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Friday, April 22, 2005

The war issue in UK politics....

There are a couple of weeks left in the UK election campaign, and it is difficult not to get drawn into comparisons with US politics when you reside on the side of the pond. One thing is clear, and that is that British politics seems much more driven by issues than by images despite efforts to do otherwise. There is no question that each of the major parties has learned its lessons about how to package and sell a campaign over the past several decades, and a recent TV documentary on Channel 4 (Election Unspun: How to Win Power) presented a pretty informative history and analysis of how this came about starting with the Thatcher victory in 1979 and reaching its height in the Labour Party's victories in 1997 and 2001.

But as you watch the current campaign, it's clear that unlike their American counterparts, British politicians can't help but talk to issues. The problem is that no issue (or set of issues) seems to have sparked interest in the campaign or moved the polls as yet. But this all might change over the next week or so as the seemingly suppressed issue of the Blair government's decision to go to war in Iraq slowly percolates to the surface.

Columnists have been asking the question pretty consistently: why hasn't the issue of the war become part of this election? In part this has been a matter of choice by the major parties. Labour avoids the question for obvious reasons, for not only would the issue draw attention to questions about Blair's trustworthiness but it would stir up already testy relations with many members of the party's left-wing who opposed the war back in 2003. The Conservatives, who supported Blair in the parliamentary debate over the war, have only gently raise questions about Iraq and instead have chosen to focus on the question of immigrants and their impact on public services.

Quite surprisingly, the Liberal Democrats who opposed the war from the outset have been seemingly avoiding the issue -- at least until now. All indications are that they have based their election strategy on raising the war issue in the last weeks of the campaign. In lieu of the war issue, they have been pushing the rest of their agenda up until now -- an agenda that has constantly seemed in out of sync with the debates taking place between Labour and the Tories that dominates election coverage. This is either intentional or a sign of an incompetent electoral strategy. It is increasingly looking as if they are sticking to a strategy that ultimately relies on mobilizing the antiwar vote during the home stretch. We'll know if this is the case in a few days, but comments in the Guardian and by Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy in an interview this evening gives the clear impression that they will launch the issue very soon.

Will the war issue make a difference in the campaign? I suspect that most of my colleagues who are well informed about UK politics will answer with a pretty firm "no" and chuckle about my naïveté in thinking that this might happen. But there are certain indications that this sensitive issue will in fact make a difference, especially if some stories in the media can be regarded as credible signs of what might be going on just below the surface of this quiet electorate. Stories keep popping up about the difficulties that the major campaigners for Labour are running into as they take to the streets. Two well-publicized encounters in recent days showed both Blair and his deputy prime minister, John Prescott, confronted by hostile questions. In Blair's case it was a conversation with a very dedicated Labour Party member who expressed concern about where he had taken the party and how difficult it was for her and her parents to stay committed to Labour. Prescott, well known for his temper on the campaign trail, had a rather nasty exchang with a local reporter in Wales in a confrontation that made headlines in the mainstream media. The reporter had been raising questions about the local politician who had abandoned the Labour ticket to run as an independent, and Prescott's response was effectively that he could care less about how some local Welsh party member felt about national policies....

For me these telltale signs of brewing difficulty were reinforced by stories in today's Guardian about the father of a soldier killed in Iraq who is campaigning against Blair in the prime minister's constituency of Sedgefield. Reg Keys, a retired ambulance driver, seems to be attracting some attention and support and could possibly cause considerable embarrassment if he makes a strong showing against Blair. In a feature article in the G2 section, the Guardian asked several people who participated in the mass antiwar demonstrations of 2003 how they plan to vote, and in each case it was a strong indication that those who would otherwise be committed to Labour were willing to consider voting for Liberal Democrats or other parties -- even at the risk that this might lead to a Tory victory.

Yes, these are little signs, all anecdotal. Nevertheless they may indicate something much more substantial, and there is no telling at the moment whether we might see a more interesting race developed over the next two weeks if the decision to go to war in Iraq becomes a major issue.
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