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Insights from the UK and beyond

What did Twitter make of the leaders’ debate?

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History was made last night with Britain’s first televised political leaders’ debate, which was seen as an opportunity for Labour’s Gordon Brown, The Conservatives’ David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg to stamp their authority on an election campaign that has so far failed to generate much excitement.

Outsider Clegg was judged the clear winner by almost every snap poll followinged the ITV broadcast. Today a ComRes/ITV opinion poll of over 4,000 people who watched the programme has the Tories on 36 percent, LibDems on 35 percent and Labour on 24 percent — a 14 percent jump for Clegg’s  party.

The debate sparked lively discussion on Twitter.com (most of it via the hashtag #leadersdebate), and exclusive analysis for Reuters.co.uk showed a big spike in anti-Labour sentiment after the first of three debates.

U.S. marketing firm Crimson Hexagon archives all tweets about the election and analyses them for positive and negative sentiment.

Briton contests election seat after winning competition

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parliamentA drugs campaigner could arguably claim to be the most unusual prospective parliamentary candidate in the general election next month — he is running after winning a competition.

An independent candidate in the southern Bristol West constituency, Danny Kushlick, 47, is championing the People’s Manifesto, which is a very different policy document from  those espoused by Britain’s mainstream political parties, who released their manifestos earlier this week.

Will a Hung Parliament create a serious hangover for British business?

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ParliamentElection day is fast approaching and with the poll gap narrowing between the Conservatives and Labour, there is a very real probability that the UK will end up with a hung parliament. For the first time since 1974, the UK may be left without clear political leadership.

- What will this really mean for British business?
- How will the markets and sterling react?
- Will a hung parliament scare off international investors?
- Could the economy survive a second general election within a year?

Apathy in the UK – why Arabs take elections more seriously

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By Mohammed Abbas Blood, bombs and sweat defined my time reporting on elections in the Middle East in recent years, so the shoulder shrugs and general apathy I’ve seen covering the build up to Britain’s national ballot next month has been quite a contrast. I’ve just returned from Iraq’s March parliamentary vote, where people braved bombs to cast their ballot, and I also remember Egypt’s 2005 national vote, where opposition voters faced down armed police blocking polling centres in their area. Reports emerged of some resourceful Egyptians even using ladders to climb in, avoiding a beating at the door. In Britain, “Don’t know, don’t care,” was a surprisingly common response to my questions on UK politics, as I trudged streets gauging public sentiment on what is supposed to be the most hotly contested UK ballot in more than a decade. In the Middle East, it’s hard to get people to stop talking. From road sweepers to housewives, everyone seems to have strong political views, many quite sophisticated and well informed. The murmur emanating from clouds of hookah pipe smoke at coffee shops is usually politics, and Arab political cartoons are mostly sharp and hilarious, and are widely traded via email. While many Britons are taught to avoid politics at the dinner table, for Arabs it’s the main course, and often dessert. If anyone should be sceptical and indifferent about elections, it should be people in the Middle East. Even if you don’t run the risk of being blown up or beaten for voting, then the ballot itself is often of questionable transparency and fairness, at least by Western standards. Middle Eastern elections have in many cases been brought in begrudgingly under Western pressure, and in a region rife with autocratic and dynastic rule, are designed to alter the status quo as little as possible. Yet in Egypt, I remember the sweat and nervous energy of a packed and raucous rally for presidential candidate Ayman Nour, his supporters hoping — in vain it turned out — to end President Hosni Mubarak’s decades-long iron grip on power. Nour came a distant second to Mubarak and was later jailed on forgery charges. Mubarak, 81, has been in power since 1981. In Bahrain, the Shi’ite Muslim majority flocked to election tents for polls that would barely dent the ruling Sunni royal family’s grip on the tiny Gulf island. So why this difference in attitude? Why in Britain, where a free media can indulge in lively and frank debate, does politics elicit a yawn, but more often scorn, and in the Middle East, where censors often quash political debate, is it a hot topic? A full and proper answer would probably require some sort of academic study. But I’ll take a guess at some reasons anyway. Firstly, for many Arab voters, the election issues are more profound. In Britain, you’re asked to choose between parties for and against raising a payroll tax by a penny in the pound. But in Iraq, for example, you could be mulling which party is least likely to revive the sectarian bloodshed that resulted in the murder of several relatives a few years ago. Another reason, possibly, is that people in the Middle East have a stronger stomach for dirty politics. British scandals over politicians’ expense claims — for a bath plug, television, or at most, housing worth tens of thousands of pounds — have disgusted the UK electorate and turned many off politics. But in the Middle East, citizens are used to leaders spending millions on palaces, luxury cars, personal islands and planes. In a region where the rise to the top is likely to have been bloody or involved opaque and less than savoury back room deals, spending habits aren’t really that big of a deal. Or it could simply be that elections are still relatively novel in the Arab world, and subsequent ballots will see diminishing enthusiasm and participation. In Iraq, the buzz last month for the country’s second full national vote since the fall of Saddam seven years ago was noticeably more subdued than in the first ballot in 2005. Disillusioned Iraqis told me they would not vote because after voting in 2005, they found that politicians lied, were corrupt and were more interested in power and battling each other than fixing Iraq’s myriad problems. Maybe Iraqi and British voters aren’t so different after all?

