British voters head to the polls on Thursday in the closest-fought and least predictable general election in decades. There is, however, a distinct lack of excitement in the air, after several weeks of oddly sterile campaigning that have failed to move the opinion polls and, it seems, British voters.
There’s little chance of a clear winner emerging on election night. David Cameron’s Conservatives and Ed Miliband’s Labour Party have been deadlocked at about 33 percent in aggregate polls for most of the campaign. If those numbers hold, neither party will secure the overall majority that would enable it to govern alone.
The country would then face days and perhaps weeks of uncertainty as either Cameron or Miliband tries to cobble together a government with the support of one or more smaller parties.
The Conservatives are confident that the 20 percent or so of voters who are still thought to be undecided will break in their favor, enabling them to pull off an unlikely outright victory. The Tories remain more trusted on the economy than Labour, and Cameron is consistently preferred to Miliband as prime minister. Tory campaign bosses claim that a significant percentage of what they call “shy Tories” aren’t showing up in the polls because they don’t want to admit to voting Conservative, even to pollsters — a UK version of the “Bradley effect.”
If the Conservatives fall just short of a majority, they might still be able to reconstitute the coalition with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats that has governed Britain since the 2010 election. However, the socially liberal but economically centrist Lib Dems look set to incur big losses, with some right-leaning supporters switching to the Tories and left-leaners abandoning the party for Labour.
The most likely alternative to these two scenarios is that Labour will win fewer seats than the Tories, but will attempt to form a minority government with the support of the Scottish Nationalist Party.
The SNP has gone from strength to strength following its defeat in last year’s independence referendum, and looks set to wipe Labour off the map in its former stronghold. Yet despite the enmity between the two parties north of the border, they are united ideologically by a loathing of the Tories and a love of big government.
A Miliband government propped up by the SNP would lack legitimacy, credibility, and stability. Conservatives are attempting to get out voters who are now content to stay at home, as well as former supporters who have deserted the party for Nigel Farage’s UKIP, by raising the prospect of the UK being ruled by an alliance between Labour and BNP. They are framing the two as the party that bankrupted Britain — a reference to the economic incompetence of the previous Labour government — and the party that wants to break up Britain.
The focus of the campaign has in recent days shifted away from discussions of policy and towards talk of possible deals, and of the “red lines” the various party leaders would set down in their negotiations with prospective allies. Cameron says he won’t lead a government that refuses to deliver a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Miliband has insisted he won’t make any deals with the SNP, although no formal agreement is necessary, as either Miliband or Cameron could survive by securing backing from minor parties on a vote-by-vote basis.
The Tories, Labour, and Lib Dems have all run safety-first campaigns in which the priority has been staying on message and avoiding mistakes. Party leaders have studiously avoided engaging with anyone resembling an ordinary member of the public, instead holding video-calls and “spontaneous” walkabouts among ring-fenced audiences of loyal supporters.
Cameron has tried to keep the focus on the economy, warning of the threat posed to the UK’s slow but steady recovery from the 2008 financial crisis by Miliband’s back-to-the-‘70s tax-and-spend socialism. But, while the UK has experienced falling unemployment and faster growth than any country in Europe, the benefits haven’t been enjoyed by everyone. Many of the new jobs created have been low-paid and insecure. The coalition has also missed its targets on debt reduction, although it has managed to reduce the budget deficit with big cuts to public spending, including welfare.
The Tories are also banking that voters will balk at the prospect of Ed Miliband as prime minister, a notion Miliband has done nothing to dispel in recent days.
Last week he agreed to be “interviewed” by comedian and socialist activist Russell Brand, who has repeatedly urged young people not to vote. Yesterday, Miliband unveiled a stone tablet engraved with six vague election promises, sparking a wave of derision on social media and inviting accusations of a “Moses complex.”
Miliband and Labour have hammered the Tories relentlessly over low wages, moribund living standards, and cuts to public services, and the party is promising to pay down the country’s debt by raising taxes on high earners and big business instead. Labour has also campaigned on the lack of affordable housing and the familiar territory of the National Health Service.
One of the stories of the campaign has been the failure of Farage’s UKIP to make much of an impression.
The party sits comfortably in third place at around 15%, but after talk of winning as many as 30 seats at Westminster following its success in last May’s European Parliament elections, it now looks likely to have no more than a handful of MPs. Farage himself is in danger of failing to win the seat he’s contesting in southeast England.
It hasn’t helped that both the Tories and Labour, and much of the media, have largely avoided discussing the issues on which UKIP polls best: immigration, and Britain’s membership of the European Union — which in turn limits the government’s ability to control immigration.
While many of the issues that have featured in the campaign, from low pay and housing to the overloaded NHS, are connected to the mass immigration of recent years, Farage and his party have struggled to link the issues in voters’ minds.
Barring a dramatic late twist, we won’t know very much on Thursday night other than how many seats each party has won. The real fun will begin on Friday morning. The head of at least one party leader is likely to roll. Deals will be made by the surviving party leaders, and “cast-iron” election promises will be broken like plates at a Greek wedding. Britain could find itself run by a weak government with no clear mandate, and there could be a new election sooner rather than later. There could even be a renewed attempt to break up the United Kingdom if the SNP holds the balance of power.
Whatever happens, the aftermath of this election is certain to be a lot more interesting than the campaign has been.