Glasgow, United Kingdom – It is the most exciting event on the British political calendar – a time when leaders are born and governments are made.
That event is the UK’s general election and November 7 marks exactly six months until tens of millions of voters cast their ballots to choose the government – and prime minister – of the day.
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The May 7, 2015 poll will come five years after the last election served up a hung parliament, eventually delivering a Conservative-led government with the Liberal Democrats as junior partners. But, as the countdown to next spring’s general election begins, and opinion polls continue to daze and confuse, the expected makeup of a post-May 7 Westminster parliament remains shrouded in deep uncertainty.
“I think it’s going to be a messy, fascinating, and unpredictable election,” Gerry Hassan, a leading UK social and political commentator, told Al Jazeera.
The Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, for all his limitations, is probably the best placed of the three.
“We’ve had five years of coalition government – we haven’t had that in peace time since the 1920s. We’ve had the Scottish independence vote, the strange ongoing relationship of the United Kingdom with Europe, the economic and social fissures within the UK, economic troubles across the whole European Union and Eurozone, and huge global instability – from the Middle East to Russia and China.”
Issues of trust
Hassan said that in tandem with the above, a crisis of legitimacy affecting all three of the big London parties – the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour opposition – is also making next year’s election hard to call.
“The three main Westminster parties are all facing huge problems – and to take the most basic point, they’re all deeply unpopular,” said Hassan. “There’s three not very convincing party leaders with [Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister] Nick Clegg facing issues of trust, and [Labour leader] Ed Miliband facing a crisis of his own leadership.
“The Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, for all his limitations, is probably the best placed of the three: firstly, he’s the sitting prime minister and, for all his problems, he runs well ahead of his party in terms of public opinion.”
The British political landscape has taken a pummelling since Cameron won the most seats in May 2010’s general election, ending 13 years of Labour rule. The decision by the Liberal Democrats to act as kingmakers to the Conservatives – and in doing so, take an active part in the Conservative Party’s austerity drive – has plunged it into a political crisis that has not only seen its leader relentlessly vilified, but its poll ratings drop to single figures, making its prospects in next year’s election potentially disastrous.
“Our membership has dropped by about a third, we’ve lost thousands of councillors across the country. May’s European election was an incredibly difficult time where the party ended up with just one MEP – and every single person in the party has wrestled with this,” Richard Morris, a Liberal Democrat blogger for London’s New Statesman magazine, told Al Jazeera.
“And, I don’t think anyone in the party can honestly answer the question ‘whether the price has been worth paying’ until we see where we stand after the next UK general election.”
|Support for Scottish independence remains high [AP]|
Scotland, too, is proving a conundrum for Britain’s political pollsters and commentariat.
Three years of bruising political debate surrounding the nation’s constitutional future came to an end two-months ago when the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) government in Edinburgh failed in its bid to make Scotland an independent nation-state, its respectable garnering of 45 percent of the popular vote falling short in the September 18 referendum.
Far from being chastened by defeat, however, the SNP, while remaining a dominant force in the Scottish Parliament, is continuing to ride high on a wave of pro-independence feeling in Scotland, where a November 1 opinion poll suggested that Scottish support for independence now stood at 52 percent.
And, as the defeated SNP Scottish first minister Alex Salmond prepares to hand over power in an orderly transition to his deputy Nicola Sturgeon later this month, so Scottish Labour remains embroiled in a leadership crisis after its head, Johann Lamont, resigned in October accusing London Labour of treating Scottish Labour like a “branch office”.
Hassan said even if current polls putting the SNP well ahead of the Labour party at Westminster level for next year’s general election fail to materialise at the ballot box – where the former currently hold six Scottish seats to the latter’s 41 – then it will be far from business as usual in a Scotland that has changed immeasurably since the independence vote.
The rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) looks set to provide another intriguing narrative to next spring’s election.
The anti-European Union and anti-immigration party has made impressive inroads into British – especially English – political life, winning May’s UK European election with 4.3 million votes and gaining its first Westminster seat in an English by-election, triggered when a sitting Conservative MP defected to UKIP last month.
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With a further Conservative defection to UKIP forcing another by-election in England later this month, the prospect of this right-wing populist movement going into the general election with two Westminster MPs seems a distinct possibility.
Gains on the right
Indeed, as UKIP continues to poll in the high teens and well ahead of the Liberal Democrats, many members of the British electorate who lent the anti-EU party their vote for the European election look certain to do so once more.
“For me, it’s not about being anti-immigration, it’s the quantity of immigration [to the UK] that’s the problem,” said Stephen Reader, a semi-retired engineer from Derby in the English Midlands. He told Al Jazeera he voted UKIP in the European election and is seriously considering doing so again next year.
His wife, Patricia, agreed and would be eager to see UKIP holding the balance of power come next spring.
“It would be a different voice speaking and it would be nice to see what they could do, because until they’ve actually been there you don’t know, do you?”
For Hassan, UKIP’s electoral successes look almost certain to be repeated at next year’s general election, as the prospect of an in-out EU referendum in the UK by 2017 continues to loom large.
“I think UKIP is here to stay,” said Hassan. “They could poll quite well next year because of the nature of where they take votes from, and could have a huge impact and even win a few seats. Just three to four seats would be a success, and who knows where that might lead.”
Follow Alasdair on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi