VOTING IS UNDERWAY tonight (Melbourne time) in the closest, least predictable election in the United Kingdom since 1974; deadlocked polls and a near-certain hung Parliament belie the fact this election actually matters, with the future of the Union hanging on the result despite a recent failed referendum on Scottish independence. It is likely David Cameron will remain Prime Minister, but in what shape — and at what cost — remains to be seen.
I must apologise most profusely to those readers based in Australia who have been waiting for some kind of snapshot of what’s happening in the UK; rest assured that today’s General Election — like British politics generally, which is a passion — is one I have watched unfold intimately, over both the campaign period and the months that preceded it, and whilst I haven’t published on the topic at all I’m across the lay of the land: and frustrated and worried by it at that.
It has been one of those unfortunate coincidences that the campaign has coincided with a period of extreme activity as a “media type” away from this column, and as readers know, there has been a dearth of articles altogether instead of the five to six I try to publish as a weekly minimum, and even then too much time has been taken up on outrages like Belle Gibson and the obscene deification of the executed drug smuggling scum that was Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.
Yet in some respects, it wouldn’t have mattered a great deal whether we spoke about today’s British election this week, last month or even last year; the trends picked up in the country’s reputable opinion polls have been maddeningly consistent for almost a year: narrow Labour lead, narrow Conservative lead, tie. Repeat. Ad infinitum it seems. And after five weeks of “official” campaigning, Britons are going to the polls today in what in many respects presents as a dead heat.
I’m not going to post any links tonight — you will just have to trust me as I write off the cuff — for I would rather present a shorter digest quickly than take until midnight on a more detailed effort that most Australian readers won’t see before breakfast, when the polling stations close and the results begin to come in.
But in a “poll of polls” — an aggregated reading of the likes of YouGov, ICM, Opinium, Populus, Ipsos Mori, ComRes, and Lord Ashcroft’s independent research — it appears David Cameron’s Conservative Party is set to win 34-35% of the vote, and Labour — led by Ed Miliband — 33-34%; the final round of polls published over the past 48 hours all show either a tie between the two major parties or a slender Tory lead of 1-2%, and none suggest Labour is ahead.
But it isn’t quite so simple, with the separatist Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) apparently on track to win 50% of the vote in Scotland and with it, as many as all of the 59 Scottish seats in the House of Commons under the UK’s first past the post electoral system, up from six of them five years ago; such a gain — at Labour’s almost exclusive expense, defending as that party is 40 seats there coming into today’s election — would rob Labour of any prospect of an outright win across Britain, and would force it into some kind of arrangement with the SNP to govern if it can win enough seats in England and Wales to get it mathematically close enough to assemble a majority coalition.
On the other hand, the main reason David Cameron isn’t cruising to a thumping victory today lies the shape of UKIP — the United Kingdom Independence Party — with its anti-immigration, anti-EU message that appeals to many Britons fed up with government by decree from the continent and resentful of the hundreds of thousands of Eastern European immigrants the UK has been obliged to accept as the EU has expanded eastwards in the past decade, and waves of newcomers enjoy an entitlement the British government has no control or veto over.
These immigrants arrive with entitlements to jobs and welfare at the expense of the British taxpayer, which is hardly conducive to them finding a rousing reception awaiting them.
But Cameron has been reluctant to fashion hardline policies around the EU, immigration, and the ancillary issues associated with them; his failure to do so five years ago is widely regarded as the reason the Tories did not win a majority at that time.
Now, with polls almost unanimously finding UKIP set to snare 12% of the vote across Britain today (at least two-thirds of which has been lifted directly from the Conservative base), it’s not difficult to see where Cameron’s “majority” has gone this time around.
Now, however, the miscalculation (and that is what it is) could cost the Conservative Party government altogether.
UKIP, in the past week, seems to have recognised the danger, albeit too late; the tepid Cameron stand of “renegotiating” Britain’s membership of the EU, followed by a so-called “in-out referendum” in 2017, is preferable to its adherents than the stolidly pro-Europe attitudes of Labour, the Lib-Dems, and the SNP for that matter: and recognising that its votes may help defeat Tory MPs in marginal constituencies, UKIP has been recommending “tactical voting” for the Conservatives in seats it stands no chance of winning itself. Whether this is enough to make any difference remains to be seen.
Complicating matters is the Liberal Democrats, who are defending 57 seats (from 2010) today, and who stand to lose roughly half of them to Labour and the Conservatives in fairly equal measure; the Lib-Dems complete five years in coalition with the Tories with their poll numbers running at about 10% — also virtually halved — and no obvious expression of their preferred post-election Coalition partner if the Parliament, once again, is hung.
Their leader, deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, is at grave risk of losing his seat in Sheffield to Labour, just as senior Lib-Dem Treasury minister (and heir apparent to Clegg) Danny Alexander is exposed to the gathering SNP avalanche in Scotland. Tactical voting by Tory voters might save either, or both. Then again, it may not.
