Britain goes to the polls on Thursday in arguably the most unpredictable and bitterly contested general election since 1992 when the Conservative Party returned to power in a nail-biting finish after it had been written off by virtually everyone. This time it is the Labour Party that is looking down the barrel and hoping for a miracle on polling day. Opinion polls predict a hung Parliament with the Tories slightly ahead of Labour and the Liberal Democrats but way short of getting a majority on their own. However, all three parties insist that the race is still “wide open.” Much will depend on the turnout and which way the record number of undecided voters finally go. The 1997 Labour landslide and its two subsequent victories in 2001 and 2005 were attributed to Tony Blair's success in winning over ‘swing' voters. Can any of the current leaders — Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Nick Clegg – do a Blair? So far, they appear to be struggling. Let alone floating voters, even their committed supporters are playing hard to get. Since the last election, public distrust of politicians has deepened, especially after the MPs' expenses scandal, and most voters say they no longer trust any politician. Incidents such as the so-called bigotgate in which Mr. Brown was caught on a live microphone calling a woman voter a “bigot” have reinforced the perception that politicians hold voters in contempt.
Then there is anger over the impact of the recession. People blame Labour, accusing it of selling out to the bankers and not preparing for adversity when times were good. Tories and Lib Dems have desperately tried to tap into the widespread anti-incumbent mood by offering themselves as the ‘change' the country needs. People acknowledge the need for change after 13 years of Labour rule but not many are sure that the Tories or the Lib Dems are really the change they want. Indeed, the Tories' popularity has declined as the campaign progressed and their policies — especially on the economy and public services — have come under intense scrutiny. The Lib Dems too have failed to sustain the momentum they gained after Mr. Clegg's impressive performance in the leaders' televised debates, Britain's first brush with American-style electioneering. The debates have been praised for electrifying a dull campaign and transforming a predictable two-horse race into a volatile three-way contest. For progressive politics, there's a downside to the rise of the Lib Dems: it threatens to divide the Centre-Left vote to the benefit of the Right. Significantly, Mr. Clegg's party has rejected the idea of tactical voting to keep the Tories out. This will surely work to the disadvantage of Labour.