Saturday, May 01, 2010

Voting Begins in Britain

Postal voters are now casting their votes in the British election and election officers are gearing up for what they expect to be a larger than usual turnout in Thursdays general election in Britain. In the last two elections, turnout has been down – 61.4% in 2005 and 59.4% in 2001 – but the interest generated by the three televised leaders debates and the disgust the electorate feel over the political class is expected to lead to the higher figures which characterized the period between 1955 and 1970 – some 75% of electors voting or higher.

A You-Gov published today place the Conservatives in the lead with 34% of the poll, while Labour and the Liberal Democrats are neck and neck at 28%. When we take account the margin of error, the election is still too close to call.

David Cameron is on the streets, television and radio making the case for a strong conservative vote to avoid the quagmire of a hung parliament and another general election before the end of the year. Nick Clegg is arguing that the race is now between him and Cameron, with Labour clearly in third place – and he has the support of The Guardian newspaper, who recommend tactical voting to ensure a Liberal-Labour coalition of the centre-left. Brown is apologizing for being Gordon Brown, but defending his record on the management of the economy.

The key to the election will be undecided voters and the protest votes. A great many undecided voters are normally “decided”, but don’t want to declare themselves. On this occasions, they are genuinely undecided – unable to make a choice. Many of these undecided voters are former Labour voters who are now so disillusioned with Brown and disgusted at the expense scandal that they feel stranded in the middle of a raging river with debt, deficit, challenging issues in education, health and misery over the Iraq war raging past them. The Liberal Democrats are natural allies, but are not likely to form a Government. The Conservatives, who have adopted a manifesto that would have been a classic Labour manifesto under Harold Wilson, have an unpalatable past for a wavering Labour supporter, are a real choice, if they feel that they can trust Cameron to honour his contract with the people. It will be a difficult decision.

Some will make a protest statement. In the North, the British National Party (BNP), a neo Nazi coalition of odd balls and right wing fanatics, will likely retain their current two seats and possibly pick up another. The Green party may attract more voters, as will some of the independents. With over one hundred and fifty incumbents having retired – the largest number to leave Westminster since the 1920’s – voters cannot take comfort in many places by returning their sitting MP.

Having run a constituency at the time of a general election, this coming Monday and Tuesday are tough days. One mistake, one off the cuff remark, as Gordon Brown can attest, can lose the election for a party. More significantly, party organizers will be rallying their workers to get the vote out – praying for good weather and trying to firm up their base of support. Every vote will really count this time and the “agents”, as the managers are called, will be working overtime on logistics and intelligence – finding out who will vote for their party and making sure they get them out to vote. The weather forecast is for patchy rain and chilly – not a good omen.

Speaking with voters in Wales and others here in Lancashire, one has the impression that the leaders of the three parties have increased the level of resentment towards the political class rather than lowered it. All three are seen as “talkers, not doers” and all three are seen as avoiding the elephant in the room – real and substantial budget cuts and tax adjustments that are needed to get Britain back in the black. One business owner who runs a Wine Bar in Llangollen observed that not one of them has spoken clearly and specifically about what they will cut and when, but instead have talked in generalities. Another retired public sector worker wonders when the three parties will wake up to the bloated size of the public service – the public sector in Wales accounts for 64% of the GDP of the nations and almost all of the jobs created since Labour came to power are in the public sector or owe their existence to subsidy.

Five days to go – one hundred hours of campaign time. Pubs are filling up with political talk over beer, wine and coolers. The outcome is anyone’s guess, but polls have been wrong before. In 1992 the pollsters did get it wrong, and most of them didn’t cover themselves in glory in 1997. New methods and new companies may make polling more efficient and potentially more accurate, but the electorate have a habit of surprising people. In 1992, the opinion polls, which had normally predicted election results fairly accurately, were not just wrong but spectacularly so. The five main UK polls published on the morning of the general election predicted a Labour lead of 0.8 %, which would have ensured a hung parliament with Labour as the largest party. The BBC and ITV exit polls suggested a Conservative lead of 4%, which would have resulted in a hung parliament with the Conservatives as the largest party. In fact, the Conservatives were 7.5 % ahead and John Major was able to form a Conservative government with an overall majority of 21 seats. Cameron is hoping that the same story repeats itself on Thursday. We will soon know.

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