Mo Mowlam: This country needs a hung parliament

Voters do not trust Blair, they do not like Howard, and Kennedy is just not credible as a prime minister
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The Independent Online

This is the first election for a long time that I have been able to observe from a distance, being no longer an MP. In the past year, what's more, I have moved from my constituency home in Redcar in the North-east of England, and from my place in London, out to Sittingbourne in Kent.

This is the first election for a long time that I have been able to observe from a distance, being no longer an MP. In the past year, what's more, I have moved from my constituency home in Redcar in the North-east of England, and from my place in London, out to Sittingbourne in Kent.

I am now living in the Labour marginal held by Derek Wyatt. I hope he wins it, not only because he is Labour, but also because he is a very good MP for his constituents. Despite my new position, I cannot help feeling that this election is unlike the ones in which I participated in the past. Even in a marginal seat, it is hard to know there is an election going on. There are few posters, there is little buzz. It is not the subject on everybody's lips.

There is a malaise in politics, much pointed to by our political commentators, who often go on to suggest that the election is boring. If turn-out is low, they will feel confirmed in their view. I think this is wrong. As an avid watcher of elections, I am finding this one far from boring. I cannot go along with the view, held by so many professional political journalists, that the opinion polls are right and that the Blair government is set for a 50-100 majority.

First, we should remember that, even when there is an even swing across the country - the type of thing that opinion polls are there to judge and predict - they can be wrong. Pollsters always use the caveat of a 1-2 per cent possibility of error; but remember 1992. A week before the election, Labour was ahead in some polls. Many thought we could not lose, until we woke up to the John Major government that was to prove so memorable for sleaze, Black Wednesday and the traffic-cone hotline.

This election could result in just as an unlikely event. Not because we will see a sudden shift, as we experienced in 1992 - history rarely repeats itself exactly - but because there are many different local elements that could affect the outcome.

In my old constituency of Redcar, before the election was called, many of my most loyal Labour supporters were now vowing that they could not vote Labour again until Tony Blair went, primarily because of the Iraq war. When I spoke to them again recently, I discovered that they are going to do what some columnists are recommending: holding their noses and voting Labour.

In Sittingbourne, I am sure that the Tories' message on immigration has a great resonance. Tough immigration positions play well in Kent, a predominantly white county through which so many immigrants pass. But that must be set against the qualities of the local MP. I would not like to predict the result here.

My gut tells me that on the morning of 6 May we will see some oddly contradictory results, and I would suggest that we could be facing a hung parliament. This, I feel, is what the country wants as it confronts three party leaders, none of whom gives them a reason to vote for them with any enthusiasm. They do not trust Blair, and I am sure that most of them believe Michael Howard when he calls him a liar. This is an extraordinary state of affairs. They do not like Michael Howard. They cannot warm to him. "Something of the night" still haunts him, despite what I would judge an unpleasant but professional campaign.

Charles Kennedy is just not credible as a prime minister, and although many will vote Liberal Democrat as a protest vote, most would be alarmed if they saw him with his wife and baby son on the steps of Downing Street on 6 May. This is the first election I have known when almost everyone will have reservations about whoever they vote for. There is just no enthusiasm.

Despite being a lifelong Labour supporter, I have believed for a long time in the need for proportional representation. As an alternative socialist approach to economics has disappeared, we are seeing increasing convergence between the two main parties, and as both parties have to be bland to accommodate their broad churches of support, politics has increasingly lost its passion; and without passion, why should people join parties or even vote? It is all too easy to say, what difference does it make? Remember that even on something as contentious and unpopular as the Iraq war, the Tories voted with the Government.

The sad truth is that we cannot move on to a new politics where the views of the electorate can be more clearly delineated through proportional representation except by having a hung parliament and a Liberal Democrat leadership that sticks to its guns on this issue to give parliamentary support. I know Kennedy has said he will not form a coalition with any party, but there are ways that these things can be sorted out if the prize is good enough.

The writer was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, 1997-99, and Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, 1999-2001

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