The ballot is stronger than the bullet.
If voting changed anything they’d make it illegal.
THEY SAY THE PRESSURES OF POLITICS prematurely age those in power. Obama looks like an old man. The presidency essentially killed Lyndon Johnson. Even our very own Tony Blair aged in office, the lies finally showing on his grinning face. Yet, David Cameron looks about the same as he did five years ago. The weight of his decisions have not aged nor withered him—only those who have been affected by five years of austerity.
In 2010, I was 21 years old and in my first year of university. I was full of life and optimism, excited about my future, and completely unaware of how truly terrible my shoulder length hair looked. Now, half a decade later, I am one of thousands out of work, and I am going bald—the grim portrait to Cameron’s Dorian Gray.
Cameron is not a popular leader, and he did not win the popular vote in 2010. Parliament was hung, and so a coalition was formed with the third party, the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems—a Social Liberal party, and traditionally centrist—were coming off their best ever showing at the polls, having mobilized and inspired the youth/student vote. Their leader, current Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, was young and energetic and promising to scrap university tuition fees.[1. University tuition had, until 2007, been free.] This promise was not only broken, but utterly shattered beyond repair after the coalition. The Conservatives ended up raising tuition fees. Since the coalition was formed, the Liberal Democrats have been hemorrhaging votes and have essentially bled out. They’ve fallen behind the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a far right Nationalist party who received just 3.1% of the popular vote five years ago, in the polls.[2. UKIP’s popularity has surged since the resignation of party leader Lord Pearson after the election. His successor, Nigel Farage, has been much more effective in garnering publicity and support. However, he has not been able to shake UKIP’s perception as a one-issue party. UKIP’s core policies are removing Britain from the EU, clamping down on immigration, and lifting the smoking ban in British pubs. Detractors often characterise the party as racist, a joke, or a combination of the two.] Last time around, in 2010, they were only a fringe party. Recent polls project that they will win only three seats (they currently have two), but are cutting into Conservative support, and even threatening some of Labour’s own seats. The damage from Clegg’s broken promise was not only to Clegg and his party, but also in disappointing thousands of young first-time voters who will be in no hurry to get stung again. They definitely won’t be voting Liberal Democrat.[3. Clegg represents the constituency of Sheffield Hallam, a seat with a strong student population, owing to the two universities situated in the area. Recent polls indicate Clegg has fallen behind the Labour candidate. It is very likely he will lose his status as an MP (Member of Parliament).]
Still, how likely is another Conservative win? Frighteningly, about fifty-fifty. Even a PM this unpopular could still take the popular vote—which speaks volumes about the democratic system, and the failures of the other parties to capitalize on this dissatisfaction and disillusionment. The polls have the two major parties, the Conservatives and Labour, more or less neck and neck every day.
The Conservative spin doctor Lynton Crosby[4. Who has been compared with The Thick of It’s Malcom Tucker.] has spoken repeatedly of the day when the jump will come, and the Conservatives will build a solid lead. He certainly seems to be doing everything within his power to make that happen, and it can be no coincidence that the Murdoch-owned newspapers have been relentless in their front-page scaremongering with regards to a potential Labour-SNP coalition.[5. The SNP are the Scottish National Party, who were behind Scotland’s push for a referendum on independence last year. They are projected to win 54% of the votes in Scotland, and would be a strong and likely ally if Labour were to form a coalition.] But there are now just two days to go, and the jump has not occurred. Nor is there any sign of it on the horizon. Neither party is making a break for it, too cautious to make a truly bold move. With the polls this close, there is no room for the big risk. It would be a coin toss, as likely to lose them the election as win it. Benjamin Disraeli once said, “There is no gambling like politics,” but in this election the house odds do not seem favourable. Both parties are making safe bets for small gains… appeasing and appealing to the centre ground. Labour are playing down ties to the SNP, and announcing tougher measures on immigration. The Tories[6. This is a popular, non-pejorative term for the Conservatives.] have suddenly announced public spending promises[7. Which contradict their promise to freeze taxes (the government’s largest income revenue) whilst still reducing the national deficit. If the Conservatives froze taxes, the only way they could reduce the deficit would be to make drastic cuts to public spending. Promises in an election have about as much value as an IOU from a corpse.], which goes against all they’ve said to justify their austerity measures.[8. Austerity measures essentially mean a reduction in public spending. It’s been unpopular with many, who have felt the brunt of the cuts, but not seen any of the supposed benefits. For a better explanation of austerity, why it’s unpopular, and why it’s unnecessary and ineffective in economic recovery, read this recent Guardian piece from Paul Krugman.] Both pretend they’re playing to win, but even the most rudimentary understanding of the numbers shows that a coalition will be all but inevitable.
