Observations on Britain’s election

May 1, 2015
British PM Cameron speaks during a campaign visit in Frinton-on-Sea

British Prime Minister David Cameron addresses supporters during an event in Frinton, Britain April 24, 2015. REUTERS/Toby Melville

The opinion polls suggest the ruling Conservatives may be edging ahead of the opposition Labour party but still neither are likely to secure a parliamentary majority on their own. The Scottish Nationalists are poised to trounce Labour north of the border while anti-EU UKIP, despite a troubled campaign, will take a lot of Conservative votes in England.

I’m not in the predictions business but there are some observations to make.

1. With economic recovery entrenched, political history suggests an “incumbency factor” should kick in for the Conservatives when people actually go into the ballot box. If it does, they may be able to govern again with the Liberal Democrats.

2. Labour has better partner options than the Conservatives – the SNP could win 50 seats or more while the LibDems will be lucky to get 30 – so could form a government even if the Conservatives win more seats.

3. The Conservative line that this would yield a Labour government held to ransom by left-wing Scottish secessionists is questionable. One thing that would ruin the SNP’s standing in Scotland would be to pull down a Labour administration and allow the Conservatives back in. So it would have a powerful incentive to vote with Labour on budgets and other key laws whatever was in them. That may be why Ed Miliband has felt able to rule out any sort of formal coalition with the SNP.

4. Remember Scotland’s independence vote last year. There may well be one or two polls which suggest one or other party has leaped ahead in the closing days. Until the aggregated poll of polls shifts, be cautious about reading too much into it. It hasn’t yet.

5. Whatever sound and fury comes in the last few days of campaigning, it’s unlikely to make a big difference. The political landscape may be fractured by newcomers like UKIP but deeply-held public perceptions do not tend to shift on the latest policy announcement. In fact, the vast majority of the population will have actively avoided watching the campaign. The imminent arrival of a new royal baby may further eclipse last-ditch campaigning.

6. Manifesto pledges will quickly bite the dust with the main ruling party having to deal with others for support. The Conservatives’ pledge to legislate against any personal tax rise for the next five years is likely to be one of the first one on the cutting room floor if they lead the next government.

7. The key opinion poll lines have barely budged over the past two months. What has perceptibly moved is Miliband’s and Sturgeon’s personal ratings (upwards). Will that be decisive? Who knows.

8. The Conservatives remain well ahead in terms of perceived economic competence and that really should count. But a negative campaign – “competence not chaos” etc. – may have neutralized that by failing to alight on a strong positive message to vote for them. This was Conservative polling guru Lord Ashcroft this week.  “It seems to me that if one of your problems as a party is that some of the voters you need think you are “nasty”, then launching personal attacks against your opponent is not the best way to capitalize.”

9. If the Conservatives don’t come first, Cameron will be toast. After running a better campaign than expected, Miliband might well survive falling short.

10. The vast majority of the dead tree media have come out in favour of the Conservatives or a repeat of their coalition with the LibDems. But never has the power of the print press to sway votes felt less potent. Miliband was lampooned for agreeing to an interview with comedian Russell Brand. But he has nearly 10 million twitter followers.

11. If neither party can build enough support to pass a “Queen’s Speech” legislative slate in June or July, we could be looking at another election which only the Conservatives will have any meaningful funds left to fight.

12. The main justification for Britain’s first-past-the-post system, given it does not fairly reflect the vote in terms of parliamentary seats, is that it delivers stable one-party government. Now it does not, could it rekindle debate about reforming the electoral system? There’s no sign no far, largely because the big parties know they would get fewer seats.

13. Would a minority government be so bad? Administrations with big majorities legislate furiously because they can, intervening in every corner of life. Would a smaller number of laws, given they would have to be agreed with others, be so bad? Much of Europe is used to coalition government without disasters. And the interconnected nature of the world economy, and power of financial markets, should ensure no one does anything too stupid.

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