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Day three: A candid, open election it is not

By CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley
CNN's Robin Oakley
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British Prime Minister Tony Blair calls May 5 election.
• April 7:  Howard up, up, up?
Which party is best equipped to take Britain forward in 2005?
Liberal Democrat
Robin Oakley
UK election

LONDON, England (CNN) -- This is becoming the election of secret agendas.

The Conservatives insist Labour has a secret agenda of tax increases, a suspicion they are able to feed in the minds of the British electorate because Labour spokesmen won't rule out an increase in National Insurance rates in the next Parliament.

Labour are insistent that the Tories have a secret agenda of spending cuts, which would put at risk standards in the National Health Service and in education.

The sacking of Conservative deputy chairman Howard Flight and his removal as a Tory candidate for suggesting that the promised £35 billion of spending cuts would be "only a start" has kept Michael Howard somewhat on the back foot on this issue, particularly when Flight's constituency association chose in his place a candidate who had put similar views on record.

A candid, open election it is not.

Both major parties have had the minders out restricting the opportunities for journalists to ask questions.

And one question we would all like answered is: "Just how many of those election posters whose unveiling ceremonies provide the party leaders with predictable photo-opportunities actually go up on billboards across the country?"

Not many, I would bet. The poster unveilings are phony. Salome whipped off her veils a lot more frequently than most of these posters will be unwrapped.

Interestingly, the prominence of Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown on the poster Blair did unveil, asking if the country would rather have Brown, with his eight years experience, or the untried Conservative Oliver Letwin running the economy, indicates that this time Blair and Brown really have done a deal which will stick.

After that, Blair could hardly move him from the Treasury if Labour is re-elected. Not without ridicule anyway.

Labour's big two have for now succeeded in defusing the "TB-GB question." The truth is that Labour can't run their campaign without Brown. Poll after poll reveals that for all the Tory fuss about the "66 stealth tax rises" under his command at the Treasury, the country trusts Brown much more than it trusts Blair.

After Blair announced last autumn that this would be his last election, meaning that he would have to step down at some stage in the next election to give his successor time to get established, the Tories test-marketed a campaign which warned: "Vote Blair, get Brown."

They dropped the idea when they found too many respondents saying: "Yes, please."

According to the latest Yougov poll in the Daily Telegraph, the Conservatives are having some success is in moving the issue of trust towards the top of the political agenda.

It is in their interests to make the election as much as possible a referendum on Blair.

The prime minister has to keep rubbing home that it is a question of choice, particularly because he still leads Howard 34-26 when people are asked who would do the best job in No. 10 Downing Street.

We certainly seem to have a particularly volatile electorate these days.

Partly it is because the tribal nature of politics has broken down and because there are few big ideological divides any more. Politics is ever more media-driven.

But with different polls adopting different methodologies we have to interpret them with extra caution. Some give their verdicts on party support purely from those who have said they are "certain to vote."

Others include, with a lesser weighting, those who express an opinion on party support but do not say they are likely to vote. Some polls question people face to face in street interviews, some do it by telephone, and at least one via the Internet.

So at this stage some words of warning. Remember that polls are a snapshot of opinion at the moment they are taken, not a predictor of the outcome. They are most valuable in measuring trends. Don't read too much into a change in figures between one poll and another, compare them only consecutive polls from the same organization to measure the trend.

And remember that the British electoral system is badly skewed by out of date constituency boundaries and Labour's better-spread vote.

Yougov's latest poll therefore, showing 36 per cent support for Labour and 35 per cent support for the Conservatives does not mean they would, on a uniform swing, come out with virtually the same number of seats in the House of Commons. On those figures Labour would still have a majority of nearly 70 seats.

The first week of campaigning has been a strange one, moving towards the lull in hostilities provided by the pope's funeral and Prince Charles's wedding to Camilla Parker-Bowles.

Next week is promise time when the parties start taking the wraps not just off their posters but off their policies and manifestoes.

I doubt if any of them will have an offering in a football-mad nation quite as good as the policy declared at a recent election by a leading figure in Turkey's Liberal Democratic Party.

"When we come to power" he declared "we're going to get rid of the offside rule." Beat that, Tony.

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