But what does all this mean? How does one become Prime Minister? Parliament is comprised of 650 seats. Each seat represents a ‘constituency,’ which is an electoral district. Voters do not technically vote for the Prime Minister. They vote for their Member of Parliament—the representative for their constituency. Whoever wins in a constituency wins a seat in Parliament representing their party. For example, if a Labour candidate wins a constituency, Labour wins one seat in Parliament. To form a government, a party needs a majority in Parliament. Three hundred twenty-six constituencies, or seats, are required to gain a majority. The Prime Minister is the leader of which ever party gains that 326 Parliamentary majority—for the Conservatives, that would be David Cameron; for Labour it would be Ed Miliband.
But why should you, the average American reader, really care? Well, the outcome could affect the willingness of Britain participating in your next illegal war. We might have lost our Empire, but we like to pretend we still matter, dammit! We still think we wield a disproportionate influence in global politics. There is also the “special relationship” to consider.[9. This relationship generally refers to the exceptionally close diplomatic, economic, historical, and cultural ties between the two nations. It is the general myth that our nations are best friends and equals. Although in reality the relationship is closer to Bart’s friendship with Milhouse. (We’re Milhouse.)] But really, this is the most exciting British election in years, and for the first time in a long while there is a real ideological left-vs.-right battle on our hands. There are coalitions and deals to be made, accusations to be denied and a dangerous but undeniably fascinating rise of an extreme right-wing nationalist party.[10. UKIP, as mentioned in third paragraph.]
But ultimately, the whole circus is pointless because the election will be decided—if it gets decided at all—by just twenty-three marginal seats, the equivalent of swing states in the U.S. Most of these constituencies are “safe seats,” which means that one party has always won there, and probably always will. My next door neighbors have been swept up by election fever, and nailed a 5’ by 5’ garish neon sign to the side of their house proclaiming: LIBERAL DEMOCRATS WINNING HERE! which might help prevent traffic accidents, but will have no influence on the outcome of the seat. This is safe Conservative country—an extreme rarity, an underprivileged area with unwavering support for the party that shows preference for the privileged.
Traditionally the Conservatives are the party of the affluent and upper classes, with Labour’s support coming from the downtrodden masses and lower classes. Voting patterns still more or less reflect that. It’s rare for a seat to change parties, and when it does it’s a pretty huge deal. But it does happen, from time to time.
The biggest disaster for Labour, electorally, is the dominance of the Scottish National Party. Scotland has long been a Labour stronghold, but things have changed. The SNP has established itself as more or less the party of Scotland. North of the border in Scotland, they’re projected to take 54% of the vote, which is a pretty emphatic middle finger to Labour—and England in general.
However, the SNP are a left-leaning party, and one of the most likely parties to form a coalition with Labour. Labour are projected to win 270 seats. Forming a coalition with the SNP would leave them one short of a majority. But the Green Party are projected to win one seat, and likely to agree to team up with Labour and the SNP, as all three parties are left wing and—perhaps more importantly—against the prospect of a Conservative government in any form.[11. Either a Tory majority, a Tory-led coalition, or a Tory minority government. In the event of a hung parliament, the current PM has the first opportunity to form a government, which means Cameron has the chance to create a minority government. However, this is unlikely as minority governments are notoriously unstable, short-lived, and unpopular.]
The coalition issue is an interesting one, with both Labour and Conservatives pretending it won’t happen—this despite the fact that Cameron has been part of a coalition for the last five years. But it’s more or less political suicide to talk about making deals when you’re still campaigning—it’s defeatist; it doesn’t appear practical and it comes off sounding like a concession that you cannot win the vote outright. So neither Labour nor the Conservatives are entertaining the idea despite its obvious inevitability. Only the Liberal Democrats will openly talk about coalition deals, but they can afford to—they’re so far behind in the polls that the popular vote is a fantastical dream for them. Current polls project they will take just 27 seats.
The SNP, now led by Nicola Sturgeon,[12. Succeeding Alex Salmond in November, who resigned after losing the referendum on Scottish Independence.] are open about forming a coalition with Labour. There’s a fascinating dance around the issue, with a frisson of almost sexual tension. Nicola knows Ed Miliband wants her, and he knows he needs her. But he can’t say as much, for the risk of putting off voters.
