UK election: all is clear as mud

UK election: all is clear as mud
4 min read
06 May, 2015
Analysis: Fringe parties could become kingmakers as an all-out majority looks increasingly unlikely for either of the main parties, says Zak Brophy.
The polling boxes arrive but who are the British people actually voting for? (Getty)
Elections are a simple process, right? The people take to the polling booths and whichever party secures the most votes wins.

Try telling that to the British people as they weigh up who to vote for this Thursday.

On the eve of the ballot the outcome looks to be so close that the electorate will likely wake up to a situation in which the leaders of both of the two main parties could stake a claim to become prime minister.

Politicians, pundits and voters alike would then be left asking themselves, "what next?"

Logic may suggest that whichever party wins the most seats in parliament would have the right to form a government, even if they don't have an outright majority. 

The polls, which are no means bulletproof, suggest by this measure it is the incumbent Conservatives led by David Cameron who will emerge triumphant, in which case they will argue they have "won".

Such a victory would be touted as a mandate from the British people to form a government, even if the support of other smaller parties is necessary.

But if only it was that simple.

The main opposition party, Labour, are less likely to "win" but they may still be able to claim "legitimacy" in forming, and leading, the next government.

As the rules would have it the legitmate government is actually the one that has the support of the most MPs regardless of the parties they come from. There is no mention of the lead party having any kind of majority itself. 

Labour's leader Ed Miliband could claim not only legitimacy but also the promise of a stable government if he secured the support of some of the smaller parties or at least an agreement that they would not oppose him when passing budgets or legislation.

A break from the past

This is all very confusing terrain for the British voters. 

First past the post electoral rules and a deeply tribal political landscape have ensured for generations the hegemony of the two main parties and the common outcome of a clear winner and loser.

The fracturing of the traditional social bases of the main parties, the rise of smaller fringe parties and the increasingly prominant role of the regional parties in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have eroded this clear cut dominance of Labour and the Conservatives.

In the last election in 2010 the Conservatives were forced to form a coalition government with the UK's third largest party, the Liberal Democrats, as their junior partner.

With this election coming down to the wire the prospect of further coalition building and deal-making has dominated the latter stages of the campaigns.

The Conservatives have played on English fears that the ascendant Scottish Nationalist Party would enjoy unwieldy influence over a minority Labour led government.

Conservative campaign posters have shown the Scottish nationalists' champion Alex Salmond sporting a sinister smile as a hapless looking Ed Miliband pokes out of his breast pocket.

Feeling the political heat Ed Miliband has ruled out doing any deals with the SNP but Labour could still end up relying on the SNP's informal support to prop up a minority government.
     The focus on voters fears over who they don't want to run the country has clouded the debate over what the different parties actually stand for.

The SNP for their part are not taking this lying down and the party leader Nicola Sturgeon has said in the closing days of the campaign that a government that had only won in England would not be legitimate in the eyes of many Scots.

In many corners of the UK there would be support for the arguement that a Labour government backed by the SNP, Wales' Plaid Cymru and Northern Ireland's SDLP would actually have more legitimacy across the isles than a Conservative-led government perceived as governing on behalf of England alone. 

The Europe card

The Conservatives have avoided any talk of relying on the support of others, instead assuring they will win an outright majority. While not beyond the realm of possibility that scenario is highly unlikely.

Labour and the Lib Dems have also raised the spectre of a minority led Conservative government being held to ransom by the far-right, anti-immigration, anti-Europe UKIP.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage has said that he would do a deal with the Conservatives in return for securing an earlier referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union.

Despite saying that he does not want a pact or deal, Cameron has previously hinted that a Conservative government could hold an early referendum on Britain's membership of the EU – a move that would please UKIP supporters.

Fears over the economic repurcussions of the UK being pulled out of the EU under UKIP pressure have also played into Labour's hands, and been exploited accordingly.

The unremitting focus on voters fears over who they don't want to run the country, or even have a seat at the table, has clouded the debate over what the different parties actually stand for. 

As the British electorate head to the voting booths on Thursday all is clear as mud what kind of government they will actually be voting for.