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[LONDON] With 99 days to go until elections, David Cameron and Ed Miliband have chosen the deficit as the main arena in which to slug it out over who's best able to lead Britain.
Voters like Bob Coulson say they're missing the point.
"They can talk about austerity and the budget deficit all they like, but there's not much to choose between them," said Mr Coulson, a 50-year-old farrier from South Mimms, Hertfordshire, to the north of London.
"At the end of the day, I'm still earning what I'm earning, and costs are still going up. Neither of them are going to change that."
Less than four months before a vote that threatens to upend the UK's electoral landscape, talk of continuing austerity may even be doing more harm than good for the chances of the two party leaders. As the victory of anti-austerity party Syriza in Greece roils Europe's political establishment, mainstream British politicians have yet to learn the lesson, according to Paul Whiteley, a professor of politics at the University of Essex.
Polls suggest neither Cameron's Conservatives nor his main challenger, Miliband's Labour Party, will win a parliamentary majority on May 7, as voters increasingly turn to previously marginal movements such as the UK Independence Party and the Greens to voice their frustration.
"Both parties have got into this Dutch auction about who will be tougher and forgotten the fact that you've got to have a positive message," Prof Whiteley said in a telephone interview.
"Looking at what UKIP are saying, or the Greens, they're avoiding the issue because they're leaving it to the big parties to instead make positive claims in other areas, and that's working with voters."
Mr Cameron kicked off the Tories' election campaign under the slogan "Britain: living within its means," days after his chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, led an attack on Labour's spending plans.
Mr Osborne's Labour counterpart, Ed Balls, said last month that Mr Miliband's pledge to balance the books meant years of budget cuts to come, and that his party is committed to implementing them.
The budget deficit has been cut in half to 5 per cent of gross domestic product from 10 per cent when the coalition government took office in 2010.
Both parties vow to go further and narrow the estimated 91-billion pound (S$186.6 billion) deficit.
Yet even as the Tories and Labour argue over whose plans are more credible, and who is best placed to steer the economic recovery, their share of the popular vote is shrinking.
Greek Phenomenon It's a phenomenon witnessed in Greece, where Syriza, a loose alliance with communist roots also known as the Coalition of the Radical Left, fell just short of winning an absolute majority on its pledge to end years of austerity measures.
In the UK, UKIP led in European elections last May, topping national polls for the first time, with a strategy focused on curbing immigration and rejecting EU membership.
A page titled "What We Stand For" on UKIP's website mentions neither the deficit nor debt, and uses the words "spending" and "budget" only in the context of a pledge to scrap inheritance tax. On the Greens' website, the party talks of "a real change: from austerity and welfare cuts to investment in decent jobs." HUNG PARLIAMENT
Britain's pollsters predict a hung parliament as the most likely outcome, in a political landscape in which the Conservatives and Labour are no longer the sole contenders.
A YouGov Plc poll for the Sun newspaper showed Conservative support at 34 per cent, just one point ahead of Labour, followed by UKIP at 15 per cent, the Greens at 7 per cent and the Liberal Democrats at 6 per cent. YouGov surveyed 1,656 adults Jan 25 and Jan 26.
In Mr Coulson's constituency, Hertsmere, a seat on the northern edge of London that's been held by the Tories ever since it was created in 1983, UKIP came second in last May's European elections.
Conservative strategists remain convinced the successful handling of the deficit is key to showing voters they're the most credible party and believe this will translate into votes on polling day, according to a Tory official who declined to be named.
Still, there's evidence to show economic credibility hasn't so far turned into voter support. Polls suggest that while the Conservative Party is the most trusted on the economy, it has failed to increase its vote share or make significant gains on Labour.
IMMIGRATION VS ECONOMY
Immigration, rather than the economy, is the top issue cited by voters, followed by health and then welfare benefits, according to the most recent YouGov Plc poll on the issue, conducted Jan 19-20.
YouGov asked 1,570 adults which three of 13 issues facing the country were most important at that time. Fifty-four per cent named immigration.
"The deficit is something very abstract as far as most people are concerned, and ordinary voters find it difficult to get their heads round it," Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said in a telephone interview. "I don't think any of these smaller insurgent parties have to worry their heads about pounds, shillings and pence, so they can afford to press emotional buttons."
For Mr Coulson, neither Labour nor Conservatives have succeeded in engaging voters. Asked who he will vote for on May 7, he hesitated for a moment.
"At this rate, the Monster Raving Loony Party," he concluded with a laugh.