This is the first election since 1992 when the winner wasn’t completely obvious before it began. To help us track the parties’ fortunes, we’ve assembled a panel of undecided voters
One of the oddities of the British political system is that the party in power has the option of calling an election at any time in its five-year reign; generally speaking, the earlier the election the more confident the government, and the more off-balance the opposition. If the prime minister clings on to power like a drowning man, everyone knows when the election will be, and so the parties are at liberty to start their campaign months before parliament is dissolved. The 2010 election campaign has been the longest in living memory.
So far, the parties have resembled shy exhibitionists as they’ve tried to reveal their plans for the future of Britain without actually telling us what they are. Up until Brown called the election on Tuesday, the result has been a surprising boost for the party in power, as the electorate, like a betrayed spouse, ponders whether to take the Labour party back one last time.
This election is usual in that it will largely be fought over public services, and unusual in that the argument is over how much they will be cut. So far Labour has been pretty successful in portraying the Tories as gang of chainsaw wielding drunks led by a posh Sweeny Todd.
In the run up to the election, Building and building.co.uk will be bringing you a series of special features on the parties and their policy decisions (assuming they ever make any). We will also, of course, try to work out how those policies will affect the industry, and how far they go to meeting the demands of our Charter 284 campaign. To kick off this coverage, we meet five of the industry’s undecided voters, who have agreed to update us throughout the campaign on which party is having the most, and least, success in capturing their vote.
Jack Pringle, partner, Pringle Brandon
Voting record Usually Labour, but has voted Lib Dem on occasions
Currently favouring I always lean to the left
One thing that would swing it
If it was quite clear that one party was going to support the economy until it could recover by itself, while the other was going to maximise cuts to address the debt
A hung parliament – which could be the most entertaining
I’ve always been interested in politics – I came from a political family. I remember meeting Ken Clarke in my parents’ home when I was about 15. Thirty years ago there was a philosophical divide in politics, and about 20 years ago, the left won the social argument and the right won the economic one. With people like Blair and Cameron, the difference is considerably less. So politics isn’t what it used to be, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less interesting. It’s just more nuanced. It’s not high level philosophy – it’s about the management of affairs to reach goals.
This year, I’ve got Bill Clinton’s line ringing in my ears: it’s the economy, stupid. The first and biggest issue is how we get out of recession. The clear proposition from Labour is that we have to keep our foot on the pedal until the economy is strong enough to survive without more public spending. It makes sense – but they have to keep their nerve. Worryingly, the Conservatives seem to be saying they want to cut almost immediately. But is that just to differentiate themselves? If the next government came in and savagely cut all public spending I can see us going straight into depression.
We’ve actually got away quite lightly in this recession as an industry, thanks to public spending. When that wasn’t there, in the late eighties and early nineties, the recession was murderous for the industry. We’re all down 20%, if not more, and there have been casualties, but one can feel the market coming back. If we go down again though, there’s no fat in the system.
The second issue is about the management of the economy and public services once we’re out of the danger of a double dip. Although there are some beacons of efficiency in the public sector, there is huge waste. Any architect with public sector clients reels every now and then at the appalling inefficiency, although it’s not universal.
We all know that it’s in the Tories’ DNA to hunt down public sector inefficiency and eradicate it. And at least the Conservatives are promising to scrap the Architects Registration Board, and hand over its powers to the RIBA, which will be a good piece of streamlining. Labour doesn’t really understand us – they still give the impression that the professions are conspirators against the laity.
These are intriguing. Everyone wants Vince Cable to be chancellor. George Osborne does not fill me with confidence, he just looks a lightweight. Alistair Darling is a serious person and a straight shooter – he’s not necessarily someone I’d like to go out to dinner with, but he employs minimal political spin, which does his reputation for integrity a lot of good.
I’m quite a fan of Gordon Brown, because he’s a conviction politician – he’s genuinely there for the good he can do. His flaw is in trying to paper over his low emotional intelligence, which is like putting lipstick on a gorilla. If he were more open about being a dour Scot trying to do his best, I think his qualities would shine through.
