time in British history that its political leaders engaged in the American model of televised debates.) Clegg is attractive and inspiring to many young voters. He has consistently presented himself as the face of change, a fresh alternative and a viable third option on a political landscape that has long been dominated by the two major political parties. He has called for a new kind of politics, reminiscent of Blair’s call in 1997 for a new political culture and a “new Labour.” Some persons I have spoken with have registered their disappointment at the track record of Blair’s “new Labour” from 1997. The Guardian newspaper, which traditionally backed Labour, has endorsed the Liberal Democrats, officially declaring last Friday that “if the Guardian had a vote it would be cast enthusiastically for the Liberal Demo-crats.” However, it is supporting Labour in marginal constituencies.

One sustained topical issue I keep hearing from voters is their dissatisfaction with the electoral system, which some have called “archaic.” There are strong calls for reform and for this to be the last election under the first-past-the-post system. In fact, it was only recently that a permanent elections commission was established.

The Liberal Democrats seem to be the only party which has consistently and clearly promised electoral reform. The Guardian has also called for a system of proportional representation that would see a parliament more reflective of a plural and diverse society.

It is generally accepted that Cameron offers a refreshingly different conservative face. Some have said that his current policies are substantially different from those previously embraced by Michael Howard, Thatcher and others. He is recognised as being bold to confront and challenge many of the traditional criticisms of the “Tories” and has made many changes altering traditional Conservative philosophy. However, some of his proposals are controversial, such as the scrapping of the Human Rights Act which contains many fundamental rights and freedoms in a country where there is no written constitution.

Cameron was recently endorsed by the Times newspaper, which is the first time since 1992 that it is backing the Tories.

These three candidates are all formidable contenders and are presenting a serious choice and challenge to voters, many of whom are still undecided at this late stage. The fact that many professionals are still undecided is a healthy sign, since they have indicated that they are still open to being persuaded by the political parties based on policy and principle. This (Sunday) afternoon, I spoke to three voters who are all professionals with impressive academic qualifications and they are still undecided. They are torn between Labour and the Lib Dems. Meanwhile, the latest polls continue to show the Conservatives in the lead, projected to win the most seats but unable to muster the required majority of 326 seats to form a government and avoid a hung parliament. There are 650 seats up for battle in the general elections.

Attorney Gino Persaud is a member of the Common-wealth Observer Team comprising members of civil society and parliamentarians from around the world. You can follow his experiences on the campaign trail at his blog ginopersaud.blogspot.com.

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