The first Thursday in May — so sets out the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, 2011 as the date for all future general elections in the UK. Several reasons claim to be at the root of this: Friday wages would bring more drunken voters to the booths on Fridays and weekends; voting as far away from a Sunday would reduce the influence of church sermons; Thursday, as market day in rural areas, meant locals would travel to town anyway. Today, the UK seems far away from a world of drunken voters or the likely influence of a parish priest, and is firmly entrenched in an age where every day is, well, market day.
As first impressions go, two things stand out. One, the total resignation of both candidates and voters to the very high likelihood of a hung parliament. Two, the complete absence of youth engagement in the electoral process. The first is no surprise. In keeping with electoral trends in western Europe, the UK has seen high public mistrust of government and deference to the political elite has collapsed as economic woes erode living standards.
The second is more startling. None of the campaigns of the major parties seems to focus on the youth. The estimated turnout in the age group of 18-24 was 44 per cent in 2010, compared to 52 per cent in 2005, and is expected to be even lower this time.
This election does seem to provide no real alternative. In 2010, Nick Clegg, as the fresh face of the Liberal Democrats, provided some credibility. Five years on, at the end of a LibDem-Tory coalition, everyone is perceived to be part of the establishment. The emergence of alternative parties is viewed by voters as merely a “tactical” choice to prevent the Tories or Labour from getting a majority. Most polls show voters trust the Tories more with the economy but trust Labour more on welfare and the NHS. Milliband, unfortunately, is proving to be Labour’s Achilles’ Heel. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), under Nigel Farage, is running its campaign on two negatives — anti-immigration and anti-EU.
The real star of this election is undoubtedly Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party (SNP). From only six seats in 2010, the SNP is expected to win at least 50 of the 59 seats north of the border, as it reaps the results of the Scottish referendum of September 2014. The SNP was able to ensure an 85 per cent turnout, of whom 44 per cent voted “yes” to Scottish independence (against 55 per cent who voted “no”). The referendum results are viewed by many as a mere trailer to what will happen next — that this election is not about who will govern the UK for the next five years but its very survival.
This is a battle being fought on factory floors and in closed-door meetings with pensioners and unions. Memories of a tired Gordon Brown, who forgot to switch off his microphone and was heard remarking, “What a bigoted woman”, loom large. Every party seems to be wanting to shield its leadership from the perils of an unguarded moment in a crowd.
Notwithstanding a last-minute surge by either party, the likely outcome is a slim Tory lead over Labour. In that event, David Cameron’s continuation as prime minister will be legitimised on the grounds of numbers, incumbency and loyalty to a united Britain. A government formed by the largest party is more legitimate than one formed by the second-largest, and a non-Tory government that relies on SNP support will lead to the eventual breakup of the country. All compelling arguments, but still the prospect of a hung parliament remains very real.
Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, passing a Queens Speech or a budget is not a formal test of majority. But, in practice, a party that didn’t clear these hurdles wouldn’t last in government — a Queens Speech defeat in 1924 saw Stanley Baldwin step down as a majority PM and make way for Ramsay MacDonald at the helm of a minority government. This uncertainty has led to the possibility of a Labour-led government supported by the SNP (despite Milliband’s reiteration that he will “do no deals with the SNP”), even if the Tories emerge as the largest party. The LibDems, in Nick Clegg’s words, would serve as the heart of a Tory coalition and the brains of one led by Labour. Either would be legitimate, as all three are parties with national constituencies, as opposed to the SNP, which is viewed as a separatist party with Scottish-only interests. Any pact it would make with Labour would be viewed as illegitimate by voters in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is on this legitimacy argument alone that Cameron rests his fate.
The writer, a general secretary of the West Bengal Trinamool Congress, is in the UK as an international observer for the elections as part of the Election Assessment Mission organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.