Elections are interesting things. A couple of months ago the United States shook itself up and a couple of days ago Greece reminded us that di̱mokratía is a Greek word. Soon it will be the turn of the UK.

No uncertainty please, we’re British

On 7th May 2015, following the longest de facto election campaign in recent memory, Britons will vote. One hundred days ahead of it all, experts hesitate to guess what the outcome will be. For a country like the UK such uncertainty is alien. We’re used to more predictability, a pendulum moving left to right, and back again, but frequently hovering over the center ground.

While novelty can be enjoyable, there is quite a bit at stake, including: the UK’s future in the European Union; Scotland’s future in the UK (yes, that is still in play); the shape of the British economy and the welfare state; the prospect of a hung Parliament, a second successive coalition, and a realignment of UK political parties. It’s a heady a cocktail of political risk that could give the UK quite the post-electoral hangover.

Is it how many horses are racing? Or their size? Or their nationality?

The UK political landscape has never been so fractured. UKIP threaten the Conservatives on the right, the Greens threaten Labour on the left. The Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems), in the center, are polling poorly, but might still divert enough voters from the parties to either side of them to weaken them. With a first past the post system, this multiplicity of parties makes results hard to predict locally, let alone nationally.

Labour or the Conservatives will certainly be the biggest party after the election but neither seems likely to get the 326 seats needed for a majority. Indeed, as UKIP’s recent electoral surge shows, voters for smaller parties that historically have had little impact on election results could find themselves anointed kingmakers.

A notable example is the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). Despite losing the Scottish independence referendum it is stronger than ever and, according to recent polls, could almost wipe out Labour in Scotland. In a break with previous convention, the SNP has said it would vote on matters affecting England and that they wouldn’t enter a Conservative coalition but might with Labour. In contrast, the Northern Irish unionist parties are likely to support the Conservatives. When the UK’s constitutional fabric is under huge pressure, not least from growing demands for “English votes for English laws”, the incorporation of nationalist politics into Westminster could be explosive.

Grexit matters less than Brexit but will European question leave Conservatives isolated?

If Greece exiting the Euro and the EU is a serious concern, the UK’s possible departure is an order of magnitude even more significant. A future Conservative government would try and  renegotiate EU membership terms and then has pledged to hold an “In/Out” referendum, possibly as early as 2016. Despite Cameron’s pledge that he will campaign for the UK to stay in the EU in this referendum, if the Conservatives have to rely on UKIP for votes in parliament they will have little room for manoeuvre on this issue, even if business continues to warn of disaster and the EU remains intransigent. To complicate matters further, the SNP is clear it will revisit the question of Scottish independence if the UK moves out of the EU.

The European question might make it hard for the Conservatives to find reliable partners in either a coalition or a “confidence and supply” arrangement, beyond Northern Irish unionists or perhaps UKIP. This would put Labour in the driving seat (with the Lib Dems having their hand on the wheel from the passenger side and the SNP possibly giving guidance from the backseat).

Back to the future (again)

Despite the strange election they find themselves in, the main parties seem to be fighting very traditional campaigns. With Ed Miliband repeating Tony Blair’s mantra that voters have "24 hours to save the NHS” and the Conservatives leading on economic competence, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’ve been here before, but it was uncertain even “back then”. A government with poor polls heading into the election should be fair game for the opposition, but the incumbent Conservatives nonetheless triumphed in 1992. Positive economic indicators should help the Conservatives, but Labour won in 1997 despite the economic upswing that was underway. 

Voters currently flirting with parties such as UKIP and the Greens might revert to voting for who they think would make the best Prime Minister, which means choosing between one of the two main parties. Interesting, many Conservatives consider the Labour Leader Ed Miliband as their “secret weapon”, whereas Labour continues to paint Cameron and his party as elitist and out of touch with ordinary voters.

However, an insurgent party looking to break the mould of British politics could do just that, but the SDP Liberal Alliance failed in 1983 and the Conservatives are hoping that UKIP’s polling numbers will also ultimately fail to translate into actual votes in a General Election. 

Perhaps therefore, as we commence the final count-down to a very important British election, we should welcome the return of two Greek concepts to compliment the di̱mokratía they gave us: cháos and arithmi̱tikí̱.

Daniella Lebor
Daniella Lebor

Daniella Lebor is a senior consultant based in APCO’s New York office. Her work at APCO is focused on running international political, CSR, digital and advocacy campaigns which achieve complex objectives for clients. Read More

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Theo Moore

Theo Moore is deputy managing director of APCO Worldwide's Brussels office and head of APCO's financial practice in Europe. Read More