3rd June 2001

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Thoughts from LondonBritain's elections: a general public ennui?

The forthcoming general election in the U.K. appears to be characterised by a general public ennui.

The media would like to calls this public attitude the "Apathy Party" as though a single common factor is keeping people away from casting their vote. This catchall label ignores public anger, among others, at the state of politics in the UK today.

There are two main candidates in the Harrow East constituency where I have my vote. With the election campaign now virtually on its home stretch, many of the voters I spoke to here have not talked to, or indeed even seen, their prospective MP.

Over the years the face-to-face campaigning that characterised electioneering has given way to respective party headquarters carefully choreographing the public appearances of their political leaders. Such occasions rarely if ever allow the public the opportunity of face to face encounters.

The party agendas are arranged for maximum media effect. That makes voters increasingly disillusioned with politicians and politics.

But even such tightly controlled occasions can backfire as happened when the Labour Party launched its election manifesto in mid-May.

If Prime Minister Tony Blair had hoped that his policy programme for the next five or more years would get top billing in the media, he was badly upstaged by his deputy John Prescott who decided to punch an egg-thrower at a meeting in Wales.

The "manifisto", as the Daily Mirror called it, certainly stole the news from the manifesto and even over-shadowed the incident in which Tony Blair, on his way to a Birmingham Hospital, was waylaid by an angry woman and given a tongue-lashing for the sorry state of the health services.

If one had relied on radio and television to find out what the Labour Party plans were then, one would be still waiting. The punch-up was replayed ad nauseam with even "talking heads" analysing the incident as though it was the most important development in British history since the Magna Carta.

BBC's Political Editor Andrew Marr described this pugilistic encounter between politician and public as the "most extraordinary day of campaigning I can remember".

To Mr Marr yes, but not to Sri Lankans who have seen everything there is to see when it comes to rigging elections, impersonation, intimidation, thuggery and public banditry.

Pity that Andrew Marr was not in the Kandy district during the last parliamentary election in Sri Lanka when daily shenanigans by ruling party politicos and their kith and kin turned Kandy into a hostage city. And 'where are the promised inquiries?', another Marr might ask.

Anyway the result was Millbank, the Labour Party headquarters, accused broadcasters of inciting protests to disrupt the Labour campaign visits and the media rounded on the politicians for risking low turnout at elections by stage-managed campaigns which left out all but handpicked guests.

In this row the Tories lost out too. The Conservative Party launched a bitter attack on Labour's national insurance contributions, demanding that Labour state categorically they will not increase compulsory contributions to fund public services such as health and education.

An important political issue was lost in the verbal din between two old adversaries - politicians and the press - which has dominated much of the election campaign like some sub plot in a Shakesperean drama.

But the public has been the bigger loser. For policies have been superseded by personalities as parties and the media competed to break through the stage-managed and the contrived, the parties looking for new gimmicks to capture attention and the press in the hunt for individual political figures with some mud sticking to them to embarrass their parties.

So the debate on policy has been lost in the focus on personalities and incidents, leading to waning public interest in the politics of the election.

Moreover every opinion poll gives Labour a lead of between 15-20 points over the Tories.

With victory assured some Labour supporters feel disinclined to vote, while those who believe the Blair government has let them down want to chastise the party by staying at home.

There is dissatisfaction in the Conservative camp, with the William Hague campaign too. While some believe that pinning his chances largely on an anti-Europe campaign, is not going to bring many votes, others feel that he is trying to win back the old Tory vote lost in 1997 and not being flexible enough to attract disillusioned Labourites and the uncommitted.

The return of the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, on a Tory platform might strike a chord in the old Tories but is hardly likely to gain voters especially the young, who seem angry with both parties for not addressing the subjects closest to them such as tuition and free education as in devolved Scotland.

Curiously, Hague's tough stand on asylum seekers and refugees has gained the support of many Asians and Africans who entered Britain legitimately.

Several of them I spoke to don't come from Newham or Lambeth where many asylum seekers live. Nor are they from Dover where asylum seekers coming through Europe arrive-sometimes dead like the 58 Chinese whose bodies were found in a truck.

These Afro-Asians who have established themselves here don't want their hard earned money spent on would-be refugees.

"Why should I pay for these people who are bringing their whole families here?" asked Elias, a Turk, who didn't want to give his full name.

The ethnic minorities influence about 100 seats in this election. In these seats the size of the black and Asian vote is greater than the majority of the sitting MP.

Despite the race riots in Oldham last weekend between White youth from the British National Front and Asian youth, Asian community leaders don't expect any change in how they will vote. The Indian vote goes largely to the Tories, while the Pakistani and Black vote goes Labour.

Recent polls have shown that five major issues of concern to the public such as transport, health and education have been submerged in the politicians versus press battle to out do each other.

Politics, like any soap opera, has been on television, not experienced in real life as in yesteryear. But thankfully, it can be switched off before the big yawn.

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