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Wednesday, 16 May, 2001, 15:48 GMT 16:48 UK
The BBC's Andrew Marr quizzed

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What type of a political campaign are we facing, what are the issues and what are the pitfalls for politicians in this election?

Do you think there is a danger of public apathy to an election campaign that has been talked about for so long, and what can political parties do to reinvigorate voters, particularly first-time ones?

Andrew Marr, the BBC's political editor, answered your questions on Friday 11th May.


Transcript


News Online Host:

There is a feeling amongst some members of the public that leaders are very careful at shying away from being asked antagonistic questions by journalists and go perhaps for the softer approach - the interview on the couch perhaps?


Andrew Marr:

That's right. They, they love to get away with it if they can. I'm glad to say, that both John Humphreys and indeed Jeremy Paxman have got leader interviews lined up. Neither of them could be described as couch people, I think.


News Online Host:

Emily Perrin of Southport says that she finds increasingly that the BBC's coverage of anything political is very biased towards the Labour Party. She finds this very disturbing and it's nothing more than blatant propaganda, what do you say in response to that?


Andrew Marr:

Piffle. We get from time to time people saying you're biased in favour of the Labour Party. Every time I ask people - show me a case of that bias, explain to me where we got it wrong and why what we said was so unfair - they seem to be unable to do so.

It's very, very difficult for me or other BBC correspondents to respond to a generalised "Oh you're all biased towards the Labour Party or the Tory Party" which I also get. The truth of the matter is everyone's got political views, or most people do, and your political views colour how you think television reports events. Our job is to be absolutely straight down the middle, plain vanilla unbiased, we bend over backwards to do so, I try very, very hard to do so. The only case where a newspaper has cited something that I said as being blatant bias the quotes were partly made up by the newspaper.


News Online Host:

Does it make the job harder to do though, that top journalists are under that kind of pressure?


Andrew Marr:

Certainly it's harder for the BBC because we have special obligations. We are funded by the licence payer, we belong to the whole country, we belong to everybody. We have to represent everybody fairly or do our utmost to do so.

When it comes to parties who may represent a widely-held view in parts of the country, like for instance the UK Independence Party. Now there's a lot of people in this country who would like us to get out of Europe, the UK Independence Party has MEPs but it doesn't have MPs at Westminster and daily that makes it quite hard to represent them because we are a Westminster operation, we report by-and-large what MPs do. So I think, we're always looking at how we can give a better, fairer representation but for the time being, because we're a parliamentary democracy, I suppose coverage tends to be biased towards parties which are represented in Parliament.


News Online Host:

Now a question from Matt Johnson in Sheffield, he wants to know why is Labour's "slick" Millbank machine suddenly looking a lot less formidable than the usually Dad's Army, error-prone Conservative Central Office - his words not mine - looking like a well-oiled machine. He says are the Conservatives happy to be finally campaigning after all the recent rows?


Andrew Marr:

They love campaigning, certainly. It is a very good question and I don't entirely know the answer to it except to say that I got the strong impression that after the last two elections - 92 and 97 - for different reasons, the Conservative Central Office ran pretty ropy campaigns frankly and Millbank were way ahead of them. The Labour Party seemed to be the sort of campaigners of the future and I think they've been a bit complacent. I think they thought that the Conservatives would be a sort of steam-driven personality-riven, ramshackle kind of machine and actually what's been going on over the last few years, away from the cameras and away from the journalists has been a great increase in efficiency.

I think Michael Ancram, the Conservative Party Chairman, takes a lot of the credit for this and certainly the first few days they have been a lot more effective than, I think, any of us expected.


News Online Host:

So are the Labour Party missing Peter Mandelson by any chance or is that thinking the unthinkable?


Andrew Marr:

I'm sure he's on the phone to them, offering advice and all the rest of it. Maybe the lack of Peter Mandelson there is having some effect but you would have thought that he would have grown a generation of apparatchiks. I think maybe some of them have been a bit too glib and a bit too cynical about the political process and it's rebounding on them.


News Online Host:

Now I had a number of questions about the opinion polls, so I put a couple of those together. Ian Bradshaw-Prescott in England says, do you feel the outcome is a foregone conclusion or will the gap close as the campaign progresses? Also Nick Newman in Cardiff says why is it do you think that this Labour government has maintained such a consistently high lead in the polls?