David Cameron is the exact opposite: I just don’t think he’s a conviction politician. They’re such mirror images that it’s an extraordinary situation that they’re up against each other at the same time. I’ll be staying up on election night with a bottle of whisky.
Paul Swinburn, director, Provelio
Voting record Has voted for all three major parties
Currently favouring Labour
One thing that would swing it
Higher education spending
I think over the past six weeks it’s been swinging towards Gordon and Alistair
I’ve voted for all three parties in the past. My parents come from different backgrounds – my father’s family were dockworkers and fishermen in Grimsby, and my mother’s family are business people. So there were some interesting debates at home. In my formative years I was a Tory, but then I switched to Labour and have continued to vote Labour in the main. I’ve voted Lib Dem a few times but that was mainly from a tactical point of view.
This time I think the parties are closer than ever before on policy. I’m not sure one party would do a splendid job and the others a terrible one – we are in very difficult times. Historically I’ve voted primarily on the basis of personal interest – but I have to say, that may change during the campaign. As the father of three girls I’m particularly interested in how it will affect them – in terms of their education now, and in terms of what will happen in years to come with respect to green issues. I say this even though one of my daughters recorded Coronation Street over the chancellors’ debate … From a business point of view the capital expenditure on higher education and on healthcare are key to us, so education is my main interest personally and professionally. On the cuts – it’s a question of extent and areas, so I’m particularly interested to know where they’ll hit. I’m looking for a glimmer of hope.
To me, this year it’s about the individuals who’d be the next chancellor and their relationships with their prospective prime ministers. It’s not about trust anymore – expenses and Iraq shattered that. It’s about economic competence. Vince Cable seems to be the most impressive, but he doesn’t have the weight of one of the biggest parties behind him, so I hope one of the other two takes on more of his views.
Neil Dower, managing director, Conamar
Voting record Traditionally Conservative, although local election voting varies
Currently favouring I’m keeping a totally open mind
One thing that would swing it
Support for businesses coming out of recession
I can’t see a hung parliament. I think at the moment the Conservatives are coming off best
I’ve always voted more on the way the parties treat business than on personal issues, as we’re a family business and an SME. This time, it’s got to be about the party with the best growth package to get us out of recession, and at the moment nobody’s been very clear about that. I’d rather look at a party giving honest answers on that, than one bringing up yet more dirt on its rivals’ expenses.
This is a crucial election for the construction industry. Public spending cuts are one of the big issues – we work with local authorities, the health and education sectors so I’ll be looking for news on those. The key issue for me is how they’ll look after businesses coming out of recession. So any leniency for SMEs, or decisions on local authority spending will be important. Another boost for construction would be around climate change, and measures to reduce the emissions from buildings. There have been so many changes in the MPs that represent construction too – I think we need some stability.
I think Labour could have handled the recession a bit better. At the moment, the Conservatives are putting across the best views, but they’re campaigning on change and they keep changing their change. Labour pulled a fast one in getting Blair back on the bandwagon, as Brown might have the policies but can’t express them well enough.
Chris Fennell, director, Curtins Consulting
Voting record Usually Conservative
Currently favouring Leaning towards Labour
One thing that would swing it
A commitment on levels of public spending in areas that affect the construction industry
Too close to call. It may well be the Lib Dems have a say in it
I’m anti-political really, as they’re all as bad as each other. You’ve got to be honest – how do you pick between a rotten apple and a rotten apple? But I do vote every time, and this year I’m undecided because it’s moved from being a personal thing to a business thing. In the past, it’s probably just been about my personal preference but this time the outcome could really affect the company that I work for. I think there could be a big difference between the parties, and that in turn will have a big impact on construction.
