LEVEL PLAYING FIELD Examining the scenario before the British general elections on May 6 reveals a gamut of complications in public life and politics…

Like this year's English Premier League, the coming British general election at least offers the excitement of an uncertain finish. But where the three top football clubs offer intriguing contrasts in tactics and styles, the three mainstream political parties are competing stolidly for the middle ground, with the odd long ball booted hopefully into opponent's territory.

The long-established Tory lead has slowly narrowed and much of their support is considered “soft”. While Labour would have to pull off an unprecedented turn-around to win the election outright, a hung parliament, from which any number of governmental permutations could emerge, is a real possibility.

But the frenzy of the media and the ferocity of political competition will be in inverse proportion to the enthusiasm of the voters, who are being offered little in the way of real political choice.

Costs of war

Take the war in Afghanistan, which as of the end of March had claimed the lives of 278 British military personnel. Last year was the worst since combat began, with 108 British dead and another 508 wounded in action. The Afghan intervention is costing Britain £4 billion a year, at a time when public services at home are being squeezed. But because all three main parties are committed to the war there will be no debate on this overriding issue, and no electoral option for the majority who have for some time wanted to see a British withdrawal.

When it comes to the National Health Service, on which 92 per cent of the population relies, there is a consensus of hypocrisy. The three main parties all promise to protect the NHS from spending cuts, but in reality these cuts have already begun. Hospitals are being forced to make “savings” by cutting jobs and reducing services; meanwhile, the private sector colonises ever more of the NHS, from primary care to specialist services to finance. Under Labour's plans, the NHS is expected to deliver £11billion savings a year by 2012-13 - about 10 per cent of its annual budget. Much of that will come from real terms wage cuts for nurses and other staff. So whoever wins the election, the NHS will be a loser.

If the financial crisis of 2008 undermined the neo-liberal consensus at a popular level, the MPs' expenses scandal of 2009 re-focused popular resentment on politicians and politics in general. To date, 390 out of 646 Members of Parliament have been forced to repay money they wrongly claimed from the taxpayer. In recent weeks, the behaviour of both Labour and Conservative politicians has deepened the disaffection. Tory chairman and chief fund-raiser, Lord Ashcroft, was revealed to have broken his promise to become a British taxpayer (he keeps his assets off shore, depriving the Exchequer of tens of million in taxes). Then three former Labour cabinet members (including Geoff Hoon, defence minister during the Iraq invasion) were caught on hidden camera offering to sell personal access to government ministers to a private corporation for a hefty fee.

It's a safe bet that the shadow-boxing of the election contest will do nothing to alleviate public discontent with the political realm. Surveys show that both Gordon Brown and David Cameron are more distrusted than trusted. Cameron's trump card is mass disillusionment with the Labour government. He has tried but only partially succeeded in re-branding his party as fresh-faced and modern. The popular memory of the Thatcher years is not a rosy one, and as the election nears, the uncertainties surrounding the Tory economic alternative increase.

Labour's best hope is that voters are scared off by the savagery of the Tories' planned spending cuts and the danger they pose of undermining a fragile recovery. Chancellor of the Exchequer Alastair Darling did not help the Labour cause, however, by confessing on air that Labour's own cuts programme would be “deeper and tougher” than Thatcher's in the 1980s.

All three major parties are committed to halving the £170 billion deficit within four years. So the election debate is about how fast and where to cut public spending. The alternatives go unstated: using public spending to promote recovery and protect living standards and the environment, as advocated by a significant section of expert economic opinion; making real savings by not replacing the Trident nuclear armed submarines; cracking down on tax evasion and avoidance; implementing a more progressive tax regime, in which the richest third would pay the same share of their income in taxes as the poorest third; investing in ecological sustainability and thereby creating long-term jobs for millions. These policies are being put forward only by small parties to the left of Labour and will not feature in the media-filtered debate. The absence of choice on such central economic questions, as on the central foreign policy issue of Afghanistan, undermines the democratic nature of the electoral contest and gives fewer people reason to go to the polls.

Inequality in Britain (as measured by the Gini coefficient) is at its highest since just after World War II. Though even the Tories decry this, none of the main parties is promising to do anything serious about it. A recent government study revealed that the average difference in “disability-free life expectancy” between the richest and poorest has grown to 17 years. In the wealthiest area of London, in Kensington and Chelsea, male life expectancy is 88, while a few miles away in Tottenham Green, it is 71 (less than in Ecuador, China and Belize).

Spreading inequalities

As inequality has grown, social mobility has slowed. According to a recent OECD report, a father's income determines his son's to a greater extent in Britain than in any other wealthy nation. People whose fathers had a university degree earn on average 62 per centmore than people whose fathers did not have a degree. In Europe, that gap is wider only in Portugal.

Meanwhile, the recession is exacerbating other forms of inequality. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, 48 per cent of black people aged 16 to 24 are out of work, compared with 20 percent of white people the same age. Cuts in public spending disproportionately affect women, who make up 65per cent of the public sector workforce and at the same provide the bulk of care for the young, elderly and disabled, duties rendered more onerous by cuts in benefits and services.

On election night, people will be watching with some apprehension to see how well the far-right British National Party does (last year it succeeded in electing Members of the European Parliament). The major parties denounce the BNP, but all of them share the BNP view that immigration is a “problem” and all vie with each other to appear “tough” on asylum seekers. Two of the BNP's demands - deporting all illegal immigrants and all non-British convicted criminals - have already been conceded by the government, at least in principle. So again, there will be no audible voice in the election speaking out unequivocally against racism and for immigrants' rights. For a flavour of the social policy discussion look at Labour's headline promise to provide individuals with government funds to take out private civil injunctions against neighbours they deem to be engaging in “anti-social behaviour”. A policy bound to promote division and scape-goating.

Why should anyone outside the UK care about this election? In the European Union, a Tory government will certainly be more at odds with Germany and France, more resistant to integration and intervention. But whoever wins, Britain will continue to act as a US junior partner within Europe and beyond. Unlike the Tory-Labour battles of the 1980s, where there was a real contest over social values and foreign policy, the coming squabble will have little resonance abroad, for the same reasons it's so unsatisfactory at home.