Gordon Brown, now in the last three months of his tenure as Prime Minister of Great Britain, is doing something remarkable. He is narrowing the gap between him and his political rival – David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party. Commentators now generally talk of a “hung parliament” in which neither the Labour nor Conservative parties have a majority. The general election, according to most pundits, will likely be in March and must occur before the end of May.
The latest opinion polls, which just last April showed close to a twenty point lead for the Conservatives, are now showing just a nine point Conservative lead with Labour gaining some momentum. Given the way seats are distributed and the massive majority Labour currently has, nine points will not be enough to unseat the Government. Gordon Brown’s New Years wish will be to get this poll difference down to five or six points, closer to the margin of error in polling.
The British House of Commons has 646 seats, with the Conservative Party currently holding just 193. Some 94 seats belong to third parties – Liberal Democrats, Welsh and Scottish Nationalists, Irish independents and others. To win, David Cameron has to secure an additional 128 seats – something that requires a massive swing away from Labour to the Conservatives and a reasonable turn-out at the polls. At the 2005 election Conservatives polled only three percentage points less of the vote than Labour did, but their tally of seats was 157 smaller.
A hung parliament causes an interesting constitutional challenge for the Queen. She has to decide who to call as her Prime Minister. By convention, she would seek a continuation of the present Government until such time as it became clear that the Prime Minister no longer could rely upon the support of the House. At this point, she would then offer the position to whoever could command the largest sustainable support from the other parties in the House of Commons. Given the momentum Cameron and the Conservatives would have created to create a hung parliament, some sort of coalition to sustain a minority government would likely occur.
Over the last 100 years, some 34 years have involved coalition or minority rule. If anything, the multiple-term governments of the Tories throughout the 80s and 90s and Labour in the 90s and 2000s have led us to forget this fact. Coalitions are also commonplace throughout Europe. In Britain, hung parliaments tend to be short-lived and contentious. We may have more than one election in 2010.
The crucial factor in determining the election outcome will be electoral turn-out. Some are suggesting that, disaffection with the politicians following expense scandals, the over use of half-truths in explaining various policies and events, the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, all may lead to a high turn-out representing voter disapproval for the work of the current government. Others, pointing to these same factors, suggest that the turn-out will be very low showing voter disaffection with politics in general and politicians in particular. A low turnout generally favours the Conservatives, but, such an advantage will not be enough to secure an overall Conservative victory. Large turn-outs have traditionally favoured Labour, but there have been occasions when turnout was high and Labour lost. History tells us, however, that voter turnout is higher when the result of the election is in doubt – people feel that their vote may actually count for something.
A large number of MPs - some one hundred and nineteen in total, with seventy six Labour MP’s amongst them - are retiring. This is the largest number to retire since 1945 and the list includes many former cabinet Ministers and prominent politicians who had strong personal following in their constituencies. The list includes well known characters like Bob Marshall Andrews, Clare Short, John Prescott, Ruth Kelly and Anne Widdecombe. This may “free” voters who supported the individual rather than the party they stood for and give them “permission” vote differently in the election.
The issues in the election are clear. There are four. First , the need for a restoration of trust in the political process and politicians, lost during the lead up to the Iraq war and extended by the expenses scandal – Briton’s now are rightly questioning the way politicians think, act and understand their role. Second, the economy and the need for Britain to move out of recession, reduce unemployment and lower government debt. Third, the Iraq and Afghan wars are seen as costly in terms of lives and unnecessary in terms of purpose – Britons want Britain out of these wars. The final issue is less tangible – it is about restoring the pride people have in being British and championing Britain. There is a sense of “loss” of identity taking place which many are anxious about – politicians need to address this.
There are dangers lurking in the election. The most significant being the British National Party (BNP). This neo-Nazi party has had some electoral success with two members elected in by-elections in 2009. The election of these two MP’s, which is largely related to the British identity issue, shocked many and has given serious cause for alarm. These xenophobic nationalist are promoting policies of hate and isolationism which many find offensive, yet others see them as “standing up for being British”. The chattering classes do not quite know what to do about the BNP. It is possible that they will gain ground, especially if turnout is high.
It will be an interesting time between now and election night. Gordon Brown will be in his element as a street fighter, ideologue and spin-master. His New Years wish of more favourable polling may come true, but the election is the ultimate poll and he is still likely not to be Prime Minister come June.