Britain's election: backing into the future

A contest made thrilling by the spectacle of three middle-aged white men in suits is open to the end. By David Hayes.

When visiting journalists first encountered the bewildering complexities of Northern Ireland’s politics at the height of the “troubles,” a kindly piece of advice was on hand from local informants: “If you’re not confused here, you don’t really know what’s going on.” 

The same pithy wisdom offers a useful working guide to anyone seeking to make sense of the 2010 general election in Britain. For this month-long campaign has been an exercise in glorious confusion that, even in its final days before voters go to the polls this Thursday, resists any certainty about the outcome.

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It was not supposed to be like this. For more than two years before the election was called, the Conservative opposition led by David Cameron had enjoyed a lead in the opinion polls more than sufficient under Britain’s first-past-the-post system to give it a clear working majority in parliament. The Labour government of prime minister Gordon Brown was looking enfeebled and indecisive even before the financial tsunami of 2008–09 hit, and its creditable performance in response to the crisis had done only a little to redress the image. The perennial third party in the country’s decades-old duopoly, the Liberal Democrats – led since December 2007 by Nick Clegg – was once again finding it hard to secure a firm political beachhead in face of media neglect and the big beasts’ patronising disdain.

The first week of the election campaign showed no great break in the pattern, as a grinding dispute about Labour’s proposed increase in employers’ tax contributions dominated the airwaves. Then a single event on 15 April irrupted to alter the shape of the contest and – more broadly – transform the way Britain’s electoral politics are conducted. This was the first in a series of live televised debates involving the three main party leaders, in which a combative, confident performance by the relatively unknown Clegg won instant approval from the watching public and an astonishing leap (of up to 10 per cent) in the Lib Dems’ poll ratings. 

The media–political world went haywire. What ensued was an exhilarating collective yomp across a landscape without maps, as political analysts and strategists alike sought to render the new chaos into meaningful order. Britain’s belated experiment in “head-to-head” TV combat – proposed by Cameron (following the pattern of every opposition leader since the television age began) and agreed by Brown (for what more had he to lose?) – had turned a stately progression to inevitable Conservative victory into an exciting and unpredictable three-way contest.

The immediate impact was twofold. First, the urbane Nick Clegg – a multilingual former member of the European parliament with Dutch and Russian family connections – found himself a major player overnight, insistently invited to parlay his prospective haul of extra seats into support for one or other party in the event of a “hung parliament.” The excoriating attention of the more partisan-Tory newspapers was a further tribute to his new status.

Second, the catapulting of the Lib Dems to a position of equality (or better) with Labour in the polls rekindled enduring hopes for a progressive alliance between the two historic parties of the centre-left, with the principal focus on reforming the electoral system to align voting numbers with seats gained. If implemented, this longstanding Lib Dem aspiration – whose attractiveness within the higher reaches of the Labour Party tends to increase as the party’s poll ratings plummet – would almost certainly make coalition government in Britain as “normal” as it is elsewhere in Europe.

“Cleggmania” has thus transformed the dynamics of the campaign and the calculations of its outcome and aftermath. The Liberal Democrats are not alone in experiencing it as a moment of energising optimism. So too do the many voices – mainly on Britain’s centre-left – who have long advocated comprehensive constitutional (as well as electoral) reform as a way to do several important things: modernise the country’s secretive and sclerotic political order; end the unethical practices revealed by the parliamentary-expenses scandal of 2009; clarify the relationships between the different nations of the United Kingdom in a post-devolution state (and in the process address the unresolved “English question”); and rebalance the relationship between state and citizen that has become dangerously one-sided in the age of “war on terror.”

So the Clegg-inspired “electoral insurgency” can plausibly be represented as a breakthrough in the direction of the “change”, the “new politics”, that the Lib Dem leader passionately proclaims. Such a longed-for decisive moment cannot be excluded. But to translate wish into reality on 6 May and after will require a serendipitous combination of votes, strategy, leadership and judgement.

