And so it begins. After a two-and-a-half year phoney war the 2010 General Election is finally under way. As expected by just about anyone with a passing interest, Polling Day will be on Thursday 6th May at the end of what promises (threatens?) to be the most hard-fought – and probably downright nasty – election in living memory.
Ever since Gordon Brown ‘bottled’ a poll in the autumn of 2007 it has looked like the Conservatives’ election to lose, and they’ve been marshalling every resource at their disposal ever since. Even so, 2010 still doesn’t look like a foregone conclusion. In spite of recession, seemingly endless divisions within the Labour Party and a government whose default mode appears to be “under siege”, the Tories haven’t yet managed to close the deal. Of course, Cameron is still the bookies’ favourite to win but, all things considered, a lead opposition party with any degree of trust among the electorate should have been out of sight by now.
Naturally the media will play a significant role in the coming weeks. We know that Cameron has most of the newspapers pretty well lined up, but this time there will also be live televised debates between the three main party leaders, which could turn out to be the great “known unknown” of this election. As witnessed in the “Ask The Chancellors” debate last month, these set-pieces could offer a tremendous opportunity to Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg, who might otherwise not have expected to receive equal treatment with his Tory and Labour counterparts.
So what are the likely scenarios? Well, unless you happen to be a hardened “#GameOn” Labour activist, you’d have to say a majority for Gordon Brown looks pretty unlikely. However, Britain’s frankly medieval electoral system currently exaggerates Labour support to the extent that the government have a very realistic hope of squeaking home as the largest single party in the House of Commons. The following graphic (taken from the UK Polling Report website) is pure speculation but it demonstrates that the polls don’t have to tighten too much for such a scenario to become a reality:
Of course, most of the polling data points to the likelihood that the Tories will emerge as the largest party in a hung parliament, and a good election campaign for them could even deliver a small majority. Either of those two scenarios could well point to a second election being called fairly early in the life of the new parliament. Although David Cameron has previously professed a belief that all parliaments should be fixed-term, political expediency will very quickly cause him to reassess that particular piece of positioning. He won’t want to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats unless he absolutely has to as the likely upshot – proportional representation – would have the potential to keep Toryism out of government for a generation. Equally he and George Osborne will probably want to get on with the serious business of cutting taxes for the very wealthy (while slashing public services for the rest of us) at the very first opportunity. A razor-thin or non-existent parliamentary majority would necessitate compromise, and there are likely to be very few non-Tory Members of the new Parliament who would buy in to the Osborne agenda.
It goes without saying that if there is a hung parliament on 7th May the role of the Liberal Democrats could well prove to be crucial. While coalition government might be tempting for some Lib Dem MPs, there are good reasons to be cautious. Propping up an exhausted Labour government would be a political disaster for the party and a major boost for the Tories (think “clear blue water”) while a deal with David Cameron would be a very hard sell to the Lib Dem grassroots. The most likely (and sensible) position for Nick Clegg to take would be to allow the leader of the largest party to form a minority government, and to support them when they are right and to vote against them when they are wrong. There will be no ministerial limos for the Lib Dem front bench in this case, but they will at least have the satisfaction of having done the right thing.
So what’s the future for Labour if the seemingly inevitable happens? Defeat may yet prove to be a blessing in disguise for the Labour Party. You could argue that the very worst thing that ever happened to the Tories was their unexpected victory in the 1992 election – an eighteen year stint in government simply proved to be too long, and when they crashed to their eventual humiliating defeat in 1997 the public view of the Conservatives was at its lowest ebb. Labour faces a similar prospect if Gordon Brown defies the odds and wins another five years. Defeat, on the other hand, might send them into opposition with a certain amount of political capital and goodwill left, and would give them the chance to rebuild quickly under new leadership.
It does rather seem that the parallels for 2010 are with 1992 rather than 1997. Although he’s spent the last five years trying to look like Tony Blair, Cameron can’t help but look like a Tory version of Neil Kinnock. Equally Brown’s administration has the look of the John Major days about it. Given the issues that an incoming government will have to face, and the debilitating political effect of the “time for a change” mantra, 2010 looks like it may well be a good election to lose. Personally, I’ll be glad when it’s all over.