An extraordinary election approaches, but traditions die hard in the United Kingdom.
Today, the 55th parliament of the United Kingdom will be ‘prorogued’ – a suspension of proceedings (to be followed by dissolution), involving red robes and ermine, royal ‘inconvenience’, slammed doors, ceremonial hat-doffing, and royal assent in Norman French.
In Britain, some things stay – perhaps reassuringly – constant. But this is no ordinary election: it is one that could change Britain’s own constitutional make-up, its place in the world, and the nature of the European Union as we know it. Perhaps in 2015 only the Greek election rivals it in importance for the future of Europe.
The Conservatives, who lead the coalition government, promise a referendum by 2017 on the country’s membership of the EU; the UK Independence Party, which has the support of around one in every seven Britons according to opinion polls, would like one even earlier (and a subsequent British exit – or ‘Brexit’). The main opposition party, Labour, is still under pressure from some quarters to change its position of rejecting a referendum.
And the UK has its own, internal ‘exit’ issues to grapple with. The Scottish National Party, despite losing the independence referendum argument, is set to significantly increase its representation in Westminster – and may have a big say on who governs Britain.
Britain’s electoral system, weighted in favour of bigger parties and focused on delivering strong governments, remains unchanged. And after five years of a coalition, formal alliances are not quite a novelty. But the 2015 election promises unprecedented fragmentation and unpredictability, both in the results and the aftermath.
The big two parties
Polls suggest that David Cameron is the most popular choice as prime minister, but his Conservative Party is running neck-and-neck with Labour.
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, fares badly personally, while his party seems likely at this stage to be the biggest party in the House of Commons.
Despite Cameron’s popularity advantage over Miliband, it is the Conservative leader who has refused a head-to-head debate with his Labour counterpart.
The ‘debate about the debates’ has been long-running, ending in a mushy compromise between the Prime Minister, the other parties and the broadcasters, who initially considered going ahead without Cameron if he refused to play ball.
Two parties whose support is growing – and who are the principal irritants for the Conservatives and Labour respectively – and the UK Independence Party (Ukip) and the Greens.
Ukip has been polling well, and won the European election last year. Their poll ratings suggest a ‘purple revolution’; Ukip holding the balance of power. However, most analysts think Ukip will win between one and five seats. The Greens may consider holding its one seat a success.
Increased support for Ukip and the Greens does complicate the picture. A few votes lost by a main party to a smaller party could see the other main party win a marginal constituency. Repeat this across a number of constituencies, and the overall electoral map could be look very different thanks to increased support for these smaller parties.
Meanwhile in Scotland, the Scottish National Party is predicted to take many seats from Labour, possibly denying it the chance of becoming the biggest party in Westminster. Yet the SNP may prop up a Labour-led government (and has flatly refused to entertain the prospect of backing the Tories).
The Liberal Democrats’ support has plummeted following their entry into government and, in particular, their decision to renounce an election pledge not to increase university tuition fees. Nick Clegg’s party is likely to lose seats and potentially their role as ‘kingmaker’ (although many doubt they have the appetite for another coalition). However, like Labour, they claim stronger support ‘on the doorstep’, which they say is not well reflected in opinion polls.
With the post-election parliamentary arithmetic likely to be complicated, smaller parties may be able to extract concessions in return for backing a government. The support of a few Welsh nationalists, or Democratic Unionists from Northern Ireland, could tip the balance.
What’s at stake?
For the Tories, four words are being repeated constantly: ‘long-term economic plan’.
The British economy is growing, but the job is not yet done – and it would, say the Tories, be madness to hand control back to Labour.
Labour’s main economic message features another four-word slogan: ‘cost-of-living crisis’. The party argues that the current economic growth benefits only the well-off, and that the failure (until recently) of wages to keep pace with price rises means many people are worse off than in 2010.
Labour also highlights the rise in the number of unstable ‘zero hours’ contracts and reductions in benefits – but the core of its campaign will be on public services, notably the National Health Service. The party’s main message is fear of what ‘another Tory government would do to the NHS’.
The election battle between the two main parties will be one of policy differences, but also about which subject – the economy or public services – becomes the focus of the media and voters.
The Liberal Democrats’ four words are ‘Stronger Economy, Fairer Society’ – a bid to take credit for the best of the coalition while differentiating itself. The Greens are targeting a dozen seats with messages on housing, public services and free education, outflanking Labour on the left.
What about Europe?
Ukip’s main policy is, unsurprisingly, to lead Britain into sunlit uplands of wealth and prosperity by leaving the European Union.
While Europe is an issue that is often features in British election campaigns, it is usually low on the list of voters’ priorities.
David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on EU membership in 2017 has made the issue more prominent – as has the growth in support for Ukip. Cameron’s message is that only a Conservative majority government can secure renegotiation and give the British people their say in a referendum. An alliance with Ukip and the Democratic Unionists may also give Cameron enough seats to back that approach; another coalition with the Liberal Democrats will not.
Labour – which was thought to be wavering under pressure to match the Tories’ referendum pledge – has pulled back. Ed Miliband states he wants reform, but not a referendum. With his finance spokesperson, Ed Balls, Miliband has tried to weave this position into a positive economic message: stability and certainty for business and jobs, rather than the instability and uncertainty caused by two years of renegotiation and then a referendum.
The issue of Europe will be debated hotly: for a small but substantial minority of people, it is the number one issue. However, for most Britons topics such as management of the economy and public services are likely to take precedence in determining how they vote on 7 May.
With Parliament over, the campaign begins in earnest.
As well as Cameron-and-Miliband show, televised debates will be held on 2 April (with the leaders of the seven parties – the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Ukip, the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru) and 16 April (with the leaders of the five ‘opposition’ – excluding the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats). Cameron, Miliband and Clegg will face (separate) questioning in the last televised event, on 30 April.
And then comes the election, on 7 May. A ‘hung parliament’, with no party having a majority, seems likely at the moment (one study putting the probability of a Labour or Conservative majority at just four per cent each). In 2010, it took five days to form a coalition, causing some panic – Brits being unused to the weeks- or months-long process that other European countries blithely accept.
This time, it could well take longer. An unpredictable few weeks awaits. Britain – and the rest of Europe – holds its breath.
A version of this article first appeared on the Europe Decides website