Things like taxation I don’t really get excited about – they’ll get the money one way or the other. If it’s not on my National Insurance it’ll be on my cigarettes. The big issue for me is public spending. If we look at the projects we’re doing at the moment, we’re on a couple of large prisons, Building Schools for the Future, academies, universities … It’s really key that whoever gets in commits to carrying on that expenditure. And the same goes for health and housing. Road and rail won’t affect our business so much, but on the sectors we’re in we can’t afford for schemes to be cancelled or postponed.
Obviously the situation under either party is not going to be very good, but the question is whether it’s going to be slightly worse or disastrous.
Despite not being overly political, I like watching question time – I watch it most weeks. I think it’s fair enough to say I don’t think either Cameron or Brown will get a landslide victory…
Simon Flatt, managing director, Flatt Consulting
Voting record Lib Dem in the last election, Labour the one before that
Currently favouring I’m sitting on the fence between Labour and the Conservatives
One thing that would swing it
A springboard for the construction industry
A Conservative win
I vote every time there’s an election, and because I run a business I’m interested in the commercial elements of what each party says. I look for where they’ll make a difference to business, and where their key drivers match our forward business plan. So for example, a boost to the revenue stream on sustainability would suit us well, but if anyone wanted to do away with EPCs we’d be annoyed. I’m also interested in policies on personal taxation, and on support for the industry. I feel that compared with other industries we’re in the deepest of recessions. Our usual clients can’t get funding, and the whole professional service fee level is very challenging. I’m looking for something to alleviate that – a springboard to get the construction industry back on its feet. Not something direct, like 10% off bricks or anything, but stealth assistance – like funding for sustainability. But it comes down to money, so it’s a tough equation.
You need some pretty big boots to jump into where Gordon Brown has got us to with the economy. It’s a very challenging time, and there’s a huge workload ahead. If Gordon Brown has another term he will keep doing what he’s doing, and there will be slightly faster change than under the Conservatives as they’ve got a lot of picking up to do on the economy.
Part of the reason I’m undecided is the personalities of the individuals. I use the adage “like, trust and respect”. Do I like, trust and respect Gordon Brown? I trust him, I think I respect him, but I don’t know if I like him. I like and trust Cameron, but I don’t respect him as I haven’t seen what he’s done. And Nick Clegg is a wildcard. Maybe there is an element of getting someone different in there though, it might generate some fresh confidence in the economy.
The politics of the construction industry
In 2005, it looked like construction had never had it so good. Eight years of Labour leadership had led to a public spending programme that bore comparison with the Victorian era. The government pumped £500bn into the economy every year, £33.6bn of it capital spending, and the private sector’s only concern was whether it had big enough trousers to store all the money. A poll of more than 400 readers on the Building website in the week before the election confirmed that 47% of respondents thought Labour had the best policies for construction, compared with 30% who preferred the Conservatives and 12% the Liberal Democrats. Despite this, the Tories took a 3.4 point lead over Labour, with 35.6%, when readers were asked how they would vote.
That suggests that construction, which has traditionally leaned to the right, voted on personal preference rather than its economic self-interest. Habit may have played a part as well: the industry’s huge number of smaller firms supplied the C1 shock troops of Thatcherism, and they also believed that the Tories were the party of low tax. But in the main, the message was clear: having the best policies for the sector as a whole was not crucial when deciding how to vote.
It’s different this time. It’s no longer a choice between the good and the great, but between the bad and the worse: the perception is that the industry and its workers are balanced on a precipice, and that has pushed other factors out of the equation. All five of our undecided voters mentioned public spending as a key criterion.
There are subsidiary factors. Pringle mentions the replacement of ideology by managerial efficiency, and that has weakened voters’ loyalty to a particular party. In the eloquent words of Paul Swinburn: “It’s not about trust anymore – expenses and Iraq shattered that. It’s about economic competence.” There is one puzzling fact to all this. Given that anxiety about the economy predominates, and given that Labour had been in power for a decade when the financial crash occurred, why is it benefiting more from the recession than its opponents? Unless the Tories can change that, this might not be their year after all …
Original print headline - Who's it going to be?
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