Andrew Marr:

Well to take the first question first about the, the foregone conclusion. I don't think any election is a foregone conclusion. I think there is something more than mildly offensive about journalists sitting around saying the election outcome we know already. The pollsters may tell us how people feel now but no votes have been cast, no votes have been counted. Yes the Conservatives have a mountain to climb, yes there is a very, very difficult needle-match between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats in the West Country and other parts - all of those things are true.

But we don't know what the turnout is going to be, we don't know what the effect of the campaign is going to be. We have another four weeks of this - we have another four weeks in which we could have scandals, in which party's policies could fall apart embarrassingly on television - here's hoping. We could have, people storming out - all sorts of things can happen - so it's much too early to say. I think it is perfectly obvious the Tories are way behind and I think they're genuinely behind not simply in the polls. But can they catch up? Of course they can - it is up to people in the end to decide in the privacy of the ballot box what they do.


News Online Host:

Has an opposition every come back from being so far behind in the opinion polls in a modern election?


Andrew Marr:

No but on the same basis whatever happens in this election is going to break records that have never happened before. We haven't had, if Labour win, a Labour Party elected for a full second term before, record broken. It may well be that we have a record low turnout as well. So almost whatever happens it's going to be unlike previous elections.


News Online Host:

Now Peter Cardwell, County Armagh, says how much credence do you attach to the view of the Sun newspaper that Labour can win with a 227 seat majority - this is based on a poll they ran a few days ago?


Andrew Marr:

Can win - sure - of course they can. If Labour do even better than they did in the 1996 election, if the turnout works to their favour, if the marginal constituencies split the right way, sure, they could win by more than that but that's can and could it's not will and would.


News Online Host:

Just looking at that scenario, although you are stressing that it is very much hypothetical, what would be the effects on the Conservative Party if they actually ended the day after the election campaign with fewer seats than they have now?


Andrew Marr:

Oh absolute turmoil. They would really have to settle down, look themselves in the mirror and say what kind of Conservative Party can win again in this country with this Labour Party. In a sense if that happened the electorate would be sending them a message to really change themselves, and everything would be up for grabs.


News Online Host:

So do you think we'd be seeing a fundamental rethink in that situation, the way the Labour Party had to rethink itself in the 80s?


Andrew Marr:

Well if it happened and you know a lot of people would say it's unlikely to be anything like that, but if it happened, yes there would be some kind of fundamental rethink. They'd look at their leadership, they'd look at their policies, they'd look at the whole lot.


News Online Host:

Now let's a little more positively on Tory prospects. Anthony Calvert from Lincoln says "I believe the Tories will do significantly better than the pollsters predict. My belief stems from the amount of rural seats they lost last time. Most, if not all of these he says, will be won back - that means over 70 countryside seats returning Tory MPs. Does Andrew believe the Tories can match these gains with urban victories and if so does he not agree with me that a general election victory for William Hague is still a distinct possibility?


Andrew Marr:

It's certainly possible. We all have over in our offices and by our desks a little list with red and blue numbers attached to them of the top 60 or 70 constituencies which have had serious foot-and-mouth outbreaks and we're very aware that the mood in the countryside is different than the mood in parts of urban Britain. But, no party can win simply in the countryside anymore than any party can win by doing well in the South East or the South West alone - these are national elections.

One thing will be very, very interesting, I think we might see some significant regional differences, I don't think it's going to be quite as uniform as it was last time round, I think the South West will be different, I think London and the South East will appear different. In bits of the North East we are getting very, very different messages back already - bits of Scotland ditto.


News Online Host:

Now a question about the prospects of the Liberal Democrats comes from Kevin Howlett in Hampshire, he says - "Andrew, I wonder if you would predict for me whether the Lib-Dems are likely to increase their number of seats given they benefited from tactical voting their share of the vote was down yet their number of seats the highest in well over generation at the last election" he says "that was in part because of the desire to get rid of the Tories" and thinks that it would seem to him that any bet on the Lib-Dems returning to the House with fewer MPs is a safe one, do you agree, is this question a difficult one to call?


Andrew Marr:

It certainly is, I agree with the last bit, very difficult indeed. If you talk to the Liberal Democrat strategists they say that their targeting of votes, the understanding of the electorate in the country about tactical voting is so great now that they think they can come back seriously with more votes - with more seats as well as more votes. Where if you talk to the Tories who are, very often their opponents particularly in the West Country and parts of the South, they say we're going to hammer them. It's going to be a very interesting battle, also returning to policy because after all the Liberal-Democrats are both the most high tax party in terms of income tax and also way ahead the most pro-European party as well. The Tories feel the mood is very anti-Europe and very anti-tax particularly in rural Britain and that's where those two parties are locking horns. It will be an absolutely fascinating struggle.


