U.K. election most unpredictable in generations

On May 7, British voters will go to the polls in the most unpredictable general election for decades. Unlike in Japan last December, the British election is anything but a foregone conclusion. Usually confident commentators predict nothing more precise than another hung parliament, with no party winning a majority of seats. In recent opinion polls, the two main parties, Labour and the Conservatives, have both hovered around 35 percent support with only 0.2 percent between them. The only certainty is that Conservative leader David Cameron or his Labour rival Ed Miliband will emerge as prime minister. But which coalition of parties will sit around their Cabinet table, and at what cost, is anybody’s guess. Why has British politics become so chaotic? There are four key factors at work.

First, combined support for Labour and the Conservatives has been steadily declining since the 1970s. In the 1950s, the two parties together won more than 90 percent of the vote. By 1979 that figure was down to just over 80 percent. At the last election in 2010 it was a measly 65 percent. With just over a month to go until polling day, neither party looks set to make a breakthrough.

Positive economic news since Christmas has not translated into an upswing for the incumbent Conservatives. Britain’s recovery is benefiting the wealthy few, but not the many who have suffered during five years of Conservative austerity. Cameron cannot shake suspicions that he is out of touch with ordinary people, a view confirmed by his inability to hazard a guess at the number of food banks in Britain in a recent interview.

Although Miliband scores better in polls than Cameron on understanding ordinary voters, on all other leadership measures he trails his Conservative competitor. Labour is more trusted than the Tories to protect the National Health Service, the second most important issue to voters after immigration. But many voters remain unconvinced that Labour, the party in office during the 2008 financial crisis and resulting bank bailouts, is competent on the economy. Biases in the electoral system, however, give Labour a slight advantage in parliamentary seat distribution. Yet a uniform swing across the country is unlikely, with local dynamics determining results rather than national trends.

Second, Britain’s smaller parties are benefiting from the declining fortunes of the big two. In recent polls, the Scottish National Party (SNP), U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) and the Greens together gather approximately 20 percent of voter support. In 2010 these three parties combined received just six percent of the vote.

A surge in support for UKIP since 2010 is the most unpredictable factor in this election. UKIP voters will influence the result in many more seats that the party will win, taking votes from both Labour and the Conservatives, but probably more from the latter. The self-proclaimed anti-EU, non-establishment “people’s party” is also picking up support among those who don’t usually vote. Aided and abetted by Britain’s UKIP-obsessed media, party leader Nigel Farage is succeeding in making immigration and U.K. membership of the EU salient election issues. This leaves Cameron with a difficult balancing act. To return as prime minister, he must keep support from possible defectors to pro-Europe Labour and from Euro-skeptic Tories flirting with Farage.

Third, support for the Liberal Democrats has dropped by two-thirds since 2010, following their decision to jump into bed with David Cameron to form Britain’s first coalition government since World War II. The Lib Dems are hemorrhaging supporters to Labour and the Greens in England, and to the SNP north of the border. But owing to the vagaries of Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, Britain’s third party will likely retain around half its seats. Despite being rejected by voters, the Lib Dems may again hold the balance of power following this election as they did in 2010.

The fourth factor in play is the fallout from the Scottish Independence Referendum last September. Despite losing the referendum, panic-induced promises of more powers for Scotland from the main British parties 24 hours before the independence vote has buoyed support for the SNP. Currently, 41 of Scotland’s 58 members of Parliament (MPs) are Labour. But polls show Labour could lose more than three-quarters of its Scottish seats to the SNP, a result seriously undermining Miliband’s chances of walking into Downing Street on May 8.

In the short term, a coalition with the SNP could cost Miliband many of his policies, including the renewal of Trident, Britain’s “white elephant” nuclear weapons system.

In the long term a Labour-SNP coalition could cost Britain its 300-year-old four-nations Union, with the SNP likely to demand devolution to the point of de facto independence as a condition of coalition. In England, higher public spending and more powers for Scotland are fueling resentment that is being exploited by UKIP. Both UKIP and the Conservatives have pledged to bar Scottish MPs from voting on English-only laws following the election.

Whatever the outcome on May 7, the Union and constitution will never be the same.

Tina Burrett is an assistant professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.

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