But if ever there was an opportunity for a last-minute circuit breaker for the Conservative Party to turn the election in its favour, it came on Monday, when Labour staged an election rally at which participants were segregated by gender in an apparent sop to the Muslim community; the incident rightly provoked a storm of fury on Twitter (and if anyone wants to know what I was doing on Monday night, it involved talking to a lot of angry Tories online on Twitter).
Yet how much — if any — effort to capitalise on such a disgusting and tokenistic appeasement of one minority community was made by the Conservatives is unclear.
And Labour has rightly attracted ridicule on account of the so-called “Milistone” it saw fit to place around its neck at the weekend, with leader “Red” Ed Miliband announcing a short list of vague, vacuous and populist pledges would be cast in stone and a monument erected in the gardens of 10 Downing Street “to remind (Miliband) of his pledge to the British people every time he looks out the window.”
It sounds like the sort of crap Bill Shorten would come up with, and should accordingly be dismissed with contempt.
I could run through dozens of variables, scenarios, and potential outcomes (and we’ll come to the outcomes in a second) but it’s safe to say that the one of the two issues that could win the Tories votes — Immigration and Europe — has not been adequately exploited, whilst the other — Britain’s booming, growing economy — appears to be carrying little weight with undecided voters.
And that, frankly, ought to terrify Conservative head office: as its social media boffins have been proclaiming as loudly and as widely as they can, Britain’s economy is growing faster and more strongly than that of any developed nation in the world — including Australia’s. Yet faced by basket cases and carnage to varying degrees across the Channel, this stunning achievement seems to be a political re-run of the country’s booming mid-late 1990s, which ushered in unprecedented prosperity across the board but failed to save Tory Prime Minister John Major from a smashing defeat at the hands of Blair Labour.
This election is likely to prove one thing, however: Australian political strategist and former Liberal Party director Lynton Crosby months ago assumed control of the Conservatives’ central office, and this campaign has been very much executed in strict accordance with his advice and directions; if Cameron and the Tories somehow prevail — especially in securing a surprise majority, or something close to it — the result will more or less immortalise Crosby as one of the best political strategists in the world, anywhere, ever.
Lose, however — especially if badly, and if the Tories fall steeply short of the 280 or so seats pundits concur they are likely to win — and the result, whilst sweeping Cameron from office, will also probably put one hell of a dent in Crosby’s reputation as a strategist: especially in tight and difficult elections where the result hangs in the balance.
I don’t think it will come to that, however.
Polls close in Britain at 7am, our time (10pm, GMT) and the results will start to follow shortly afterwards; in the 650-seat House of Commons — in which four Sinn Fein MPs from Northern Ireland routinely and flatly refuse to take their seats, and a fifth electorate (occupied by the Speaker) is uncontested — 323 seats are required to secure an outright majority.
If the Tories (who will win seats from the Lib-Dems, particularly in south-west England, whilst losing seats to Labour) can contain these losses to about 20-25 seats, emerging with 280+ — and the Lib-Dems can both record 30-ish seats and opt to remain in Coalition with the Tories through a second term — then that, along with support from 8 or 9 Democratic Unionists from Northern Ireland who would never put Labour into power, ought to be enough for Cameron to continue as Prime Minister in at least the short term.
I don’t rule out a surge for the Conservatives, as (especially) UKIP-inclined voters switch back to the Tories in the confines of the ballot box at the last minute: and similarly, the carnage the SNP seems certain to inflict on Labour in Scotland could see the Conservatives pick up three or four seats by virtual default, as their vote count simply proves adequate atop decimated Labour tallies that remain too high for the SNP to hurdle.
(The Scottish Tory scenario is a remote one, however).
Of course, Labour could be the recipient of a huge swing in England and Wales that puts government beyond reach of the Conservatives under any permutation, or even win a majority: I doubt this will happen, and if Labour loses, I would be surprised if Miliband survives as leader beyond the end of the year.
Assuming, of course, that 2015 — like 1974 and 1910 before it — doesn’t shape as a year in which a second general election quickly follows the first.
I think the likeliest outcome is a Cameron win off the back of a messy Coalition with the Lib-Dems, the DUP, and possibly someone (or two) from UKIP, and whilst I might be wrong, I think this far more probable than either a Tory majority or any kind of win featuring Labour.
Indeed, should Labour take office in any kind of accommodation with the SNP, it would likely see a second referendum on Scottish independence, perhaps as soon as late this year: and the belligerent, bellicose monster from Scotland that is no laughing matter runs the very real risk of engineering the break-up of the United Kingdom if fed on the real power that derives from Westminster.
And should Labour take office at all, it is more or less pledged to resume the same tax-and-spend approach that proved ruinous under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and left the UK with £1.5tn in public sector debt (about 80% of GDP) and a gaping structural budget deficit — both problems the Conservatives have only just been able to bring under control, and start to repair.
On any analysis, this election is far from meaningless.
But even if Cameron survives — as I expect him to — it isn’t likely to be in any kind of robust shape; another election and the fraught pursuit of an outright majority will prove exponentially trickier if thrust upon the Tory Party later this year, but such are the potential costs of a lacklustre election campaign that has failed to hit the right notes — when a landslide win, on any impartial measure, was always well within its grasp to achieve.