The election is already being talked about as a seminal event which could change British politics for ever — the way the rise of Thatcherism did in the 1970s and the birth of New Labour in 1990s.
Barely hours before polling opens in Britain's general election on Thursday there is still no clear winner in sight and new opinion polls every few hours are adding to the confusion and tension. Although the smart money is still on a hung Parliament with millions of people apparently still undecided, in the past 24 hours the polls have started to tilt in favour of the Tories giving them a wafer-thin outright majority. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests that historically potential Tory supporters are reluctant to show their hands. Jemima Khan, former wife of Pakistan cricketer Imran Khan, believes that people are still “embarrassed'' to declare open support for Tories.
“Maybe reading horoscopes is a bit like voting Tory. People clearly do it but no one likes to admit it,” she wrote on Twitter.
But whatever the outcome, the election is already being talked about as a seminal event which could change British politics for ever — the way the rise of Thatcherism did in the 1970s and the birth of New Labour in 1990s.
For a start, it has shaken up (and stirred, if you please) the smug sense of “entitlement” that the two main parties — Labour and the Tories — had come to acquire, an assumption that somehow they alone had the divine right to govern. The Liberal Democrats' unexpected surge after their leader Nick Clegg's confident performance in the leaders' television debates has introduced a new element into the mix; or, to use a cliché much in currency, “electrified” the campaign throwing wide open what started off as a predictable two-horse race between a tired Labour and a resurgent Tories under young David Cameron.
Even if, in the end, nothing too dramatic happens the developments of the past few weeks would have served a purpose insofar as they have dealt a blow to the idea of a permanent political duopoly and pricked the bubble of Labour-Tory invincibility. Mark Penn, who was adviser to the 1996 U.S. presidential debates and has been observing the U.K. election campaign, sees the emergence of a potential third alternative in British politics as a “wake-up call for the two establishment parties.” He warns that for a political system that has “relied on a two-party contest.... the change may be only just beginning.”
At the start of this campaign last month, who would have thought that an election that the Tories believed was already in the bag would become a psephologist's nightmare. It has been the most unpredictable election campaign since 1992 when the Tories surprised even themselves as they romped home in a nail-biting finish after John Major had all but given up and Labour were preparing to celebrate.
Indeed, there was a time in the current campaign — dubbed BC (Before Clegg) — when Tories looked unstoppable with leads of up to 20 points over Labour, and Lib Dems not even on the radar. Then the TV debates, Britain's first experiment with once-derided American-style electioneering, happened sparking a Cleggmania, and sending the tectonic plates of British politics into a spin. Lib Dems stormed into the second place, after the Tories, with Labour trailing as a poor third.
Mr. Clegg has boasted that it is now a two-way race between his party and the Tories and Labour might as well pack up its bags and leave. Which, of course, is nonsense and sounds too much like the language of a man “intoxicated” by his new-found fame, as a senior cabinet minister sarcastically remarked.
For the truth is that — blame it on the electoral system or what you will —even on their current polling Lib Dems will not be able to add significantly to their existing tally of 62 (the most wildly optimistic estimates give them up to 100 extra seats) and remain the third party in terms of the number of seats, whereas Labour — even in its current battered shape — still has enough steam left to surprise its rivals.
But, there is no doubt that Lib Dems' dramatic rise has profound implications for the broader centre-left politics in Britain — and that's another significance of these elections no matter who gets to win the keys to No.10.
Mr. Clegg claims that Lib Dems are the now the new face of the progressive centrist “alliance.” Well, not quite yet. In order to be accepted as a credible alternative to Labour, they will need to work harder on their policies, currently designed mostly to attract protest vote, and to produce a coherent narrative of what exactly they stand for beyond the vague vision of a “fairer” Britain.
Nevertheless, the 2010 election has given them a huge boost and brought them closer to the centre-stage of British politics than they have ever been since the 1970s when they briefly flirted with Harold Wilson's minority government. It's their best moment in a generation while Labour is looking exhausted after 13 years in office and, in the words of one commentator , it is like “witnessing the fag end of empire.” The party is in need of an urgent — and extensive — face-lift starting with a change of leader; or Mr. Clegg and Co. will rip through it.
Labour only needs to look at the media to get a sense of its increasing isolation. Forget the Murdoch press (The Times has given up on it after supporting it for 18 years; and the Sun after 13), even the long-suffering loyalist Guardian has decided to dump Labour in favour of Lib Dems citing Mr. Brown as a hurdle to the party's revival. Mr. Brown, it said, had “failed to articulate a vision, a plan or an argument for the future.”
Explaining its decision in a hard-hitting full-page editorial headed “The liberal moment has come,” the newspaper recalled that a year ago it had called for the party to persuade him to step down but, instead, it chose to “hug Mr. Brown close.”
“It was the wrong decision then, and it is clear, not least after his humiliation in Rochdale (he was forced to offer a grovelling public apology after being caught on live microphone calling a local woman voter a “bigot”), that it is the wrong decision now.....We said that he had become incapable of leading the necessary revolution against the political system that the [MPs] expenses scandal had triggered. Labour thought differently. It failed to act. It thereby lost the opportunity to renew itself, and is now facing the consequences.”
The Independent, another Labour-supporting paper, has chosen to endorse the case for a hung parliament which amounts to an implicit endorsement of Lib Dems. Thus, for the first time in living memory not a single mainstream national newspaper of any significance is backing Labour. But, instead of doing some serious reflection the party's spin machine has reacted by accusing the media of anti-Labour bias.
In a desperate move, the party has wheeled out Tony Blair to pep up its faltering campaign. There is a delicious irony in this. For here is a man who was forced out of office by Mr. Brown and his camp followers after portraying him as an electoral liability even though he led the party to three consecutive victories, including the 1997 landslide. In fact, the whole Labour campaign has been masterminded — and is being run — by Blairites under the tight supervision of Peter Mandelson, the Business Secretary, and the Brownites' one-time bête-noir. But then these are desperate times for Mr. Brown and, as he himself acknowledged, he is “fighting for my life” and obviously sees no shame in sleeping with his former enemies.
Finally, a word about this election's campaign style. It was billed as Britain's first “Twitter election” inspired by Barack Obama's innovative and hugely successful internet presidential campaign with both Labour and the Tories bringing in high-profile American experts to advise them. But despite the initial hype the so-called “webification” of British elections never really happened. Much of the campaign remained rooted in old-fashioned doorstep canvassing and leafleting; and newspapers and television not just held their ground against the new media but dominated the campaign.
According to broadcaster Jon Snow the campaign has shown that television, whose power was widely predicted to wane in the face of the challenge from the Internet, remains “as great as ever” with the three televised leaders' debates watched by more than 20 million voters completely overshadowing the online campaign.
Not everyone, however, is excited at the idea of elections being decided on the basis of carefully choreographed and tightly-controlled TV debates where candidates win or lose not on the basis of argument they put forward but their body language and whether they got the colour of their tie right.
Meanwhile, now that the campaign is mostly over whoever wins on Friday will have their work cut out as they grapple with the fallout of the recession without alienating public opinion. But that's another story and will require another article.