UK election tumbles towards a coalition finish line

Bold challenge from small political parties looks set to deliver a thrilling climax.

UK elections
The election campaign has been one of the most bad-tempered in recent British history [Reuters]

Glasgow, United Kingdom – For Britain’s voting public, this week marks the beginning of the end of an unrelenting election campaign.

Subjected to the political hard-sell since the first day campaigning began on March 30, Britain’s tens of millions of voters will have the country’s parliamentary future in their hands when they troop to the polls this Thursday.

Yet, five years after the last general election plunged the UK into the uncharted territory of a hung parliament, this election looks set to deliver an even more thrilling climax.

It is the bold challenge from Britain’s smaller parties to the country’s Labour and Conservative-led establishment at London Westminster that has made the 2015 UK general election campaign one of the most fiercely contested and bad-tempered in recent British history.

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And with just days left until polling day, the political frenzy is unlikely to cease.

“The reason that the party leaders and their political backers are displaying a lot of anger is because there’s suddenly a lot at stake,” said Richard Godwin, a columnist with the London Evening Standard.

“They are seeing that their old majority form of politics is on the way out and are realising that they’re going to have to make coalitions and make compromises that they’re not necessarily used to making. So the game has changed in that respect.”

Indeed, as Labour and the Conservatives remain level pegging in the polls, the prospect of another coalition government in the form of the fractious Conservative-Liberal Democrat alliance that took shape in 2010 – then Britain’s first peacetime coalition government since 1931 – looks increasingly likely.

Political ‘bogeymen’

With talk of the largest party even being forced to rule as a minority administration, the UK’s two dominant parties have been at pains to free themselves from political deadlock by launching highly negative and personal attacks.

Labour leader Ed Miliband [Reuters]
Labour leader Ed Miliband [Reuters]

At the beginning of the campaign, Britain’s Conservative defence secretary, Michael Fallon, caused a political storm when he claimed that just as Labour chief Ed Miliband “stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader” so he was “willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister”.

Miliband himself caused similar controversy when he appeared to suggest that Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s alleged failure – and that of the international community – to implement adequate post-war planning in Libya had contributed to the mass drowning of migrants in the Mediterranean.

But, arguably the biggest threat to the political establishment in this election campaign has come from the Scottish National Party (SNP) in post-independence referendum Scotland.

Opinion polls suggest the pro-independence SNP, currently with just six members of parliament at Westminster, is likely to return up to 50 MPs in Scotland’s 59 parliamentary constituencies.

Pro-union Labour, having lost control of the Scottish Parliament in 2007 to the SNP, is facing the very real prospect of witnessing its current 41 Scottish MPs decimated by a rampaging band of Scottish nationalists who have seen their new leader Nicola Sturgeon become the most-talked about politician in Britain.

Just as polls suggest the SNP is on course to overtake Britain’s third-largest party, the Liberal Democrats, and hold the balance of power, so it has come under sustained attack from political rivals south of the Scottish border.

Conservative London mayor Boris Johnson likened Sturgeon to a “scorpion” and “King Herod”. Prominent right-wing Daily Telegraph blogger Iain Martin referred to the SNP’s manifesto launch event as a “Nuremberg Rally”.

“A lot of the attacks on the SNP causing ‘mayhem’ and labelling the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon as ‘hard-left’ and all the rest of it are aimed at an English audience,” Professor James Mitchell, Academy of Government co-director at the University of Edinburgh, told Al Jazeera.

“That’s what the likes of the [right-wing] Daily Mail and the Conservatives are aiming at – creating a bogeyman.”

Going too far?

But Mitchell said while such attacks have had the potential to work in England, where Conservative billboards have portrayed the still high-profile former SNP leader Alex Salmond as a thief, it has failed to resonate in Scotland.

Scottish Conservative Party leader Ruth Davidson [Getty Images]
Scottish Conservative Party leader Ruth Davidson [Getty Images]

“The Conservatives [themselves] are the ‘bogeymen’ of Scottish politics, and the SNP is a big party and the main party and people know it and the public-at-large don’t look at them as extreme,” said Mitchell.

“So the danger of that rhetoric is that it has not only seen to become anti-SNP, but anti-Scottish.”

Indeed, many pro-SNP and pro-Scottish independence supporters have claimed just that.

James Kelly, one of Scotland’s leading pro-independence bloggers, told Al Jazeera: “Some of the media coverage has been anti-Scottish without a doubt … ranging from being deeply offensive at one end of the spectrum to simply being pathetic at the other end.”

“The official [Conservative] poster depicting Alex Salmond as a grinning thief dressed in black, picking the pocket of an English taxpayer, reminded me of anti-Semitic cartoons from the 1930s,” said Kelly.

“The Tories would, of course, claim that this stuff is only directed against the SNP as a party, but the reality is that Sturgeon and Salmond are being used as convenient proxies, so that all of these ugly prejudices about Scotland can be given free rein in a deniable way,” said Kelly who writes the blog SCOT goes POP! 

Health issues

After sweeping all before them in last year’s European election in Britain, the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) was expected to dominate the 2015 UK general election campaign.

Having won just 3 percent of the vote in 2010, UKIP is today polling regularly into the teens – and is still seen as a good bet to make a modest mark in this election as it tries to poach votes from the Conservatives.

But, as polling day approaches, many commentators have been struck by its inability to capitalise on its new-found popularity across large swaths of England.

“They’ve really faded,” Godwin told Al Jazeera. 

Independence Party leader Nigel Farage [Getty Images]
Independence Party leader Nigel Farage [Getty Images]

“The two big parties have countered the threat [of UKIP] reasonably well – and I think that people have got a bit fed up of [leader] Nigel Farage.

“They’ve examined him in a bit more detail and the romance and excitement about him has faded. And I think the media has got a bit wise to him as well.”

For others, UKIP’s stuttering form is down to Farage‘s revelations that a serious back ailment had compromised his ability to lead his party at the campaign’s outset.

“We know that for the first two weeks of the campaign he did have some health issues that took him off the front line – and UKIP suffered from that,” Richard Morris, a blogger for the New Statesman magazine, told Al Jazeera.

“And he’s also in an incredibly tight three-way marginal in [the English constituency he’s fighting] so he’s spending a lot of time there,” Morris said.

While the ballots have yet to be cast, for many observers the legacy of the campaign itself is Britain’s attempt to seriously confront the prospect of multiparty politics.

“Though multiparty politics and a hung parliament resulted after 2010, the public weren’t ready for that,” said Mitchell.

“But in this campaign the expectation … is that we’re going to have multi-party politics. It’s the first time in an election where that awareness has existed. I’m not convinced that we’ve handled it very well – but we have handled it.”

Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi

Source: Al Jazeera