The general election in United Kingdom is now merely days away. Polling numbers for the two largest parties, Labour and the Conservatives, remain stubbornly close meaning that the most likely outcome is a hung parliament, with no-one commanding an overall majority for the 650 seats on offer in the House of Commons.
Five years ago the same result ushered in a coalition government between David Cameron’s Conservative Party and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats.
The Conservative-led Coalition took power amid a perilous financial climate and quickly set about establishing a programme of spending cuts that has spared all but a few protected departments (health, education and foreign aid). Defence has been very badly hit, with the army reducing in size from 102,000 to 82,000. But while the coalition’s economic record has arguably been responsible in reducing the deficit, the country’s poorest have been hit hard. Nothing has been done to tackle the thorny issue of housing supply. And last year there were more than 1 million visits to food banks despite the UK growing at a faster pace than any other G7 country.
This time round, Mr Clegg, who took the title of Deputy Prime Minister for the duration of the Parliament, is fighting for his political survival, as his seat of Sheffield Hallam has been targeted by the Opposition Labour Party, who know the Lib Dem leader is vulnerable given the compromises he made in order to form a government with the Conservatives, not least by reneging on his promise to abolish tuition fees.
The demise of two-party politics has led to the rise of smaller parties, among them the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Greens and the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP). The former could hold the balance of power in the next Parliament.
Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP continues to fascinate. Last year her party, then led by Alex Salmond, narrowly lost the Scottish Referendum, with 55% voting to stay in a United Kingdom. Paradoxically, since losing the party has never been stronger – it has gained more than 100,000 new members since the referendum and is on course to obliterate Labour in its heartlands north of the River Tweed. While a second referendum is not formally part of the SNP’s manifesto for coming UK general election, it is thought that it will feature as part of the party’s plans for the 2016 Scottish contest – where another victory could usher in a new referendum – though the people of Scotland could tire of the so-called ‘neverendum’ situation where the threat of another Yes/No vote carries a draining effect.
UKIP, for its part, has hoovered up votes from both Labour and the Conservatives by blaming immigration for the country’s ills and trading on discontentment within both parties. It is an argument that resonates amid the chorus of cuts rained down on public services that has led to scarcity and, in some areas, questionable quality. Its leader, Nigel Farage, is a charismatic character who refreshingly for a party leader is often straightforward in answering questions. However, his risible rhetoric on immigration is designed to divide in a way that can often manifest itself in outright bigotry, especially from less eloquent members of his party.
The challenger – Labour’s Ed Miliband
Given that fiscal tightening in this Parliament has led to wealth seemingly not trickling down to where it has been needed most, one would have thought that the Labour Party, freshly in Opposition following 13 years of power, would thrive and be swiftly returned to office.
However, its leader, Ed Miliband, has been dogged by accusations that he simply is not good enough to become Prime Minister. He defeated his older, more well-known and respected brother, the former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, in an unseemly Labour leadership contest thanks to the backing of union votes, whose bosses deemed him the more malleable of the two. David Miliband subsequently took himself off into voluntary exile in New York, where he now runs the International Rescue Committee, an NGO.
But despite fears over the younger Miliband’s suitability for the highest office, he has proved remarkably resilient, confronting his characterisation as Wallace, of Aardman Animations fame, and recognising that has to some extent been the architect of his own misfortune (he was ridiculed for awkwardly eating a bacon sandwich in front of television cameras).
Personal aspects aside, there is something altogether more troubling about Mr Miliband – his relationship with business. His route to the top marks him out as a conveyor belt politician. His political career began as an academic, then special adviser to Her Majesty’s Treasury – the most powerful of all government departments – before being parachuted into a safe seat (in Doncaster, far from his North London home) as an MP, rising to become a Cabinet Minister in the last Labour government. None of his career has been spent in industry – a frequent barb on which he finds himself impaled by his critics in the business community. For years he has coupled his lack of experience in business with a desire to interfere in markets, famously unveiling an energy price freeze before oil prices nosedived).
The incumbent – Conservative Mr Cameron
What of David Cameron’s record? Largely his route to the top has been similar in that he spent time in the Conservative Research Department, an incubator for frontbench candidates. Mr Cameron’s more gilded background as the son of a stockbroker and his route through Eton and Oxford have marked him out to some as a stereotypical toff, perhaps an unfair moniker that he has sought hard to shake.
While Mr Cameron can claim to look the part as Prime Minister he has been a poor party manager. Two examples of this are losing the Syria vote in the House of Commons in 2013 and also kowtowing to his party’s right-wing by guaranteeing an EU Referendum in 2017 (here, the business community too has its doubts, given that ‘Brexit’ would remove the UK from a single market comprising 500m people). Both these events have led to the diminishing of Britain’s place in the world – not least in the eyes of its staunchest ally – the United States.
Indeed, far from ‘punching above its weight’, under Mr Cameron’s stewardship the Coalition government has overseen drastic cuts at the Foreign Office, which was hitherto respected around the world for its diplomatic clout. Nowadays its diplomats have been reduced to handing out brochures on behalf of British companies in an efforts to boost flagging exports rather than participating in difficult negotiations with global impact. After all, it was Germany and France who faced off against Putin regarding recent talks about the conflagration in Ukraine – the UK was nowhere to be seen.
While the government led by him has been relatively successful in restoring the UK’s economic credibility internationally (though it’s worth mentioning that productivity lags behind France and Germany), Mr Cameron’s domestic record is mixed. Taking his lead from Tony Blair – Labour’s three-term winning Prime Minister – the PM has driven through substantial reforms in education, health and welfare. The introduction of the Health and Social Care Act, instigating ‘a reorganisation so large you could see it from space’, according to a former chief executive of Britain’s coveted National Health Service, could prove to be his undoing. His party’s vulnerability on this last point is equal to that of Labour’s lack of economic credibility.
What will happen?
Psephologists have been saying the same thing for months – the only certainty in this election is the uncertainty, with the one constant being the likelihood of another hung parliament.
Last time round coalition negotiations took a mere five days – despite 44 being the norm elsewhere in Europe. But in 2010 non-majority government was a relatively new and untested UK concept as far as the financial markets were concerned. Today businesses acknowledge that it may take longer to form a government and simply seek a pro-enterprise, pro-business environment where they can continue to thrive and drive growth.
If voting is in line with current polling it’s likely that Labour will form the next government, with SNP backing on a vote-by-vote basis. However, given fears about the future of the Union and the Labour’s leader’s credibility gap with the business community, perhaps enough ‘shy’ Conservatives may vote to give Mr Cameron the mandate he craves, restoring him to Number 10 Downing Street. With less than 48 hours to before the polls open, it won’t be long before we find out.
Photograph courtesy gavinmaclure.files.wordpress.com