Government spending is the issue dominating the British general election, with the ruling Labour Party unveiling plans Monday in which Prime Minister Gordon Brown is to pledge no new major spending commitments.
With the country emerging from a severe recession, there is an intense debate about how best to manage the economy, with the opposition Conservatives turning the table on the usual fiscal positions, not ruling out big spending as the Labour government is proposing.
‘No new spending’
“There are no big new spending commitments, but there is a determination for every penny to be used wisely, and, as present plans make clear, to give the maximum protection to frontline public services,” PM Brown says in the manifesto.
At the launch in Birmingham, Labour will argue that businesses are key to restoring jobs and growth, and promise not to raise the basic rate of income tax. The Party will also fight the election on the cost-cutting – and populist – pledge to cut unemployment benefits to anyone employed for over two years.
Brown will also pledge to take over more than 1000 under performing schools, as well as health and police services, in an attempt to show that reform is in Labour’s sights, reports the Guardian newspaper.
In addition, it will pledge reforms to the voting system and the unelected upper House of Lords following last year’s row over lawmakers’ expenses.
The Conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph newspaper said the manifesto signaled a return to a ‘Blairite’ agenda, in reference to the now unpopular former PM Tony Blair, adding thast the pledges on family rights and anti-social behaviour were an attempt to capture the vote of the mythical ‘Middle England.’
Youthful Conservatives push optimistic edge
The Conservatives, running with a relatively inexperienced – but youthful and self-professed ‘energetic’ leadership, are positioning themselves as the optimistic and ‘progressive’ choice after 13 years of Labour government.
Opinion polls this weekend suggest the Tories are on average about eight points ahead of Labour, but may not have enough votes to win a parliamentary majority, a situation known as a hung parliament. This has led to talk of the Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg becoming ‘Kingmaker’.
In the Conservative manifesto, a ‘great national coming together’ is what Leader David Cameron says he wants to see.
“If we join together, if we act decisively and move forward with optimism, we can start to fix the economic, social and political problems that threaten the nation,” he will tell voters in the Conservative manifesto.
Over the weekend, two other issues have come to the forefront – the Conservative plan for tax breaks for married couples, and Labour’s bungled cancer policy mailshot.
Tax hikes, ‘social engineering’ and cancer mailshots
The past week has seen a dispute in ‘national insurance’ contributions, with the Conservatives opposed to the Labour pledge to increase the rate of the tax, branding it a ‘tax on jobs’. For their part, the Liberal Democrats have claimed they are the only party who will not raise taxes across the board.
Cameron has long pledged to fix ‘Broken Britain’, and has pledged a £550m package to give married couples a tax break – making them £150 a year better off. But critics have branded the plans ‘Edwardian’, even going so far as accusing the party of social engineering.
Meanwhile, Labour has come under fire for a mailshot on the weekend which attacked Conservative policy, claiming the party would put the lives of cancer patients at risk – and in the process, sending the leaflet to 250,000 women, many of whom had breast cancer.
“The Tories (Conservatives) would scrap your right to see a cancer specialist within two weeks and your right to be treated within 18 weeks”, Labour said.
Labour came under heavy fire from the Conservatives and the third party, the Liberal Democrats, after it was suggested they used private government-held data to target cancer sufferers – a claim they denied.
The Tories have largely led the field since Brown took over from Blair in 2007 but the gap narrowed after Britain emerged from recession at the end of last year, promising one of the tightest races in decades.
TV debate to entice the electorate
So all in all, it’s a crucial week.
On Thursday, British voters will see something for the first time – a televised debate between the choices for Prime Minister.
If the former PR man Cameron ‘wins’ against the somewhat mechanical Gordon Brown, it could be a long way back for Labour.