ballotBlood, bombs and sweat defined my time reporting on elections in the Middle East in recent years, so the shoulder shrugs and general apathy I’ve seen covering the build up to Britain’s national ballot next month have been quite a contrast.

I’ve just returned from Iraq’s March parliamentary vote, where people braved bombs to cast their ballot, and I also remember Egypt’s 2005 parliamentary vote, where opposition voters faced down armed police blocking polling centres in their area.

Once a prince of darkness, now loving the limelight

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BRITAIN-ELECTION/“Enjoy it!” That was the message from Peter Mandelson to Labour supporters this morning as he launched a vitriolic attack on the Conservatives during a speech in central London, clearly relishing every minute of it. Once nicknamed the “prince of darkness” for his ability to mastermind Labour’s strategy from behind the scenes, Mandelson has transformed into the party’s best public performer.

It was different in the days of Tony Blair, who could go out and dazzle the voters with his easy charm and passionate oratory, leaving Mandelson to the backroom strategic thinking that helped sweep New Labour into power in 1997 and keep them there for 13 years. Now fronted by Gordon Brown, whose strength lies more in his grasp of policy detail than in his presentational skills, and trailing the Conservatives in the polls a month before an election, Labour need all the charisma they can get. Mandelson has stepped up to deliver it, with evident jubilation.

Taking Twitter’s political temperature

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Britain’s first live television debates between the leaders of the three mainstream political parties are not the only new feature to add spice to the upcoming general election, which Prime Minister Gordon Brown today announced will be held on May 6.

The 2010 vote is also the first time politicians and their strategy teams have had to factor in the micro-blogging site Twitter.com. The social media tool, which did not exist at the time of the last election in 2005, now has over 75 million users who between them sent four billion tweets in the first quarter of 2010.

Political theatre unfolds according to script

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BRITAIN-ELECTION/There was a big fuss but no suspense this morning outside Number 10 Downing Street. In what has become a typical pattern in the world of 24-hour news, media organisations had been briefed in advance on the content and the choreography of Gordon Brown’s election announcement. This was the ultimate scripted, pre-packaged news event.

A huge pack of photographers, cameramen and journalists crowded behind crash barriers across the street from the famous black door from the early hours of the morning. The place was abuzz with technicians doing sound checks and taping cables to the ground with duct tape. The TV channels had lined up their star presenters in smart suits and ties, while behind the cameras reporters huddled in fleeces and scarves to fend off the morning cold in the notoriously draughty street.

Budget for votes riskily delays UK debt pain

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BRITAIN-BUDGET/– The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Alistair Darling promised no election “giveaways” and in one sense he delivered. The UK finance minister’s budget is about not giving away the election. It might have been worse — if Darling had acceded to his boss Gordon Brown’s even more populist instincts. But there are vote-seeking swipes at high earners and banks, as well as a crowd-pleasing but misguided tax cut to first-time house-buyers. The UK’s budget-balancing pain is being postponed and concealed. And that’s risky.

from The Great Debate UK:

Tariq Ali on how unions fare under Labour rule

Amid a stand-off between British Airways and the Unite union, the Labour Party's main financial supporter, Prime Minister Gordon Brown called a planned strike by BA cabin crew workers "unjustified and deplorable" last week and said both sides should return to talks.

Rail signal workers in the RMT union are also threatening to strike, but haven't announced a date.

Brown takes a different tack on Iraq

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BrownInquiryTony Blair said he had no regrets about removing Saddam Hussein when he ended his session before the Chilcot inquiry in January. Gordon Brown, not surprisingly, took a different approach.

Perhaps mindful of the anger that Blair’s words had reignited, Brown topped and tailed his appearance by acknowledging the  cost in human lives among British soldiers and Iraqi civilians of the conflict.

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