Long-anticipated general elections in Britain, now set for May 6, kicked off today as Prime Minister Gordon Brown arrived at Buckingham Palace mid-morning to ask Queen Elizabeth to dissolve parliament, the final step before campaigning begins. It is the first time the queen has intervened since the early 1990s.
The outcome is by no means certain. In early winter, with fresh-faced Conservative Party leader David Cameron promising “change” after the term of the more dour incumbent, Mr. Brown of the Labour Party, it looked to be a blowout for Mr. Cameron. But the race has tightened to about 8 points, with a Guardian poll this morning describing only a 4-point difference between the two, making it the tightest race in some 20 years, some analysts say.
But in the eyes of most British pundits, the race remains Cameron's to lose. Prof. Steven Fielding of the School of Politics at Nottingham University says that today’s appearance by Gordon Brown outside No. 10 Downing Street, when he announced the election date while flanked by members of his cabinet, was indicative of his unpopularity.
“What we heard him emphasize was that he is part of a team. And that is what you do when you are not very popular,” he says. “It contrasts with the election in 1997, when it was all about Tony Blair rather than the party and those around him."
As helicopters buzzed above Central London tracking the departure of Brown’s car from the pro forma meeting with the queen, Cameron was speaking from the south bank of the River Thames: "It is the most important election for a generation and it comes down to this: You don't have to put up with another five years of Gordon Brown,” he said. Cameron, apparently taking a page from the Obama campaign, spoke of “hope," and "the fresh start this country needs.”
Gunning for Gordon Brown
"The Conservatives will really be going for Brown," says Professor Fielding. "In parts of the country, for example, we have already seen large Conservative posters going up with Gordon Brown’s face on them and text telling voters that it’s time for a change."
Shortly after meeting Queen Elizabeth, Brown appeared at No. 10 Downing St. speaking in more stentorian tones. He made no direct mention of Cameron but said a Labour victory would keep Britain’s economic recovery on pace and asked the British public for a “clear and straightforward mandate.”
“Britain is on the road to recovery and nothing we do should put that recovery at risk,” he said, suggesting that the substantial cuts in government spending promised by the Conservative Party, or Tories, would hurt job creation.
With doubts about the Conservative economic plan in British minds, Brown, standing with Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, told voters that a vote for Labour was a vote for experience: "I am not a team of one, I am one of a team," he said.
Dissent among Tories about party direction
The Financial Times (FT) today carried a front-page story on an investigation into Tory rank-and-file members who are “unconvinced by the party’s direction” – with a policy of 10 percent budget cuts concerning Tory candidates who have to convince local voters their jobs are not at risk.
“Cameron’s Tories remain deeply ambivalent about their relationship with Thatcherism,” argued FT columnist Gideon Rachman in a separate piece.
The Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg are polling at 21 percent. The Tories are seen as needing a strong showing for an electorate with a surfeit of undecided votes. Also, Tories may find some votes siphoned off from the ultraright British National Party (BNP) which for several years has been growing, and that may take upwards of 10-to-12 percent of the votes from a working class white public unhappy with immigrants seen as taking jobs.
The elections will see for the first time no fewer than three American-style political TV debates between Brown and Cameron – a prospect that has captivated an already media-blitzy London. Brown represents the fourth straight Labour government, having taken over from Tony Blair in 2007.
“One important factor to bear in mind, however, is that we have got an unprecedented large number of people who have yet to make up their minds about who they will vote for, but even so, Labour will have to pull some rabbits out of the hat to emerge as the winning party," said Nottingham's Fielding.