UK votes: Chaos and uncertainty reign

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The UK Party leaders (Image via caabu.org)

The UK votes in the most fragmented and uncertain election in its modern history on 7 May. At the halfway point in the campaign, British writer Michael James Flynn talks us through it.

BEWARE ALL SUGGESTIONS that this election is the end of the cosy duopoly of power in the UK. Either Conservative leader and incumbent David Cameron or Labour’s Ed Miliband will be prime minister when the dust all settles, so it’s not exactly all-change. But the old edifice is crumbling, if not collapsing entirely. This fragmentation of politics hasn’t made the quality of debate much better — the rise of bizarre populist UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage and the hangover of the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 have arguably made it worse. But it’s pretty clear that the election will be close, and that nobody will win a majority. Be gentle with us, we’re not used to this!

Cameron has been in power for a full five years (almost the first act of his coalition with the Liberal Democrats was to fix parliamentary terms at their historic maximum length). The coalition’s priority was to balance the public books after the global financial crisis; the previous Labour government had nationalised a number of struggling banks, increasing the deficit but protecting the system and the money in it. Cue five years of austerity policies aimed at "clearing up Labour’s spending mess" by transferring the cost of the crisis to areas that Tory governments have traditionally liked to cut anyway — big cuts to welfare, healthcare, education. But the "rescue plan" didn’t have the desired effect, with the recovery taking forever to kick into gear. However, it now has, just, and boy are the Tories basing their entire campaign around it.

Incidentally, you may find the cover of the Conservative manifesto rather familiar:

Never say chief strategist Lynton Crosby is short of ideas.

Labour have rebuilt slowly after their 2010 defeat, with Ed Miliband’s leadership largely uninspiring. Our fiercely right-wing press accuse him of being "weird", and "awkward", and while there’s something in that (like many politicians, he’s passionate about his favourite sports team, but you aren’t likely to get into too many conversations about the Boston Red Sox on the campaign trail), it’s overstated. Besides, if you compare the leaders’ consumption of pork products, who’s the weird one? Miliband’s had a good campaign so far, changing the direction of polls with a pledge to end "non-domicile" status (a tax break for the rich so bizarre I won’t even begin to explain it). Labour’s messages on the NHS, on tax, on inequality have been hitting home with the few remaining swing voters — they’re successfully painting the Tories as the Downton Abbey party.

The threat to both main parties lies in their heartlands. Labour are paying for years of lax attention to Scotland and for standing with the Tories for a No vote in the referendum. They look set to lose bundles of seats north of the border to the Scottish National Party, and the Tories are asking how the SNP, which "wants to break up the UK", can prop up a UK government. Meanwhile, Farage and his UKIP hope to make this election their big breakthrough into Westminster politics.

Farage, for the benefit of readers on the other side of the world who have been fortunate enough to avoid his media ubiquity, is a strange cocktail of two parts Hollywood British upper-class baddie, one part Sir Les Patterson and one part Pauline Hanson

He’s rarely pictured without a pint in his hand. In Farage world, everything is the fault of the European Union, and the "open border" immigration that results (free movement of labour is a core EU principle, so we had an influx of migrant workers from Poland and other countries when the EU expanded eastwards in 2004). His appeal is primarily to parts of Tory Britain that feel a bit left behind — the older, less educated, less connected parts of the south, where immigrants are relatively rare and there’s a deference that allows one to style oneself a "man of the people" even if one was educated at a top private school and worked in the City for two decades. He, himself, is standing in one such spot, South Thanet — the south-eastern tip of England, closest to France. He might win, but overall, UKIP will struggle to emerge with a handful of seats, even if their national percentage is in the teens. The UK’s old-fashioned plurality electoral system, possibly in its last hurrah, will see to that (Farage is already a member of the European Parliament, which uses a more proportional system).

So UKIP’s big breakthrough isn’t happening this time. But Cameron’s biggest fear is not a shedload of UKIP MPs. It’s UKIP taking enough votes off Tory candidates to let Labour through the middle in a few dozen seats. He’s already lost two MPs who defected to UKIP in mid-term and most of his membership (and most of the press) is closer to Farage than to him on the EU. So his key promise is aimed at blunting that threat — a renegotiation of the terms of the UK’s relationship with the EU and a referendum on continued membership in 2017. Miliband sees this as a disaster — pandering to a lunatic fringe and turning off inward investors, our neighbours and anyone who doesn’t obsess about Europe. Cameron, and the faithful fourth estate, have been savaging him as a result.

But his poll numbers keep increasing. The Tories would be better off attacking UKIP, who appear to be past their peak, than Labour in the remainder of the campaign.

The other threat to Labour comes from the Greens, led by (in a reversal of the recent pattern of things) the Australian-born Natalie Bennett. They’re hoping to capitalise on Labour’s drift to the centre, but are struggling to make their mark outside of the most promising seats. Bennett is, to say the least, not a confident media performer, and is struggling to get the message across. Also, there’s a bit more clear blue water between the two big parties now and Labour’s line that Green votes could deliver Tory MPs is proving more effective than envisaged.

The Liberal Democrats (LibDems) did well in 2010 by picking up the student vote after making a song and dance of a pledge not to increase tuition fees. Guess what they did once they got into government? They’ve been faithful, if occasionally reluctant, junior partners to the Tories, sometimes smoothing out the rougher right-wing edges, but basically doing Cameron’s bidding. They’ll suffer for it this time round.

So with 650 seats up for grabs, it looks like neither big party will reach 300, the SNP will have an astounding 50-ish and the LibDems in the 20s. Everyone’s ruling out a coalition with everyone else, of course. But my hunch is that there’s enough anti-Tory sentiment out there to crown Miliband, though not enough to give him any stability. It’ll be chaos. Popcorn sellers are loving it. The rest of us? Not so much.

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