Britain goes to the polls on May 7, hoping to elect the right man for the job.
“Unpredictable,” bellowed the opening lines of almost every media report home and abroad to describe the latest cycle of British electioneering. The electorate is polarized and the mandate splintered, they note. This time it’s noisier out there. Instead of the usual two (and a half) main national parties dominating the political landscape, British voters now have a rich mix of anti-immigration Eurosceptics, disgruntled secessionists and ecological crusaders among others to choose from.
And with so much disparateness on offer, the polls are certainly heading to a no man’s land — that is, no man is going to land a solid majority to form the next government without crutches. The return of coalition politics and behind-the-door bickering for another five years is inevitable.
The unpredictability is not down to the recycled promises or the re-jigged political sops — a universal staple of elections anywhere in the world. What makes the 2015 British election somewhat unprecedented is that never before in living memory have the leading contenders been so unpopular. YouGov, the Internet-based market research firm, captured it spot on: Voters find the current political leaders unbelievable and “uninspiring.”
The United Kingdom has seen its global economic and political capital dwindle in the last decade. The crippling recession, messy domestic affairs, diminished influence in overseas conflicts and continental power struggles have made it only harder for both the Labour and Conservative parties to justify the performance and policies of their last governments, let alone promise Britain a better future. Despite shouting their achievements from the rooftop, voters appear disillusioned. Opinion polls have termed the election campaigns lackluster and the public response to them mostly dispassionate. At times, it seems as if no one in the country wants to bother with another round of balloting.
Choosing Between the Known Devil and the Unknown
Prime Minister David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, for most of his election campaign has looked somewhat annoyed; as if he is being asked to rewrite an exam he has already passed. Often attacked by his rivals for his elitist upbringing, Cameron’s responses on critical issues appear scripted and his tone perfunctory. His government has been embroiled in too many scandals for his comfort, his closeness to media barons and the wealthy is repeatedly questioned, and his attitude in the European Union (EU) is seen as cavalier. At home, his spending cuts have brought along accusations of “being out of touch with reality.” To make matters worse, the Tory prime minister is still not sure how best to run Britain’s biggest money-guzzling public service behemoth that is the National Health Service (NHS).
The only credible weapon in his otherwise weak arsenal is the modest, yet significant, economic recovery his government has managed to scrape together amid harsh spending cuts. In 2013, Britain saw its first green shoots of gross domestic product (GDP) growth under Prime Minister Cameron. The recovery picked up more momentum the next year. From 1.6%, the growth rose to 2.8%, along with a big jump in employment numbers. Wearing this medal proudly — and perhaps justifiably so — on his breathless chest, the Tory leader has jumped into the fray asking for a second chance. As evidence, but mostly for comic effect, Cameron likes to pull out the one-line note left by the last Labour treasury secretary in 2010 wherever he goes, including the televised national debates. The note addressed to the incoming Tory secretary reads: there is no money. The joke’s wearing thin though.
But despite playing the part and talking the talk, Cameron is looking increasingly strained by the compulsion to prove he is still the right man for the job.
The Labour leader Ed Miliband, on the other hand, is the quintessential underdog in the two-man race to number 10 Downing Street. For a long time, he suffered low ratings in opinion polls largely due to — as incredulous and unmeritorious it may sound — his resemblance to an animated character. For a society obsessed with size zero and Beyonce’s derrière, looking like Wallace (of Wallace and Gromit) and with a voice like a sonorous bamboo can be an instant disqualification for the job of representing the country.
But Miliband has proved to be as stubborn as stubborn gets. In the last year, he has vaulted from -26 in popularity ratings to too close to those of Cameron and his comfort. Almost sounding like a redistributive swashbuckling-hero socialist, Miliband is promising to fix the country and all its problems. Self-confessedly, the Labour leader’s foremost concern is the inequality and wealth gap in Britain. In his manifesto, Miliband has vowed to take on anything that embodies corporate greed. Private energy giants, railway companies, the banking sector — all of them qualify to come under the red Ed’s axe. He has also promised to go after the tax-evading, unscrupulously wealthy and non-domiciles. And that’s just the tip of Labour’s iceberg. In the recent BBC election debate, Miliband promised to under-promise and over-deliver, unlike his Tory rival.
Despite a strong display of conviction, which has helped his ratings soar in the opinion polls and earned him strong backing from The Guardian, Miliband has fallen short of instilling hope. While his passion resonates with the disaffected and out-of-job youth, there are strong misgivings about his economic policy among other things. Can Miliband sustain the growth Cameron has managed to set in motion? The least Britain needs right now is a gamble with its barely-there economic recovery. That said, Miliband could just be the oyster the country has avoided opening thus far.
But what the 2015 election will be mostly remembered for are the also-rans turning into formidable challengers. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader, Nigel Farage, is the man who has fiercely tried to rock the boat with his highly populist and often controversial views on immigrants and Britain’s EU membership. The biggest Eurosceptic in the country has also been long lampooned for his preposterous stance on homosexuals, Muslims and unskilled workers. Even though the noise and hype around the controversial leader has slumped drastically in the past few weeks, Farage has damagingly whipped up enough hysteria so as to force Cameron to promise a referendum on EU membership if he is re-elected on May 7.
However, the Scottish National Party (SNP) is emerging to be the real tiger in the elections. The secessionist party, which bagged just six seats in the last elections and recently lost the referendum on separating from the union of Great Britain, is tipped to secure the third highest number of seats after Labour and the Conservatives. Even though the Scottish outfit doesn’t want to see Cameron back in power for a second term and has balked at the idea of forming a coalition with Miliband, the SNP will hold real sway over who might actually get to form the next government after all. Its newly elected leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has won more hearts than she expected with her performance in the televised debates. What happens on May 7 could well pave the way for another referendum on Scottish independence in years to come.
Another reason that makes the 2015 election different is the unflinching focus on domestic affairs. There’s enough mess at home to fix, and all the parties have avoided straying too widely in their campaigns to discuss foreign policy in more detail than necessary. But conflicts across the globe are spawning at a rate faster than the world powers can handle, even as the existing ones continue to rage. Whoever becomes the next British prime minister will be dealing with even murkier issues overseas.
If anything, it’s the worst time to be a politician in Britain.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.