It won’t be too long now. On 7 May UK citizens will place an “X” on the ballot paper next to the name of their favourite candidate in one of 650 constituencies, and the results will be known either later that day or the following day.
Although the UK still has a prime minister and ministers, there have been no MPs since the dissolution of parliament on 30 March. In fact, they are banned from entering the Palace of Westminster, or using its many wonderful facilities, and are now ordinary members of the public.
So it’s not very surprising that in the scramble to sit once again, or for the first time, on those famous green padded benches in the Commons Chamber a great deal of political energy was expended by candidates last week. The highlight was the TV debate in which voters watched seven party leaders, including the three current male heavyweights – the Tories’ David Cameron, Labour’s Ed Miliband and the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg – being grilled live for almost two hours on TV by audience members and occasionally by each other. The event was moderated by ITV news presenter Julie Etchingham, who stated beforehand that she was prepared to be “quite sharp” to keep participants to their allotted times. (Afterwards, some commentators claimed that Ms Etchingham did such a good job in maintaining order that she should be running the country.)
Like many of my fellow citizens, I too watched the broadcast with fascination, not only because some less well-known female politicians, such as the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett, Welsh nationalist Leanne Wood and the Scottish Nationalist Party’s (SNP) Nicola Sturgeon, would get a platform to set out their views, but also because if anyone, male or female, did say something stupid or out of order it would almost certainly be game over for them and their party.
Afterwards the spin doctors were spinning madly to try to ensure that their candidates came out of the debate well in terms of media coverage, but the general consensus in the following days was that the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, a former solicitor, was the winner. This was partly due to her feisty attack on David Cameron for his continuing austerity programme (which she claimed hit the poorest and most vulnerable hardest) and partly because of her rounding on UKIP’s Nigel Farage for blaming all the country’s ills on EU and other migrants. “There isn’t anything that Nigel Farage won’t blame on foreigners,” she said to applause from many in the 200-strong demographically representative audience.
But at the weekend Sturgeon, current First Minister of Scotland, was forced to vehemently deny a story in the Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph that she had told the French ambassador, Sylvie Bermann, at a meeting in Edinburgh in February, that for reasons of political expediency she would like the Conservatives to win the election. Sturgeon’s denial was backed by Pierre-Alain Coffinier, the French consul general in Edinburgh, who was at the meeting. Too late! Ed Miliband launched a blistering assault, anxious to protect his share of the vote in Scotland. “I think these are damning revelations,” he told Sky News. “What it shows is that while in public the SNP are saying they don’t want to see a Conservative government, in private they are actually saying they do want a Conservative government. It shows that the answer at this general election is if you want the Conservatives out, the only answer is to vote Labour for a Labour government.”
Of course, using something that may or may not have been said by an opponent to gain a short-term advantage is part and parcel of any election campaign. Although I’m not convinced that this kind of knockabout works in attracting floating voters to one’s cause it’s very evident that politicians themselves believe that it’s an effective tactic. Miliband is obviously no exception.
And speaking of Miliband it’s fair to say that although many people still regard him as weird and nerdy, he does seems to be making some headway in the popularity stakes. About time too, say supporters, some of whom were ready to topple him last November but never achieved the required numbers or momentum, and now because it’s too late to do anything are forced to stick with and support him. Nevertheless, the Conservatives remain slightly ahead according to the latest aggregated polls, although the party’s strategists recognise that they still have a lot of work to win the crucial marginal seats if Cameron is to return to Downing Street.
Celebrity culture is, of course, an integral feature of the modern world. So I wasn’t surprised to learn that left-wing comedian-turned-novelist Ben Elton, who had had a recent flirtation with the Green Party after he became disillusioned with Tony Blair’s New Labour, had returned to the fold and was campaigning for Labour in Warrington, Cheshire. Meanwhile, former Tottenham, Arsenal and England defender Sol Campbell, the son of Jamaican immigrants, who claims that the proposal by Labour to introduce a tax on properties worth over £2 million to help fund the National Health Service is “flawed and not fair at all”, turned up in Thanet, Kent to campaign for the Conservatives against charismatic little Englander Nigel Farage.
So which party is going to win? Alas, because there are so many variables even experienced pollsters are scratching their heads trying to work out a string of questions. Will the UKIP vote hold or fade as election day comes closer? Can the SNP trounce Labour and the Liberal Democrats to take most or all of the 59 seats north of the border? How many of the 57 Liberal Democrat MPs elected will be returned to parliament after suffering considerable damage to their reputation since they joined the Conservative-dominated coalition in 2010? Will those Liberal Democrats who do survive prefer to support their former Conservative partners, or will they join Labour in a progressive centre-left coalition? Could a handful of Ulster MPs decide who will become prime minister, and what would be their price for such support? How many young people will be bothered to vote? And so on.
Normally I place a £10 bet on the general election result a few weeks before polling day so that I get the best odds available on the likely winner. Good job I’m not a compulsive gambler though – this time the money is staying in my wallet.
Dr Sean Carey is honorary senior research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University Manchester
* Published in print edition on 11 April 2015