If the UK general election had been held a year ago, the opinion polls say there would have been a clear result – the opposition Labour party led by Ed Miliband would have won with a small, but workable, majority.
But while one of the traditional areas of vagueness of the British electoral system has been cleared up by the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which committed parliament to maximum five year terms, the advent of coalition politics in the UK has raised many more issues in its place.
The failure of the Conservative (Tory) party to win a clear majority in 2010 demonstrated the electorate were still wary of right-wing policies, even after 13 years of a Labour leadership which had led the country into an unjustified war in 2003 and responded poorly to the world economic downturn in 2008.
In 2010 the electorate turned to the traditional party of the protest vote, the Liberal Democrats, and the resulting mixture of punishment for Labour, suspicion of the Tories and protest through the Lib Dems led to no single party having a majority, so the opposition Conservatives ended up forming a partnership with the centre-left Lib Dems to produce a coalition government with a workable majority in the House of Commons.
For a country unaccustomed to coalition politics, this was new ground, but it worked and gave the UK much-needed stability in a time of global economic crisis; the policy of austerity was introduced and the arguments are still raging about whether it was effective or not.
Recent economic figures suggest that the economy is now recovering although the opposition claim this has been built by taxing the poor, punishing people who rely on welfare, and creating low-paid, low-value jobs often with zero-hours contracts to get the unemployment figures down.
Accusations that the Tories have lined the pockets of their rich supporters, been soft on the bankers and started to privatise the National Health Service persist amid a bad-tempered and rancorous campaign.
But while the coalition remained stable for the whole five-year term, the law of unintended consequences has kicked in; after being the also-rans for decades, the Lib Dems were suddenly catapulted into power and their policies placed under greater scrutiny. They also suffered from the compromises they had to make to be part of the coalition, the most prominent being a promise to cut tuition fees for university undergraduates.
Coalitions of the sanguine?
Not long after making this promise in the election campaign, they had to support a government which increased tuition fees and ended direct government grants to UK universities for non-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) courses – it was a humiliation the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg is still reminded about at almost every interview, and a move which undermined the Lib Dem’s claim to be softening the harsher right-wing policies of the Conservatives.
The result is that since 2010, the UK has become more sanguine about the possibility of coalitions, but it has also lost its traditional party of protest, the Lib Dems.
A number of new, smaller parties have appeared and grown, especially the UK Independence Party (UKIP) which has developed out of a nascent English nationalist movement to represent policies which many felt the major parties were unwilling to tackle, namely immigration and the UK’s membership of the European Union.
But they are not the only ones: The Green Party has also grown during the last five years while other groups, such as the left wing Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, made up of people who felt alienated by the more moderate New Labour of Tony Blair, have appeared.
Even the Whigs, a centrist party which disappeared when it merged with the Liberals in 1868, has been reformed.
Complicated electoral calculus
The UK electorate now have a range of options for protest which makes the electoral calculus much more complicated compared to the old two-party system which dominated the political landscape of the UK for most of the last 200 years.
However, these new parties are not the only complications – the other is Scotland. In 2014 a referendum over whether Scotland should become an independent nation produced a decisive result in favour of staying in the union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland – the No vote won by 55 per cent to 45 per cent.
The Scottish referendum campaign energised the often moribund and boring political discourse across the whole country, helped by changes such as the introduction of voting for 16 and 17-year-olds which brought the voices of young people into sharper focus during a lively and sometimes vitriolic campaign.
The opinion polls were neck-and-neck throughout and spooked by the possibility of a break-up of the UK after 400 years, the Westminster leaders of the three main parties formed a Grand Coalition to support the No campaign and made promises to give Scotland more devolved powers if they stayed in the Union.
It worked, and the No vote won the day; but again, the law of unintended consequences has come back to bite the Westminster parties on their collective backsides. Within a few weeks of the referendum there were accusations that the coalition was backing down and would struggle to deliver on its promises.
As a result the Scottish National Party (SNP), who dominate the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, told the people of Scotland that the Westminster politicians could not be trusted, and that has translated into a surge of support for them in the General Election campaign – a party that previously sent only a handful of lawmakers to Parliament in London now looks set to win almost all of the 59 seats in Scotland, which would make them the third largest party in the 650-seat House of Commons.
The potential for a nationalist party to hold the balance of power in the UK Parliament is a prospect which has seriously upset the main parties and the London-based media, with much of the political debate now dominated by questions over who would form a coalition with who, in the event of a hung parliament.
Meanwhile the two main party leaders, David Cameron and Ed Miliband continually try to claim they want to have a majority, which everybody knows is a very unlikely result.
So the campaign has been relentlessly negative: Labour have continually talked about the “broken promises” made by the Conservatives and their Lib Dem partners, while David Cameron’s narrative has consisted largely of “we’ve re-built the economy, don’t give it back to Labour who ruined it the last time”.
The Liberal Democrats, now freed from their coalition responsibilities have declared a plague on both their houses, saying they would still be a moderating force; their leader Nick Clegg said he would “add heart to a Conservative government and a brain to a Labour one”.
The problem for them is that after their U-turn on tuition fees, support for them, especially among their traditional base of young people, has gone through the floor.
The UK Independence Party, under their ebullient leader Nigel Farage, has tried to build on their policies on immigration and withdrawal from the European Union, but despite having success at the European elections and two parliamentary by-elections in 2014, the party hasn’t gained much traction and its poll ratings have been in slow decline throughout the campaign.
