Wednesday, April 07, 2010

UK: The election campaign begins

Britain will head to the polls in a little under a month after Prime Minister Gordon Brown sought permission from the Queen to dissolve parliament and announced the general election. The date of May 6th had been anticipated for weeks, but yesterday it was confirmed as Brown along with his cabinet stood on the steps of Downing Street to say he would seek a clear mandate from the people of Britain and set the country on a "road to recovery". And with that the battle lines were drawn. 

Within minutes the party leaders were gallivanting around the country seeking picture opportunities and making statements to the press. On the south side of the River Thames Conservative leader David Cameron spoke of "hope" and a "fresh start" rather than "more of the same". The Lib Dems feeling more confident than ever insisted this election campaign would not be a "two-horse race". Party leader Nick Clegg declared, "this is a big big election, it's certainly the beginning of the end for Brown". People were "crying out for something different," he said. It was a choice "between more of the same from the old parties... or real change, something different from the Liberal Democrats".

Outside parliament the BBC interviewed Labour's Home Secretary Alan Johnson who was particularly upbeat about the record set by his party. "Can you win this election?" he was asked, "Yes we can" Johnson echoed back. The now famous 'Yes we can' catchphrase from the 2008 presidential election doesn't have quite the same ring when uttered by British politicians. In fact it is more reminiscent of the song by cartoon character Bob the builder, who also used the same catchphrase.

This will be the first election to have American style TV debates, with all three main party leaders being grilled on their policies. It may prove to be a deciding factor in what is being considered to be a tight race. The BBC, Sky and ITV will each show a 90 minute debate. The first will broadcast on ITV on April 15th. Sky will host the second on April 22nd, and the BBC the last debate on the 29th. Audience saturation will be biggest for the debates shown on ITV and the BBC since fewer people have access to Sky, though excerpts are likely to make it into news programmes later.
The election will also prove historic in other ways too. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other web 2.0 applications are likely to add to the debate significantly. Already some have capitalised on the use of the web in satirising the impending political fight. One website has several lampoons of the Conservative party's campaign posters which has also drawn interest from newspapers. 

Set up by Clifford Singer, a creative director who claims not to be affiliated to any political party, the website is currently showcasing 60 copycat banners. Among them is one which sees David Cameron wearing a hooded top, paying 'tribute' to his much-mocked Hug-A-Hoodie campaign [Daily Mail].

April 1st proved to be too much temptation for some papers which used April Fools Day to mock the prime minister. The Guardian sought to convince readers that Labour had indulged in a campaign to convince voters that Gordon Brown was willing to take on David Cameron in "a bare-knuckle fistfight for the future of Britain". The spoof story showed one poster depicting Brown alongside the caption "Step outside, posh boy," while another asked "Do you want some of this?"

The real election fight may not come to physical blows, but the gloves are now off. The polls show varying gaps between the two main parties. YouGov, Populus, and Harris all put the gap between Labour and Conservative at 10%. The latest ICM poll shows a 9% gap with ComRes giving 7% and Ipsos-Mori 5%. The conservatives must maintain at least a 10% lead in order to wins this election [BBC - Chart]

To secure an overall majority, a party must win at least 326 seats, however if no party succeeds in doing so, the result will be a hung Parliament. Few political pundits believe this likely, however. After 13 years in power, Labour enters the election with a notional majority of 48 seats, meaning that a loss of 24 seats would see them lose their overall majority. A post-war record number of 144 MPs are standing down at the election, partly brought about from the fallout of the MP expenses scandal.  As such there will be a great many new faces in the next session of parliament.

Parliament will not be officially dissolved until Monday April 12th. MPs will have until close of business on Thursday to get remaining legislation, that the parties can agree on, through Parliament, a process known as the "wash-up". Commons leader Harriet Harman said this would include all stages of the Finance Bill, which enacts the Budget, and further debate on the Digital Economy Bill, constitutional reform and crime and security legislation. The government will drop plans for a referendum on changing the voting system and to phase out remaining hereditary peers.

Parliament will reconvene on Tuesday May 18th after the three horse race is over [BBC]. As it gets started there will be the final PMQs of this session, which promises to be as memorable and historic as this election campaign [Sky News].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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