Blair wary of great expectations

British voters go to the polls on Thursday, but apathy is high as citizens bemoan their choices.

Imagine voting in a country that Germany's Stern magazine describes as "deep in crisis," where agriculture has been ravaged by livestock epidemics, leading to a collapse in tourism. A place where two weeks before the election, two northern cities erupted in race riots, and where the deputy prime minister punched a rowdy protester at a campaign stop.

Welcome to Britain, where, despite such troubles, just about everyone expects the ruling Labour Party to win big in Thursday's parliamentary elections.

With scattered cases of foot-and-mouth livestock disease still being reported, and with the northern cities of Bradford and Oldham still smoldering from riots, Prime Minister Tony Blair has come in for sharp criticism. His deputy, John Prescott, was taken to task for hitting a protester who threw an egg at him.

But Britain's top betting agency, Ladbrooke's, is so certain of the outcome of the vote that it announced on Monday it will begin immediate payouts to those who bet on a second term for Mr. Blair.

At this point, the only major question appears to be how much voter apathy may affect the results.

Concerned at predictions of a record-low turnout, Blair embarked on a whirlwind campaign tour over the weekend.

In his own last-minute effort, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, William Hague, has taken to urging voters to beware of handing a landslide to what he called: "the most arrogant, aggressive, and intimidatory government in modern history."

Conservative ads feature a hand with a pin, moving toward the image of a grinning Blair, with the slogan: "Go on, burst his bubble."

It follows in the wake of a Labour Party ad that depicted Mr. Hague, who is bald, with the distinctive hairstyle of former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the caption: "Be afraid. Be very afraid."

For voters like Andrew Parkinson, a self-employed property manager from Yorkshire, in northern England, the campaign is a source of disappointment. "There don't seem to have been any issues, because if there were a big issue, it would be foot-and-mouth. And the fact that it has not been an issue is a disgrace!

"This has been an election of personality," Mr. Parkinson says, adding: "I'm going to vote Tory.

"I ... don't trust Tony Blair as far as I can throw him."

Jesse Armstrong, a comedy writer from Brixton, southeast London, will definitely vote Labour. "I'd like to see a landslide. I'd like to see some more Tories [Conservatives] in pain," he says.

"I'm not leaping for joy about what they have done in their first term, but I'm incredibly happy that it was not the Tories." For him, Blair's "greatest achievement was to decrease the number of people living in poverty."

Taking a line from former US President Clinton's strategy - "It's the economy, stupid!" - Blair has boasted that his pro-business, centrist government has delivered a booming economy and reduced unemployment.

And Blair has argued that he needs a second term to improve investment in public services such as schools, hospitals, and transport.

The British economy is doing well, with unemployment at a 25-year low and the cost of borrowing and inflation down. Since Labour came to power in mid-1997, the economy has expanded 10 percent - not as much as the US or the Eurozone, the participants in the European Union's common currency, but better than average for Britain.

Blair made gaining a reputation for economic competence a priority. Editorial writers now joke about Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown's love of "prudence" and "stability."

The Conservatives, for their part, campaigned mainly on a right-wing, anti-European agenda, which argues that Britain should keep the pound for the time being and not join the European common currency, the euro.

A second key theme has been a pledge to tighten immigration controls, weeding out bogus asylum seekers. Hague also promises substantial tax cuts.

Sophie Bainbridge, picking up her daughter from Noah's Ark nursery school in southeast London on a recent day, voted Labour in the last election. This time, says she plans to cast her ballot for the Liberal Democrats, Britain's third-largest party. "I don't think Labour has done what it promised, but I'm still too disenchanted to vote Conservative," she says.

Ann Heilmann, a lecturer in English at the University of Wales, Swansea, is deeply critical of the government's funding of higher education. She plans to vote for the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru.

On a recent return visit to her birthplace in Germany, she says, friends "kept asking me how healthy it was to live here."

But the biggest potential problem the Labour Party faces, according to some analysts, is voter apathy. According to Collin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, of the Local Government Election Centre at Plymouth University, if just 1 in 10 of those who voted Labour in 1997 stay home, turnout would fall below 70 percent. "Without a single vote changing hands between the parties, up to 20 Labour [ministers of Parliament] would be out of work and the government's majority reduced by twice that amount."

Out of the 659 seats in the House of Commons, Labour holds 417 seats, Conservatives have 159, and the Liberal Democrats have 47.

The main question hanging over the June 7 vote has come down to the size of Labour's win - and whether there will be a Conservative rout. Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, has said he wants his party to take on the mantle of Britain's opposition.

That may be a bit ambitious. In one of a slew of voter surveys, a weekend poll for London's Sunday Times newspaper found 47 percent support for Labour, compared with 30 percent support for Conservatives and 16 percent for Liberal Democrats.

In addition, half of the respondents said they feel "none of the parties really represents me." Some 57 percent said "there are no great politicians anymore."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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