Meanwhile the right are running rampant with scare tactics. The Daily Mail ran a front page referring to a potential Labour-SNP government as “the worst crisis since the abdication”—referring to the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936, and ignoring the fact that Edward was a Nazi sympathizer. The removal of a Nazi sympathizer from the British monarchy in 1936 is arguably one of the best things that ever happened to this country. But then, the Daily Mail themselves supported the Nazis right up until the outbreak of the Second World War. The Mail’s coverage of the election is scaremongering on a scale not seen since the 1950s, when the Tories cracked down on homosexuality, under the bizarre belief that being gay left you open to being blackmailed by the Soviets. These days, the Conservatives support gay marriage, at least.
The prospect of a Labour-SNP-Green alliance is looking like the most likely outcome. Under current projections, a Conservative-Lib Dem alliance would not be enough for a majority government. They would need to find 21 seats from various other parties –which itself invokes the grim specter of UKIP in government.[13. This is gross impartiality on my part. The thought of UKIP having any influence in government scares me. They are led by Nigel Farage, who claims to be a man of the people despite being a privately educated ex-stockbroker turned career politician with an off-shore bank account. He is currently a Member of the European Parliament, but attends less than 50% of votes. He has talked often of EU fishery legislation destroying the British fishing industry, despite the fact that he was on the EU Fisheries Commission for three years—but attended only one of the 43 meetings that created the legislation. A cornerstone of UKIP’s campaign has to blame the unemployment crisis on immigrants ‘stealing British jobs’ despite employing his German wife as his personal secretary. Last year Farage claimed babies born to immigrants should be classed as immigrants, apparently oblivious to the fact that that would include his own children. Godfrey Bloom, at the time a UKIP MEP, referred to countries that receive foreign aid from Britain as “Bongo Bongo Land”. It is very hard to take the party seriously as politicians, for me at least. They also have an attitude to satire that I find troubling. They recently made a formal complaint to the police, after a joke was made at their expense on the satirical BBC panel show, Have I Got News For You. They have also previously called for a ban on Twitter parody accounts. That’s not to say they don’t have a sense of humor though. Hundreds of migrants drown each year trying to swim across the Mediterranean from north Africa. After a recent EU Search and Rescue mission, many migrants were saved. UKIP’s candidate for Plymouth, Peter Endean, was quick to post an image to Twitter, with the ‘hilarious’ caption “Labour’s new floating voters”.] Another option for the Conservatives is to form a minority government with the Lib Dems, but this is extremely unlikely, and would almost certainly fail a confidence vote —which Labour and the SNP would likely motion for immediately.
The Conservatives have been on the back foot from the start of the campaign and have campaigned negatively. Their best chance is to win as many of the marginal seats as they can and defy the current projections. This is looking less likely with every passing day as they seem to be sabotaging their own campaign. Cameron has made two unusual decisions in the election. The first was to announce that, if elected, he would not stand in 2020. British political leaders are not bound by term limits—Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister from 1979–1990. That announcement was odd, almost bargaining with the electorate. But that was brushed over, and almost forgotten. Far more confusing has been Cameron’s flat-out refusal to participate in the televised debates, despite a strong showing five years ago.[14.Although the televised debate has been a staple of the U.S. Presidential election since 1960, it is a very new concept in British politics. Indeed, the 2010 election saw our first ever TV debates.]
The greatest flaw with Labour leader Ed Miliband is that for the past few years he hasn’t seemed like a potential PM. He’s been perceived as being soft, goofy, a figure of fun. He hasn’t attacked the Conservatives hard enough or presented himself well enough. But then suddenly, since the campaign began, he’s seemed a different man—relaxed, confident and in control. His campaign has been gaining momentum, and he himself has developed a teen fanbase that largely manifests itself as the Twitter hashtag ‘#milifandom’.[15. Also of note is ‘Ed Balls Day’, which commemorates the day Labour’s shadow Chancellor accidentally tweeted his own name, and characterises the sense of fun within Labour’s social media support. Although mockery of politicians is nothing new, ‘Ed Balls Day’ lacked venom. It had the feel more of an affectionate in-joke, rather than savage lampooning. Crucially, Ed Balls took it all in good humour, and joined in—tweeting “Here we go again… ! RT @edballsmp: Ed Balls.” Labour are fostering a sense of good will, engaging with social media, and successfully cultivating a likeable, almost loveable image. This has been taken further with Miliband’s recent online video with Russell Brand, which I will be covered in more depth further on in this essay. The video is posted below. Yesterday Brand posted a follow up video, which contains unseen footage from the full interview.] He’s gone after Cameron, challenging him on foreign policy decisions, and openly deriding his refusal to participate in the televised debates. Miliband is winning people over and gaining momentum—I know anecdotally of at least three undecided voters (around the country) who have decided to vote Labour on the strength of his campaign so far.
