Every election is billed as the most important of modern times. This is mainly because no journalist ever sold a story by making a contest seem dull and predictable. In this case, though, the media’s hyperbole seems justified, and there are a number of reasons for this.
First and foremost, this is one of the most unpredictable elections of the last 40 years. Elections in 1997, 2001 and 2005 were forgone conclusions with most people able to predict the result months before polling day. By 2010 it was much more open ended – and 2015 is looking equally uncertain.
The media, and the parties’ own rhetoric, often exaggerate the differences between each side. In reality those differences are often more subtle. This year, the British public have more choice than ever before, and even more so if you live in Scotland or Wales. As a result it’s incredibly difficult to say that, if there is going to be a coalition, what form it might take. While a continuation of the Conservative/Liberal Democrats agreement is certainly a possibility, a multitude of other options are potentially on the table – including Labour/Lib Dem, Labour/Lib Dem/Green, Labour/SNP and Conservative/UKIP. All of these combinations carry their own risks and rewards. Some commentators have floated the possibility of a Labour/Conservative coalition.
In reality I suspect that another election a few months later is a more likely outcome than that particular mishmash of ideologies and personalities. If the British electoral system fails to deliver a strong, stable government again, then calls for electoral reform may finally begin to gather momentum.
The nightmare scenario for Labour and the Conservatives is winning but with a tiny majority. Both parties are still haunted by the Major and Wilson/Callaghan governments that were hamstrung by rebellions and uncertainty due to their trouble mustering enough MPs to win votes.
Another reason why this election really matters is the UKIP factor. No one really knows how UKIP will do and what their impact will be. Their opinion poll rating is currently relatively buoyant, however previous years have shown how quickly this can erode. The British public often vote very differently in general elections compared to by-elections and the Euros. UKIP also still suffer from the problem that their narrative is dominated by Europe and immigration.
All three of the major parties will try to shift the narrative of the election to areas like the economy, healthcare, civil liberties, and security/defence. These are issues where UKIP has traditionally been policy lite. They suffer from two problems here. One is that it will be much more difficult to distinguish themselves from the other parties, and secondly that they can’t offer ‘leave the EU’ as a solution to every problem. There is also the danger for them of more social media gaffes as they come under greater scrutiny.
Finally there is Cameron’s trump card: the promise of a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. If he wins an outright majority and can deliver (and renegading on this pledge would be electoral suicide), this could mean the biggest sea change in British politics since the 1970s. It would also shoot UKIP’s fox. What’s the point of a party whose main policy is leaving the EU if we’ve a) left, b) voted to remain in.
What ever happens it seems that we’re likely to fulfil the Chinese proverb of ‘living in interesting times’.
Dr Matthew Ashton
School of Social Sciences
Nottingham Trent University