Battle for Britain down to Messrs Glum, Smooth and Callow

By Nicola Lamb

British and Australian elections are the closest to our own.

There's the similarity in cultures, political systems and the fact that parties in the three countries magpie-pick across the waters to produce their "new" ideas.

Both countries go to the polls this year with the still tricky economic conditions likely to be crucial in both races.

Labor, as a first-term Government, will have a definite edge over the Liberals in Australia.

In Britain, the three main parties are presenting the electorate with some unappetising offerings for May 6 - Mr Glum, Mr Smooth and Mr Callow.

Labour, led by the bearish Gordon Brown, certainly looks like a party that needs a period in the dim light at the back of the cave to lick its wounds and emerge refreshed. After 13 years, three terms, a change of leader, very public party feuding and a supply-line of scandal, Labour - simply by the laws of exhaustion - should be roadkill under the Tories' wheels. Instead, polls in the past month have mostly put the Conservatives about 3-6 per cent ahead - enough for some bubbly but not yet a bender.

Founder of the Mori polling organisation Robert Worcester told the Observer on Sunday: "In more than 70 polls - involving 100,000 electors - the Tories' share has not fluctuated beyond 3 per cent above and below 38 per cent."

A Populus poll for the Times on Wednesday put the gap between the Conservatives and Labour within the usual margin of error, with the Conservatives on 36, Labour on 33 and the Liberal Democrats on 21. ComRes surveys for the Independent this week have put the Tories' lead at about five points.

The Conservatives need their biggest swing since World War II - 7 per cent, more than Margaret Thatcher's 5.3 per cent in 1979 - to win outright.

Pundits say a hung Parliament is the most likely outcome and a Labour/Lib Dem pact a possibility.

The Tories need more than just a "kick the sods out" sentiment. They need enthusiasm - hence leader David Cameron gift-wrapping the traditional Thatcherite theme of small government as an Obamaesque 'hopeful' 'change'. Previous rhetoric about the coming need for austerity has been banished.

A problem for the Conservatives is they were widely implicated in the MPs' expenses scandal and some of the more spectacular claims - moat-clearing, duck-houses, hedge-clipping - drew attention to the green fields of privilege the party's Old Etonian yet "modernising" leader would prefer kept in the background.

The overly slick Cameron comes across in speeches as less Blair the Younger than a manufactured Tory clone of the former Labour leader. From this distance, there doesn't appear to be anything like the gale that blew Tony Blair in to No 10 in 1997 with a 10.2 per cent landslide.

Labour has done plenty to earn the electorate's wrath - Iraq, MPs' expenses, party infighting, the encroaching nanny state - and voters are no doubt sick of the same faces, and the same scandals. Can they stand any more of Brown's morose features? But the economic conditions that have underpinned life for the past 18 months appear to be keeping this contest tight. Brown, with his rather lame linking of the recovery to Wayne Rooney's ankle, at least made the point that careful handling of the economy rather than sudden slash and burning is required for growth.

In this atmosphere of uncertainty and disillusionment with MPs, the Times poll found 32 per cent of the electorate actively hoping for a hung Parliament.

Voters must be wondering: Is this the right time to sack the board? Will the Tory prescription bring more social and economic pain? Can the Conservatives be trusted?

Labour has tried to turn the screws on such fears while promising some (unscary) electoral and social reform.

Cameron is taking an altogether more risky strategy of presenting a stark alternative voters could either be impressed by or recoil from.

There is a slight parallel here with the last New Zealand election where a young, fresh conservative leader swept away a longstanding Labour Government. But John Key was able to reassure the electorate that a moderate approach would survive the transfer.

In Britain, the Conservatives' alternative to Labour's centralised state spending approach is to devolve power from the state.

"It is an invitation to the whole nation: we'll give you the power, so you can take control," Cameron said.

A Tory government would allow parents to form new schools, to encourage co-operatives of public sector workers, to introduce elected police commissioners, to allow the public to sack MPs and petition for local referendums - presumably when two-income parents are not working long shifts, child-minding, grocery-buying or housekeeping.

The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg yesterday pointedly described his own manifesto as "optimism in touch with reality".

The unknown factor is what part will those newfangled things called TV debates - amazingly a first for Britain - play in turning voters. Will Brown come across as real and reassuring or grimly dour? Will Cameron be confident and convincing or simply smarmy? Will Clegg's coltish air seem more fresh than worrying?

The polls after this morning's first debate will give some clue.

- NZ Herald

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