From the outset, the Conservative campaign has been almost arrogantly nonchalant… entitled, even—more akin to an incumbent President that an unpopular Prime Minister. Cameron doesn’t seem terribly bothered about winning, ducking out of debates and vowing not to stand for election in 2020. The campaign bus did not stall, but it took a damn long time to get the engine running. The nature of campaigning has changed, even since the last election. They were not anticipating such energy from the Labour campaign, or their utilisation of new media. The Tories are stuck in the old world, and continue to rely on increasingly irrelevant old world media. This divide has been encapsulated by the Ed Miliband/Russell Brand YouTube interview, and the reaction to it. The interview has been well received by most who have seen it, and the reaction on Twitter was undeniably and overwhelmingly positive. Miliband has been praised for allowing himself to be interviewed by the unpredictable Brand, and reaching out to a potential audience (and potential voters) who are largely ignored by—and unreachable to—old world media outlets. Brand has 9.5 million Twitter followers, and his YouTube channel 1,100,000 subscribers. It is hard to imagine there is much overlap between his audience, and the audience of Newsnight or the readership of The Times.
The reaction from the right—from the Conservative party, and newspapers that back them —has been fervent and negative. Cameron called the interview “a joke”. The Daily Mail went further, decrying the affair as “a sick joke”. The Times published an article criticising the interview 18 minutes after the 16-minute interview went live. The Spectator, a weekly conservative magazine, published an article entitled “The ‘Milibrand’ interview does nothing but trash Labour’s standing”. The reactions demonstrate the contempt many perceive the Tories to have for younger voters, and also point to the frantic desperation of publications who are losing their power and influence over the electorate. The coverage from conservative papers (both The Times and The Sun are owned by Rupert Murdoch) shows not only overwhelming bias, and a preference for not simply distorting facts, but ignoring them completely.[16. It is worth noting that the hysterical reaction to the Brand-Miliband interview has overshadowed—and effectively buried—the story that a Conservative candidate, Gulzabeen Afsar, has been suspended after publicly directing anti-Semitic remarks at Ed Miliband on Twitter (where else?). She tweeted “… never ever will I drop that low and support the Al Yahud! Lol”. ‘Al Yahud’ is Arabic for ‘the Jew’, and the tweet has been deemed pejorative. Although born to Jewish parents, Miliband has declared himself to be an atheist.][17. It has also become apparent that the 17 year old Twitter user behind ‘#milifandom’, who has never revealed her full name (only her first name, Abby) or location, was tracked down by reporters from The Sun who had somehow discovered her full name, address, and address of her grandmother. It’s not fully understood how The Sun obtained this information. She has since been the target of online attacks from Louise Mensch, a former Conservative MP who apparently doesn’t understand the irony of bullying a 17 year old girl three years after publicly ‘exposing the cyberbullying’ that affects women on Twitter. It is tempting to speculate that Mensch is simply envious of young girl having more political influence than she has had either as an MP, or as a ‘journalist’. The war between old media and new media has turned ugly and desperate—one can only hope that the optimism and positivity of new media will win out. On a positive note, Abby revealed yesterday that she had received a supportive call from Ed Miliband. She tweeted “I can now tell you from firsthand experience that Ed is – genuine – funny – kind -down to earth – caring And just in general lovely.” Interestingly this story does not appear to have been covered by any of the mainstream print newspapers, only Buzzfeed, and The Huffington Post—which are both very much ‘new media’ outlets—have covered the story. This despite the fact that ‘#milifandom’ is undoubtedly one of the major stories of the election campaign.]
Labour have run by and large a clean campaign, by comparison. In a refreshing change, they’ve focused primarily on what they can do rather than undermining the opposition. The Conservatives have stuck with the tried and true methods of smearing and scaremongering, which have not been well received. They’re looking increasingly desperate, as are the sudden promises in their campaign manifesto[18. At the start of an election, each party published its manifesto—declaring how they intend to run the government, and outlining the policies they would implement.] that contradict all that we’ve seen of them in their time in office. They have shied away from the television debates—a strange decision as Cameron is a superb and confident speaker, and often gets the better of Miliband at Prime Minister’s Questions.[19. Every Wednesday the Leader of the Opposition is afforded half an hour to ask the Prime Minister six questions.]
After Miliband’s viral success on Twitter, the Conservatives tried to replicate this for Cameron. The account responsible for ‘#milifandom’ currently has over 18,000 followers. Cameron’s ‘Cameronettes’ a paltry 543, but the Conservatives are aware of the fact that they lack youth support—leading to perhaps the strangest decision of the campaign.
