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UK Election 05: Fear is the key
The number of people intending to vote has jumped suddenly in the last week. Andy McSmith says we have been scared into action

London Independent | April 17, 2005

Fear works. The cloud of apathy that had descended on the British electorate is beginning to disperse. People who were thinking of not bothering to vote as recently as a week ago have now decided that they will make that trip to the polling booth - some for the Government, some against.

It is not that they have been induced by mouth-watering promises. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the past week, for people with long memories, is the fatalism with which the politicians and trade union leaders have accepted the death of Rover, once the pride of the British automobile industry. In the 1970s, the parties would have tripped over each other with their promises to find ways to keep the plant alive. Now, there is a resigned acceptance that a Government's power to control the market is limited.

But one political message that is getting through - whether it comes from Tony Blair or Michael Howard - is along the lines of "if you don't vote for me, something nasty will happen".

Nasty is the word Mr Blair used to denounce the Conservative campaign yesterday, along with "unscrupulous". He had in mind the statements made by the Tories about immigration, crime, and, most recently, about the MRSA superbug.

Hundreds of thousands of women, in every marginal seat in the country, have been sent letters signed by Mr Howard warning that if they go into an NHS hospital, they face a "shocking" risk of catching an infection. "My own family knows how devastating the consequences can be - we lost my mother-in-law to MRSA three years ago," the letter added.

Each letter includes a precise and very alarming local statistic. In Stroud, for example - where Labour is defending a 5,039 majority - voters were told that "last year alone, 193 people contracted MRSA in your local NHS Trust". This has come as a shock to the Cotswold and Vale hospital trust, who say they do not know of any patients contracting an MRSA infection in Stroud general hospital last year.

The Tories put that discrepancy down to an unfortunate typing error: the letter should have said "trusts" not "trust". "That was a mistake and I'm very sorry we made that mistake," Mr Howard said yesterday. But if you are searching for a deliberate lie, the Tories say, you should look at the campaign Labour launched this weekend, with cabinet ministers popping up around the country collecting signatures for a "Keep the NHS Free" petition - which implies that healthcare will not be free if the Tories are elected.

That is a deliberate misreading of Tory policy, they say. "There is no question of the Conservative Party introducing new charges into the NHS. No NHS patient will have to pay for their operation," the Shadow health secretary, Andrew Lansley, insisted.

What the Tory health manifesto actually said was: "Private patients have paid their taxes like everyone else. If they choose to go private and free up NHS space for other patients, they should not be punished but helped. If an independent hospital charges more for an operation than the NHS, patients will be entitled to 50 per cent of the NHS cost as a contribution towards their bill."

The Tories claim that they are simply increasing choice for NHS patients. But the Health Secretary, John Reid, says if the wealthy start paying to speed up their operations, partly out of NHS funds, those who cannot pay will be made to wait. He says that calling this "choice" is like telling someone going to Liverpool that they need not pay the fare if they can't afford it, because they can always walk instead.

Other things Mr Blair may have had in mind when he used the word "nasty" include Mr Howard's comments on immigration, his attacks on the Human Rights Act and his remarks about Gypsies. The Tory leader returned to the subject yesterday. He claimed: "The so-called Human Rights Act has allowed arsonists to escape expulsion from school, killers to win the right to pornography in prison, and travellers to set up illegal encampments in defiance of planning laws."

Mr Howard insists he has a right to raise these issues. "I'll carry on talking about fair play even though I'm attacked for it because I will never be stopped from saying what I know is right." Labour claims that he is using misleading images to whip up fear. Mr Blair might also have thought that the Tory cinema advertisement, in which he is depicted as a grinning, untrustworthy and none too bright, was "nasty". But Labour has replied in kind with a short cinematic biography of Mr Howard, which suggests that he is divisive and uncaring.

Conventional wisdom is that voters are put off by "negative" campaigning. But that is not what has been happening, according to the latest poll for this newspaper. Like other polls, it shows a slight shift in Labour's favour, but by far the most significant statistical shift is that 60 per cent of those sampled say they are "absolutely certain" to vote on 5 May, compared with 49 per cent a week ago. Apparently, the electorate is being jolted out of its apathy by scary slogans.

So how does this leave the nice guy in the middle, who makes it his unique selling point that he doesn't do "yah-boo"?

Charles Kennedy should have had a brilliant week. As Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have demonstrated in the past five years, there is nothing like becoming a father to boost a politician's popularity. Unfortunately for Mr Kennedy - whether it was from sleep deprivation due to a squalling infant or just a lapse of concentration - he spoiled his week with a toe-curlingly embarrassing display of how not to present your showcase policy.

Mr Kennedy had put the case for replacing the council tax - which would benefit those on low incomes, though, he conceded, it would hit the better paid. He was asked what level of income a family would have to be on to lose. Mr Kennedy replied: "You are talking in the region of twen... twent... twen ... twen... yuh, I mean if you [pause] take [pause] a double-income... say a double income couple, uh, 20,000 each that's what you are talking about, 40,000 ..."

The encouraging news for the Liberal Democrats is, perhaps, that anyone cares what they are saying. Previously, they enjoyed the luxury of being able to put up any policy they liked. Voters were never going to be frightened off because no one expected to see them in government.

Unless the polls are badly wrong, the Lib Dems are on course to emerge with the largest number of MPs that they or their predecessors, the Liberals, have had for 70 years. That is why they have to be careful what they say. No doubt Mr Kennedy's advisers have already told him that if he wants to be the voice of reassuring sanity in a slanging match, he should get a proper night's sleep before he tries to tackle complex questions.

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