British parties neck and neck

Issue 

By Steve Painter

Britain could emerge from its April 9 general election with a minority government. While the ruling Conservatives are very unpopular in the midst of the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, Labour appears unable to win clearly.

For the past three months, opinion polls have given neither party a clear lead, with a 6% swing to Labour falling short of the 8% the party needs.

Short of a dramatic swing during the election campaign, the Liberal Democrats, Welsh and Scottish nationalists and Ulster Unionists could emerge holding the balance of power. This in turn could lead to long-overdue reform of Britain's grossly undemocratic electoral system, since the Liberal Democrats are demanding introduction of proportional representation as the price of any coalition. The Liberal Democrats presently hold 22 seats after winning around 20% of the vote in 1987.

The recent polls reflect a big swing back to the Tories since Margaret Thatcher's replacement by John Major in November 1990. For much of the year before Thatcher's resignation, Labour led the Tories by 20% or more. Major's change of economic direction, including a promise to repeal the unpopular poll tax, is largely responsible for the swing back.

Major preceded the election announcement with about $10 billion worth of new spending on items such as pay rises for health workers, the armed forces and teachers, and about $120 million to support Manchester's Olympic games bid. The national budget, released just after the election announcement, included another $3.5 billion of new spending and tax relief for small business and the car industry, but with around four months left of their five-year term, the Tories ran out of time to wait for economic recovery.

Britain's economic troubles are deeper than those of any other advanced capitalist country, largely because of the Thatcher decade. The Tories' privatisation of housing alone inflated the boom of the late '80s by around 5%, making the crash even more severe when it eventually came.

The recession hit especially hard at hundreds of thousands who had taken on mortgages to participate in the housing privatisation. There has been an unprecedented wave of housing-related bankruptcies, and the housing crisis is a major factor restricting the consumer market and obstructing recovery.

The Tories preceded the election announcement with a campaign claiming Labour would add around $2250 to average Britons' tax bills. In fact, the tax burden for most has actually increased under the Tories, but in the less visible form of indirect taxes, such as sales tax, rather than income tax.

Labour's biggest liability seems to be its right-wing leader, Neil Kinnock, who is running well behind Major in opinion polls. The ost right-wing manifesto in decades, and of savage purges of the Labour left, he is widely mistrusted, and his long-winded speaking style has earned him a reputation as a bit of a buffoon.

Meanwhile, Labour faces a dilemma in Scotland, one of its main electoral bases. Scottish nationalism is becoming increasingly popular as feeling grows that the country would be better off as an independent part of the European Community. Opposing this view could be electorally costly to Labour, but supporting it would mean eventually cutting off one of the main bases on which future Labour governments would be built.