The Green Party also celebrated a “surge” in members at the start of the year, but like UKIP this hasn’t translated into support in the polls, and they haven’t been helped by some disastrous media interview performances by their leader, Natalie Bennett.
The Scottish equation
In contrast to this, the clear electoral changes that are on the cards in Scotland have become one of the dominating factors in the whole campaign, especially as the polls overall continue to point to another hung parliament, with no single party gaining a majority.
With SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon vowing to stop the Conservatives from forming a minority government, and pledging support for Labour, the political narrative has become even more negative with claims that the price Labour will pay for a coalition with the SNP would be even more government money going to Scotland at the expense of the rest of the union – no wonder Ed Miliband is repeatedly saying he will not have a formal coalition with them.
The irony is that to put themselves in this position, the SNP will have unseated many Scottish Labour lawmakers, and in the process destroyed Labour’s chances of winning a majority at Westminster; this is the price Miliband has paid for supporting the union during the Scottish referendum.
The electoral calculus as a result is mind-bending, a situation not helped by the fact that the two main parties are deadlocked and that the polls are largely static with Labour and the Conservatives stuck at the a third of the vote each – neither party seems to be able to make a breakthrough or land a killer blow on the other.
Like two football teams playing the last match of the season, with both knowing they need to win to secure the title, the two leaders are risk-averse, running closely controlled, stage-managed campaigns which have been largely dismissed as boring, uninspiring and negative by the electorate.
With little apparent change in the polls the political commentariat are already turning their thoughts to May 8th, the day after the election, and trying to work out who will be able to form a government.
On the current polling Labour and the Conservatives will be the biggest parties, and each could form a coalition with one or more of the smaller parties, but on the current numbers they would still struggle to command a workable majority; or they could try to govern as a minority government, relying on support from the smaller parties on a vote-by-vote basis.
The first thing any government has to do is get the House of Commons to approve the Queen’s Speech, the annual ‘To-Do’ list of policies which the government proposes to introduce – which is written by the government, read out by the Queen and then debated before being voted through.
But with the SNP pledging to vote down anything the Conservatives propose, David Cameron knows that a minority government led by him would struggle to get the Queen’s Speech through, making it almost impossible for any Tory minority administration to continue.
Meanwhile, Ed Miliband knows he’s likely to have the SNP’s support, but that the price he might have to pay for that support could be extremely high for the country as a whole, and the UK media have already jumped on the potential costs of having the government effectively dictated to by a party which represents less than 10 per cent of the electorate.
Others are taking a longer view, with some commentators now discussing the possibility of a grand coalition of the main parties which could take on a dual role – governing the whole country while sorting out some of the electoral inequities that have been thrown up by the current campaign and the rise of the nationalists.
Some argue that with more political parties now standing for parliament and getting public support the time is right for a review of the current electoral system, which works well in a two-party race, but becomes unrepresentative when there are more, something the Liberal Democrats have been campaigning about for years having been regularly under-represented in Parliament despite commanding a significant share of the vote nationally.
Et tu, BRICS?
Whatever the outcome, there will be sizable international repercussions as well, especially if the election produces a constitutional crisis for the world’s fifth-largest economy; but even with a minority government there will be an impact on the way the UK does business with the rest of the world, especially in Europe.
In January 2013 Cameron pledged to hold a referendum on continued EU involvement should he win re-election in 2015, and to renegotiate a ‘repatriation’ of powers back to London.
These powers include decision-making on migration, home affairs, and agricultural policy, among others.
It is Britain’s position in the EU that is also on the minds of some of the BRICS leaders, especially if that weakens the European Union’s trading capabilities.
The growing anti-immigration rhetoric of the Conservatives has also gone down badly in a number of countries in the last two years, especially Russia, India and South Africa, while the tightening of visa restrictions would affect thousands of Chinese students who want to study in the UK.
A 2013 British government ‘Migration Statistics Quarterly’ report said that the top 5 non-British nationalities for usual residents in the UK were Poland, India, Republic of Ireland, Pakistan, and Lithuania.
South Africa’s ANC have traditionally found they can deal with Labour and President Jacob Zuma has cancelled two visits to the UK as relations have deteriorated.
In 2013, David Cameron’s government decided to end direct aid payments to South Africa and the two leaders disagreed over the action to oust Libyan president Muammar Gadaffi, which, given Libya’s descent into chaos, will only harden Pretoria’s support for a new government in London.
While the UK government have been on a serious charm offensive in China, there is little to indicate whether Beijing prefers any leader over the other, although in Moscow, Russia’s property-owning elite may be more concerned over Labour’s plans for a mansion tax, on properties worth over $3 million, to fund the National Health Service.
However, given the challenges being faced by the international community, the UK general election is a tiny blip on the radar, although it may grow into something much more substantial if a Miliband government was forced into giving up Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent in return for the support of the SNP, whose policy is to scrap nuclear weapons.
Back in the UK though, the scaremongering of this kind of outcome continues to dominate the headlines, much to the annoyance of the electorate. While the current campaign may have been negative and boring, it seems that the post-election fallout could be anything but.
Russell Merryman is the acting course director for MA International Journalism (online) at the London College of Communication, former editor-in-chief of web and new media at Al Jazeera English, prior to which he was a broadcast/multimedia journalist, presenter and editor at the BBC. He is also a contributing editor for The BRICS Post. You can follow him on Twitter @merryarty.