Well thank God it's almost over. This has been a thoroughly tiresome election campaign. It's depressing that the only realistic choice is between Michael Howard's exploitative, manipulative and undeserving Tory party and another four years of Tony Blair's complacent and untrustworthy Labour administration. The polls continue to indicate that this will be a tighter contest than in 2001 but with a low turnout expected, it's hard to see how the Tories will make sufficient gains to depose Labour (I'm prepared to eat my words should the result surprise me).
In my own constituency, it is a close run affair between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and a vote for the latter cannot be seen simply as a wasted protest vote. On matters of principle, the Lib Dems seem to have identified all the critical issues - basic civil liberties, the need for progressive taxation, student fees, Iraq and trust in government, and have adopted a convincing position on all of them. I'm slightly disappointed that they were caught napping over the inherent ambiguities in their proposal for a local income tax, as the council tax is regressive, unfair and in urgent need of reform.
They oppose the introduction of ID cards - which I oppose for a number of reasons, one of the crucial points being that many technology experts believe that biometic technology cannot achieve what Blunkett argued passionately that it could. As a means of deterring or netting terrorists, ID cards are likely to be of minimal use. What Blunkett really proposed (and Clark has not yet done anything to alter) is for the complete control of individual identity to be handed to the state. It might sound like a conspiracy theory - but I can imagine these cards creating a situation where someone is actually unable to prove their own identity. Technology systems have failed before, with humiliating consequences. Not only this - they will act as an 'entitlement' card necessary before you can gain access to essential public services. Call me an idealist if you will, but I would feel extremely uncomfortable if we introduce a system where people are denied emergency medical treatment, be they genuine citizens or illegal immigrants.
There are therefore a series of principles and values underpinning the Liberal Democrat campaign - fairness, tolerance, honesty and liberty. None of these are intrinsically objectionable, and I do not believe it is impossible to apply them to the practical realities of government. They may yet prove to be the true progressive alternative. It is such a shame that the media still condemn their 'woolly thinking' and claim they are not yet ready for government. Perhaps not in first-past-the-post terms, but give them a chance, and we may yet see our outdated electoral system reformed. Speaking realistically, they may not be ready for government - but they are certainly ready for opposition. Unfortunately, whilst they may make a few gains at Labour's expense, they are unlikely to take seats from the Tories and may stand to lose as much as they gain.
The other main parties offer little that is positive. Alan Milburn's Labour campaign has been almost completely devoid of ideas - the sole positive argument being Labour's economic record. All Labour can offer is hollow buzzwords such as 'choice' (I would prefer dependable quality across the board), and 'reform' (an effective euphemism for the encroachment of the private sector, efficiency drives and job losses). The Tories have yet again adopted a strategy that will appeal to a limited core vote, despite the clear failure of this strategy in 2001. Howard may well stress the hopelessly misleading conflation of asylum and immigration as a populist measure in the short term, but will he really reject the advice of Digby Jones and the CBI and impose immigration quotas when in power? It would be a bold move for any inheritor of brute Thatcherite economic values.
Actually, there is very little to divide the three parties on immigration - all propose skills assessments, Australian-style points-systems and tighter border controls. Howard's policy is distinct simply through being inhumane and unworkable. None of the parties have addressed the key issues on immigration and asylum - should we work in closer harmony with the European Union to deal with refugees and asylum seekers? In my opinion, we probably should, although Euro-sceptics would no doubt profoundly disagree and the result would most likely be a more resolute Fortress Europe. Is it actually justifiable that the growth of the British economy rests so strongly on the exploitation of immigrant labour? If we have to cover skills shortages in this country by seeking skilled labour from other countries - what impact do we have on the available skills and struggling economies of those countries? Could the perception that Britain is 'full up' be countered by a proper redistribution of wealth, population and resources? Do we have a moral duty to asylum seekers? In my opinion, we do - especially when we use the moral highground to initiate conflicts ourselves. Howard may accuse Blair of avoiding the debate - but there are many interesting questions he would naturally seek to avoid himself. It is an extremely complex issue for which the questions, let alone the answers, are not entirely clear.
It is also difficult to see how Michael Howard can deliver his essential improvements to schools, hospitals and transport, increase the number of police on the beat, and impose a cap on immigration, all whilst cutting taxes. It's difficult to know where the revenue will come from. The likely result is an even stronger drive towards further privatisation than Labour promise, even when this has had demonstrably disastrous results. Michael Howard's most witless poster has surely got to be the one that asks 'how difficult is it to keep a hospital clean'. The answer is fucking hard, actually - and it requires investment, quality staff and decent training.
I am also tired of reading in the moderate liberal, left-leaning press that Mr. Blair should not be judged on his lamentable escapade in Iraq, but rather on his domestic record. For me, the whole election hinges on the Iraq war, and the erosion of democratic, cabinet government that the whole affair symbolises. Blair and Howard should both be made to suffer for it on polling day. Even last week, Howard admitted that he would still have supported the decision to invade without a further UN resolution, even if he had been aware of the vagaries of the Attorney General's legal advice. He is in no position to preach here. Blair has manipulated so-called 'inquiries' into letting him off the hook, whilst refusing to allow an adequate investigation into the conduct of the government. The leaked memos during the past week confirm what we all knew - this was a pre-determined invasion contrived by the Bush administration to which Blair granted Britain's support at the earliest stage and for which he struggled to find legal justification. The issue then hinges on what the motivations for war were. I accept the arguments are more complex than many in the anti-war camp would like to admit - I am certainly happy that Saddam is no longer in power. However, to my mind, Blair was not motivated by a desire to liberate Iraq from tyranny, but by the impulse to secure his place in history as a victor, regardless of the volume of dissenting voices. He therefore singled out Saddam precisely because of his weakness, not because of his threat. In painting Saddam as a clear danger to Britain, he misled Parliament in a considered and deplorable manner, for which he has yet to really play an appropriate political price. It is an issue over which he should have been made to resign. It now remains to be seen whether the war has really ensured our security - the current evidence of increased insurgence in Iraq is not exactly promising, especially if it is a barometer of feeling across the Islamic world. Whatever the alternative may be, I would find it difficult to lend my support to Labour given these circumstances.
We shall see what the result brings - but it seems unlikely that the feverish campaigning of the last few weeks will have made much difference to what feels like a crushingly inevitable outcome.