News Online Host:

Now a question from Washington, from John Vaught LaBeaume about the Lib-Dems, he says "They've enjoyed such growth on urban councils in recent years capturing Liverpool, even much at the expense of Labour" but he wants to know why they failed to capitalise upon these gains in local government with a credible challenge to the Labour-held Westminster seats that cover the same territory and where the Tories, he says, offer little fight?


Andrew Marr:

I think there's been a problem in terms of Liberal-Democrat positioning. Most commentators I think would agree that they could have positioned themselves clearly to the left of the Labour Party - we are the higher tax, more egalitarian, better public services party, or they could have tried to persuade themselves that they were going to replace the Conservatives as the natural party of opposition to Labour and much more hostile to the big state and so on. And because there are two different strains of Liberalism, there's a left-Liberalism and there's a more right-wing Liberalism and they kind of interweave, they've tried to straddle those two positions. That's done very well for them locally - it means they can be different kinds of Liberal-Democrats it's harder I think nationally.


News Online Host:

A question about smaller parties from Eddie Truman, Leith, Scotland, he says "What do you reckon to the progress of political formations out with, without, outside the political mainstream"? He's thinking of Tommy Sheridan, Scottish Socialist Party in Scotland and Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Alliance in England and Wales.


Andrew Marr:

Out with is a very good Scottish word. Well they're very small, is the first thing at the moment. There is no doubt there is quite a disillusioned angry position to the left of New Labour, who think we really want a proper Socialist alternative, there are candidates up and down the country for that. They've done much better in Scotland in the past than they've done anywhere else. Interestingly we've got Scargill standing in Hartlepool against Peter Mandelson, we've got some Socialist Alliance candidates around London as well. But the Scottish Socialists have done better thus far in the Scottish Parliament than anyone else. I think it is going to be a relatively localised, patchy thing and it will depend in the longer term on whether a left-wing alternative to New Labour emerges. Now of course in Scotland there is one, in many respects, in the SNP, but across the rest of England - Wales has got Plaid Cymru but England doesn't really have as an English National left-of-centre alternative to New Labour.


News Online Host:

And what about the Greens though, while we're talking about parties that don't have representation at Westminster?


Andrew Marr:

It's a puzzle. There is a lot of concern about environmental issues in the country, more and more and more. It's clearly something that is now quite deep-rooted, people argue and think a lot about urban pollution, about transport issues, about global warming, about all of those issues, about the disappearance of the green belt and yet for some reason the Greens haven't been able to break through. It's a lot to do with the electoral system of course, it's very hard to build up a small party into an election-winning force and perhaps it suggests that Lib-Dems, in particular, have been able to adopt Greenish positions sufficiently to keep the Greens on side with them.

But if you look at any other European country, and they've all got much more substantial vocal and influential green movements than we've got.


News Online Host:

What is the main problem that the Labour Party could face? Is it that the euro that could go wrong for them, the argument over Europe or is it arguments over tax, what's their Achilles heel?


Andrew Marr:

Well yes - I think they've, they've come under a lot of pressure over tax and spending, what they're going to do halfway through the next Parliament. Are they going to raise taxes to keep these above growth spending increases they're committed to or are they going to cut back and the answer is, broadly-speaking, they're going to cut back.


News Online Host:

Gordon Brown was being pressed on that this morning.


Andrew Marr:

Absolutely. The euro is a fascinating one, the Tories are determined to hit the euro and Europe very hard, they think it's Labour's weakest area. Now the Prime Minister, interestingly, quite wants to take them on, I think, on this. We're getting lots of signs that he actually wants to go head-to-head with the Conservatives on this. My sense is that he will and the euro will be a very, very big issue but of course once you've unpacked it, once you've really started the debate it is a dangerous issue for Labour because they may be way ahead in the opinion polls when it comes to how you're going to vote for a party but the euro remains doggedly and very, very unpopular in the country as an issue.


News Online Host:

A final question from Paul Smith, France, "For a disillusioned voter is there a fourth party that has candidates across the country?


Andrew Marr:

No there isn't really, there's the UK Independence Party but if he lives in France, he may not be enthusiastic about that. There are Greens, there are Socialists but nope there isn't one single party straddling the country that gives you a fourth alternative I'm afraid.

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