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British elections set for May 1

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Prime Minister Major, an underdog, predicts victory

March 17, 1997
Web posted at: 10:30 a.m. EST (1530 GMT)

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LONDON (CNN) -- British Prime Minister John Major on Monday called a national election for May 1, signaling the start of a six-week campaign which is likely to include the first broadcast debates between leaders of the major parties. icon (352K/16 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

"I think we'll win," Major said, even though his Conservative party, in power for 18 years, is far behind a revitalized Labor party in opinion polls. icon (256K/11 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Major made the announcement outside the prime minister's residence at 10 Downing Street, after meeting with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace and getting her formal permission to dissolve Parliament and hold new elections.

Parliament will be dissolved by royal proclamation in early April, followed by an election on May 1. The election will involve all 659 seats in the House of Commons, the lower house of the British Parliament.

Long campaign for Britain

The new Parliament will be summoned on May 7, Major said. The election announcement was expected -- the Conservative party's five-year term would have ended on May 22 anyway.

The six-week campaign, short by U.S. standards, is the longest election period in Britain in 80 years.

In Britain's parliamentary system, voters can only choose a local member of Parliament. The leader of the party which wins a majority of seats at stake in the House of Commons becomes prime minister.

If no party wins a majority, the prime minister is likely to be the leader of the largest party in the coalition.

Government suffers despite economy

The Conservatives have transformed the face of Britain since they took power in 1979, privatizing many industries and reducing the power of trade unions as they succeeded in halting decades of economic decline.

But their opponents argue that Britain has become a more unequal, harsher society. Despite presiding over a growing economy, Major's government also has suffered from divisions over European policy, a ban on beef exports because of mad cow disease, and public concerns about crime, education and health care.

"(The election) will be between a Conservative party that is an utterly disorganized shambles ... and a Labor party that is genuinely new Labor," Labor Party leader Tony Blair said Monday.

Labor, which was beaten by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, has moved well to the right in recent years.

Like the Conservatives, Blair advocates tight control on spending and inflation, and tough policies against crime. He says he has no plans to reverse the curbs on union power enacted by the Conservatives.

Labor has wide lead in polls

But Labor has promised to make significant changes, including abolishing the vote of hereditary aristocrats in the House of Lords, and creating regional parliaments for Scotland and Wales.

Fueling speculation that an unprecedented televised debate between the party leaders will take place during the campaign, Major said he "very much wants to" debate Blair, whose Labor Party had a 25 percentage point lead in a poll published by The Sunday Times newspaper.

Major said he would not rule out a three-way debate with Paddy Ashdown, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Britain's third-largest party.

In the newspaper's poll, Labor had 52 percent support, the Conservatives 27 percent, and the Liberal Democratic Party 13 percent. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

No party in power has ever recovered from such a big poll deficit so close to a general election.

 
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