The Conservatives do not have the manpower to campaign in the vital marginal seats, with their most hardline supporters apparently too old to knock on doors and deliver leaflets. The solution, they felt, was to fly over 1,000 Young Republicans from America. This is a move that you feel can only really cost the Conservatives. It seems dangerous to enlist support from a political party known to be dead-set against anything even remotely resembling universal healthcare, when the NHS—an institution so beloved its nurses featured in the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony—is a major issue in the campaign and you’re struggling to convince voters that you want to save it. The Conservatives are not seeking to win over Conservatives but to win the votes of the undecided and disillusioned. It is unlikely that these floating voters will be convinced by these All American Guys and Gals who have no knowledge or experience of life in this country, have no right to vote here and will be unaffected by the outcome. Even the most progressive and open-minded British person has reservations about being told what to do by Americans. It’s a stunt that undermines many of the Tories own policies.
The other potential threat the Conservatives, which has been alluded to, is UKIP. They’re not a threat in any real traditional sense—although they are challenging Labour in Grimsby, and the Conservative seat of South Thanet.[20. Where UKIP leader Nigel Farage is standing as UKIP’s candidate for Parliament. He has stood in four elections, losing each time. He unsuccessfully stood for election in South Thanet ten years ago. However, this time he is edging ahead in the polls.] Where UKIP could really hurt the Tories is by stealing votes away from their disillusioned supporters. UKIP itself is the bastard offspring of disillusioned Tories. As the Conservatives move towards the centre, it seems there is a desire for a political voice on the hard right. But the party are neither coherent nor intelligent enough to be anything more than the political embodiment of the angry, impotent pub bore at the back of the pub swilling ale and ‘telling it like it is’. They are not a party of real substance, and their media coverage reflects that. They are a novelty, a grim two-bit sideshow at the far end of the fairground. They are not the serious challengers they would like to be perceived as, nor should they be afforded anywhere near as much attention as has been lavished upon them.[21. It is perhaps worth mentioning that as we get closer and closer to polling day, it feels as though there has been less and less coverage of UKIP.] UKIP are “the Joker in the pack,” in the sense that they have no value, and are discarded for any serious game. And, like the Jokers, there are only two—for all their bluster and insistence at being taken seriously, UKIP have only two seats. They are projected to hold three after the election, which makes them about as useful in forming a coalition as a limp dick at an orgy. They will have no serious leverage, and their general perception is potential poison for any coalition. There is nobody who feels ambivalent towards UKIP. But it doesn’t matter, because three seats won’t give them any value to any party trying to pull together a potential government. Farage has promised to stand down as leader if he fails to win his South Thanet constituency. It will be interesting to see what becomes of UKIP in such an eventuality. It is no coincidence that UKIP’s surge in popularity coinciding with Farage’s second spell as leader.[22. Farage was party leader between 2006–2009, stepping down to focus on his (ultimately unsuccessful) campaign in Buckingham at the 2010 election. He was re-elected party leader shortly afterwards.] Farage is central to UKIP’s appeal, and were he to stand down as UKIP leader, you feel the whole UKIP bandwagon would come apart and draw the whole ridiculous political sideshow to a close. However, it looks as though Farage will become an MP, and UKIP are here to stay…
In 2010 a hung parliament was not unexpected, but it still took the country by surprise. It was, after all, the first time it had happened since 1974. The country was in the midst of an economic crisis then, and the situation was similar in 2010. In the past five years, things have not much improved, so a coalition seems inevitable. The only upside is that British electoral politics has become exciting. Close races always are, but there is also the intrigue and plotting of cross-party deals to make a frenzied grab for Number 10. And so here we are, two days away from the vote. British politics moves fast. The election was only called a few weeks ago, and there will be no transition period as there is at the White House. The party who wins next Thursday will be in government almost immediately. Of course, that relies on a single party winning a majority. After the hung parliament in 2010 it took five days for any sort of coalition agreement to be reached. Initial rumors suggested Labour would team up with the Lib Dems. However, no such deal was reached. Brown resigned as PM four days after the election, with a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was approved 24 hours later. It would be a brave man to speculate as to how long it will take in the wake of this election. At the time of writing Miliband is emphatically denying he will make any sort of deal with the SNP, which is troubling if he means it. It means that talks are likely to be gruelling, unpleasant affairs… it could be weeks, rather than days…
But there is something exciting and thrilling and ever so slightly dangerous about the fact that no one has any certain idea as to who the next Prime Minister will be. The election itself, as last time, will only be the beginning of the story. After four weeks of broadcasting non-stop high-def 24 hour rolling covering from the campaign trail, the next Prime Minister will ultimately be decided not by public mandate, but by private deals which we will not be privy to, nor have any say over. The coalition will not be televised.