A man, a foot and a gun
Here there are shadows on the radar. The Lib Dems’ poll performance has remained impressively steady since the initial spurt, even though Clegg’s performance in the two later TV debates inevitably lacked the electricity of the first. But the unfair electoral arithmetic of first-past-the-post still massively disfavours the party, and will limit its seat-gains to a few dozen even in the best circumstances. Thus the party’s only route to real influence is to forge a deal with one of the big two.

The Conservative Party’s consistent opinion-poll lead over the other two parties – albeit by only a few percentage points – makes it likely to emerge as the largest party (perhaps even with a governing majority, in which case it will have no need of the Lib Dems). Yet even if a Tory minority government dependent on Lib Dem cooperation can be envisaged – and the parties are intensely rivalrous at a local level – the Conservatives would not lightly concede the electoral reform that is the Lib Dems’ core purpose.

A post-election pact with the Labour Party might seem a more attractive option. But a weak Labour performance – perhaps even a fall below the Lib Dems in actual votes, a fate it narrowly avoided in 1983 – could make this resemble less a strategic choice than an embrace of desperation. Only if Labour does better than current polls indicate will it have the legitimacy and moral authority even to begin to forge a partnership project for serious reform. This is not something that Nick Clegg – concerned to bury rather than save Labour – has any interest in.

Indeed, Clegg’s streak of impatient contempt for the “old parties” (one of his many tropes) – and especially for Gordon Brown – has become increasingly prominent as the campaign has unfolded. The departure of Brown after the election would go some way to clarifying the longer-term options. But in the short term it would also deprive Labour of any chance of playing a leading role in government: for while Labour’s seat numbers will in any case remain far higher than the Lib Dems’, no successor to Brown could possibly become prime minister without a new election. Here, Clegg’s mixed signals over his willingness to confer with the other leaders – and his concern to usher Brown into the twilight – may end by damaging his own cause.

In this respect, an extraordinary campaign raises the deeper point that the deformities of Britain’s polarised political culture affect also those who aspire to transform it for the better. The transition that reformers seek, from winner-takes-all to coalition politics, has huge psychological obstacles still to overcome.

The people have spoken – the bastards
The dozens of finely balanced local contests in this election, the proliferation of independent and minority-party candidates (including Greens) with some chance of success, the existence of multidimensional politics in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – each adds a further layer of uncertainty to the event. Amid all this, the prospect that the glossy David Cameron – who has striven hard to defuse criticism that the liberal makeover of his once hard-right party owes more to PR skill than political conviction – will enter Downing Street in the days after 6 May (if not on the day itself) must be accounted likely. Indeed, his coterie has been closely examining the experience of Scotland and Wales, where the post-1999 devolution settlement has seen experiments in coalition government and (perhaps most immediately relevant) a minority Scottish National Party administration in Edinburgh that has survived three years in power.

For his part, Gordon Brown’s relentless, metronomic if fundamentally serious campaign has exposed his political qualities and flaws to full view. An incident in the northern English post-industrial town of Rochdale when he was recorded criticising a local woman with whom he had just concluded a vigorous but cordial exchange – followed by a rearrangement of his schedule so that he could apologise to her in person – was excruciating. It seems improbable that Brown, who assumed office after the departure of his comrade-rival Tony Blair in June 2007 and then delayed calling the election until almost the last possible moment, will now ever receive the democratic endorsement that would allow him to govern in his own right.

In dominating the campaign, the TV debates have closed space that important issues and concerns might have filled. Britain’s role in the world and its relationship with Europe and Asia; climate change and the environment; the lessons of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; the near-invisibility of women and non-white people in this intense political month (though a record number of candidates in these groups is standing); the role of the internet and new media – the spectacle of three middle-aged white men in suits has extinguished them all.

But if that is as melancholic as Gordon Brown’s bloodhound mien, the election has also been thrilling on many levels – and that is not a word that can often be attached to British politics without artifice. What the country’s hard-pressed, multifarious and often deeply pissed-off consumer-citizens make of it all we are about to find out. Let’s hope they know what’s going on. Despite everything, they usually do. 


David Hayes is deputy editor of