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Saturday, February 26, 2005

Mr. Howard's Mo....

Political life in the UK is never really off the front pages. After all, this is a system in which all parties are geared up to go into campaign mode on (officially) six weeks notice. Of course, with large majorities on its side, New Labour has had the luxury of calling the electoral shots for the past two "terms", and not too long ago it looked as if it was in a position to easily win an election that it plans to call for May 5. That date has been the worse kept secret in British politics, and each day you can see the campaign machinery for all the parties going into second gear.

Despite Tony Blair's problems associated with his push for the war in Iraq, until very recently it seemed a no-brainer that Labour would win a third term with a smaller but comfortable margin in the House of Commons. But now that seems a not-so-sure wager.

Several weeks ago there was a news item that followed several days after the Australian elections in which the conservative incumbent Prime Minister won a significant reelection. The news was that Lynton Crosby, the man behind that victory -- Australia's equivalent of Karl Rove -- had been hired by the Conservative Party in the UK to run the Tory campaign. I don't know why I paid any more attention to that story than to any other political news, but yesterday the wisdom of that hire became evident. It looks like Michael Howard and his Tories have made the upcoming election into a real contest.

The story in yesterday's Guardian revolved around one particular poll indicating that Labour's lead over the Tories had been cut to three points from nine. Another poll pointed to a shift in direction, while a third gave the Labourites a little better news. Nevertheless, the spin generated out of these polls have boosted the Conservative Party by giving the impression that they might make this into a serious challenge.

As significant, the news seems to have stirred up some concern within Labour party ranks that there might be trouble ahead. It's clear to even the most casual observer that there is trouble within Labour. The anti-Blair faction is definitely small, but it is vocal and visible and perhaps just the tip of a larger iceberg. It is probably one of the reasons that the Labour campaign seems to be focused on using a strategy based on national media rather than relying on the traditional grassroots approach of pushing local canvassing. By doing so, they avoid having to make the internal compromises and changes that would be necessary to get some of the more disgruntled backbenchers onboard. Instead this will be a campaign based on mobilizing voter support for the Blair government rather than for Labour and its principles.

But even the national media approach seems to be shaky at the moment since Blair's major rival within Labour, Chancellor Gordon Brown, seems to be sitting on his hands rather than being fully engaged in the process. Brown, who in the past has sat at the campaign strategy table, was moved aside from that role about a year ago, and there is certainly no love lost between these partners. This may prove to be a major error on Blair's part as Howard gains strength.

This is likely to turn out to be a very interesting and perhaps surprising election....
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