British Prime Minister Brown Calls For Elections

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has publicly set a national election for May 6. Brown made the announcement after meeting with Queen Elizabeth II, who agreed to dissolve Parliament to clear the way for the election. Brown faces an uphill battle against Conservative Party leader David Cameron. The Labour Party has been in power since Tony Blair's landslide victory in 1997.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A piece of political theater, a ritual really, is playing out today across the Atlantic. Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown has just paid a visit to Queen Elizabeth. He asked the monarch for her consent to hold national elections one month from today on May 6. As Vicki Barker reports from London, the sour economy has made this the most hotly contested British election in many years.

VICKI BARKER: Blame the recession or the widely acknowledged charisma deficit on the part of the incumbent Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. The fact is, after 13 years and an unprecedented three consecutive electoral victories, the Labour Party under Tony Blair's successor finds itself the underdog.

(Soundbite of a newscast)

Unidentified Man: Tonight, a promise of tax cuts for less well off people, the new Conservative strategy for the election...

BARKER: Whoever wins will have to decide how and when to try to balance Britain's budget, without endangering Britain's fragile recovery. It's broadly acknowledged some combination of tax hikes and spending cuts will be needed to rein in Britain's debt, currently running at about 68 percent of the country's gross domestic product. The question is: Who should pay.

David Cameron, leader of the main opposition Conservative Party, has claimed a Labour plan to increase Social Security taxes would destroy jobs.

Mr. DAVID CAMERON (Member, Conservative Party, Parliament): We think that the government is tackling the deficit with too much in the way of taxes. We think there ought to be a better balance with more work being done on cutting wasteful spending.

BARKER: In turn, Gordon Brown's charged the Conservatives will try to get the country out debt too soon, comparing the British economy to an injured athlete forced back onto the field.

Prime Minister GORDON BROWN (Great Britain): After an injury, you need support to recover, so with the economy. We're not back to full fitness. We need to maintain support.

BARKER: Brown's government imposed a 50 percent tax bracket for high earners. The Conservatives have no immediate plans to roll that back. Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats, would go farther, imposing a so-called Mansion Tax on all properties worth more than two million pounds, about $3 million.

Only the Lib Dems, as they're called, are refusing to rule out cuts to Britain's National Health Service and other cherished entitlements.

And economist David Newbery says Labour and the Conservatives are being na�ve, at best, when they talk about protecting certain social welfare programs.

Professor DAVID NEWBERY (Economics, University of Cambridge): I think both parties have now realized that very dramatic reductions in public expenditure are needed, and instead they're defending how what might even be increases in public expenditure.

BARKER: In downtown Slough, about 15 miles west of London, the mood among voters is sullen. The town carries some unwelcomed cultural baggage. It was the fictional setting of the British mockumentary series "The Office."

Slough's been a multicultural town for decades. But in recent years, a flood of new immigrants from Eastern Europe has left local services overwhelmed. Immigration may yet prove to be the sleeping giant of this campaign. In Slough and elsewhere, there's a simmering sense that White Britons and first and second generation Brits of South Asian decent are losing out to more recent arrivals.

IT professional, Maddus Birdie(ph), has a job at the electronics giant IBM, yet feels he has little to show for his hard work.

Mr. MADDUS BIRDIE (IT Professional): The amount of money I get paid is ridiculous and the amount of taxes Im paying is just ridiculous, to be honest. And it's just getting more difficult to survive in this country.

BARKER: Nearby, Jeff Broster(ph) leans against the display window of the clothing store he manages. He doesnt believe the politicians who say they can get Britain out of its economic mess.

Mr. JEFF BROSTER (Manager, Clothing Store): They can't keep most of their election promises any way. So, you know, Im not even going to bother voting this year.

BARKER: Political scientist John Curtice, says attitudes like that have helped make this the closest race in two decades.

Professor JOHN CURTICE (Director, Social Statistics Laboratory, Strathcylde University): We have to wait and see whether or not the public think that therefore, the result is actually worth turning out or not.

BARKER: Voter apathy could prove to be the other sleeping giant of this campaign.

For NPR News, Im Vicki Barker in London.

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