Murari Sharma: Uncertain British Elections

Democracies go through the election ritual every few years. That ritual is due on 7 May 2015 for the United Kingdom. This election is going to be one of the closest in British history.

The main competitors are the Conservative Party, which is leading the present coalition government, and the Labor Party, which ruled from 1994 to 2010. The Liberal Democratic Party, the minor coalition partner in the current administration, and the UK Independent Party will also be forces to reckon with. Then you have the Green Party and several regional parties joining the fray.

This election is Prime Minister David Cameron’s to lose. The Labor Party has been facing several obstacles to make a comeback from the corner. The ruling coalition has successfully blamed Labor for the Great Recession of 2007-08. It has had its fair share of scandals in terms of dodgy donors or insulting the voters. On top of that, Labor Leader Ed Miliband is personally deemed as unlikable.

In addition, the Conservatives  have also been favored by other factors. They have successfully claimed the credit for the economic recovery in the last couple of years. Voters trust them for the economy and immigration more than Labor, even though the economy had nowhere else to go but up after hitting the bottom  and the government could not fulfill its pledge to reduce the number of immigrants from hundreds of thousands to thousands.

Even though the British government had little to do with the recession or has done little for the recovery, the Tories have been able to outmaneuver Labor in public relations campaign. In politics, it does not matter what and who is right; what matters is what appears right to the voters.

But the battle is not just between these two parties. Both have been threatened  by the fringe parties. UKIP presents a serious threat in the marginals to the Tories, and the Scottish National Party and the Green Party to Labor. All recent opinion polls have suggested that neither the Conservatives nor the Labor would win outright majority in the parliament.

Therefore, in all likelihood, the next government will again be a coalition government, just like the current one. While this coalition has not been detrimental to the Conservatives, it has seriously damaged the LibDem, the junior partner. The Conservatives have taken credit of the populist  agenda of LibDem and apportioned the share of their unpopular decisions.

The only way Ed Miliband could occupy 10 Downing Street would, most likely, be through a coalition with the Scottish National Party or by obtaining its support from outside. SNP, which had last year conducted a referendum for Scotland’s independence only to lose by a relatively small margin, is widely believed that it would take most of the 40 seats held by Labor now in Scotland.

Fearing that any coalition with the pro-independence SNP could damage Labor’s electoral prospects in England and the SNP could be too demanding, Labor leader Miliband has ruled out such a coalition with it. This strengthens the hand of Prime Minister Cameron and his party.

Since this election has no defining issue on either side, it will have to be fought on personality of the leaders, on vilifying the other side, and winning people through smart public relations campaign. The Conservative Party and Labor Party do not have much difference in their core agenda.

Both have committed to reduce and pay down national debt, cut benefit, and increase minimum wage. Both have said they would ring-fence the NHS budget and add more to tackle its ongoing problems and prevent further closure of hospitals. The only difference is Labor wants to go slow on reducing debt and cutting benefits.

What complicates the election further is that both Cameron and Miliband have image problem. Cameron’s right flank criticizes him for not cutting benefits and taxes enough and not clearly committing to pull Britain out of the European Union. His left flank believes he and his Chancellor of Exchequer are out of touch with reality and voters. Miliband is in a similar position. His left flank has been criticizing him for not being red enough and his right flank for not being pro-business enough.

So, in this situation, every vote will count, every opportunity to undermine the other party will matter, and every possibility to show the disadvantages of the other side will help. Analysts say, this election will be the closest in a long time. In this down-to-the-wire campaign, television debates have become a new front for jockeying.

Cameron has refused to have a face to face television debate with Miliband. He fears that, given low expectations from Miliband, a modest performance from the Labor leader could upstage him. After much dithering, he has agreed to a TV debate among seven parties, in which every leader will have very little time to present their position and no time to grill the other leaders, and indirect question-answer session with Miliband.

While the debates might not change the voters’ mind tectonically, they might make a big difference in a neck-to-neck competition. A shift in a few hundred votes could make one a winner or loser. The seven-party debate could help or harm Cameron and Miliband depending on what other parties will do.

If UKIP leader Nigel Farage shows a soft corner for him, Cameron could be the winner in this multilateral debate. If SNP leader Alex Salmond and Green leader Natalie Bennett treat Miliband with kids gloves, the Labor leader could emerge victorious.

Because there is so much uncertainty, this election has become one of the most eagerly awaited in history. Only on 8 May will we know which party has been favored by the voters in the periodic ritual of election. Until then, we must wait with bated breath.