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David Cameron has trouble convincing one future voter... Stefan Rousseau

What you need to know about the election that no one can predict

In a closely-fought race it appears neither the Conservatives nor Labour will emerge victorious on 7 May.

ON 7 MAY, the United Kingdom will vote in an election which it appears increasingly likely that no one will win outright.

This means a bout of post-election talks and deals are in the offing – all fairly unfamiliar territory for UK politicians. In 2010, the Conservative Party, without an overall majority, negotiated the first UK coalition government with the Liberal Democrats since the end of the Second World War.

All indications are that another coalition will be required to form a government after the people have their say next month. But what’s at stake, who are the personalities, and what’s likely to happen. explains all….

State of Play: Why British politics is a bit like Irish politics 

Like Fine Gael and Labour, the Conservatives and Lib Dems have held together for the last five years, but it hasn’t always been easy. Over the past year both parties have been ‘consciously uncoupling’ in a bid to outline their own unique identities to the electorate. (You can expect more of this from FG and Labour in the coming months)

Not unlike the situation here, the Conservatives have benefited from the UK economy beginning to grow again and a chancellor whose ‘long term economic plan’ is seen by many to be working (see Fine Gael and Michael Noonan). David Cameron, not unlike Enda Kenny, is sometimes perceived as out of touch, but, not unlike the Taoiseach, he does a good photo-op:

Siraj Datoo / Vine

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have taken much of the flak for unpopular measures, like tripling student tuition fees, which they had pledged to abolish before the 2010 election, (see Labour and its ‘Every Little Hurts’ leaflet).

Their leader has cut a forlorn and tired-looking figure for much of the last five years but, unlike Eamon Gilmore, Nick Clegg has held on and leads his party into an election where they face annihilation in large parts of the country.

Highvines / Vine

Over on the opposition benches, Labour, which had been in government for 13 years (see Fianna Fáil), has suffered from leader Ed Miliband‘s many perceived weaknesses. Many, even in his own party, don’t rate him as prime minister material and believe his brother, David, would have been a better choice.

Some view him as being too closely aligned to the previous administration having been a close ally of former PM Gordon Brown. That’s not unlike how some people think Micheál Martin is too closely aligned with Fianna Fáil’s past. Still, Martin does not have Miliband’s undoubted sex appeal:

Siraj Datoo / Vine

Then there’s the insurgent nationalist party, the Scottish National Party (SNP), which is gobbling up Labour votes in Scotland. Not unlike Sinn Féin, the SNP is capitalising on the general distrust and apathy that voters increasingly feel about mainstream political parties.

Another party capitalising on people’s antipathy towards the mainstream political forces is UKIP, the UK Independence Party, led by the controversial Nigel Farage.

Tim Johns / Vine

Its primary aim is to withdraw the UK from the EU. UKIP is considered to have forced Cameron into pledging a referendum in EU membership in 2017 – if he’s still in power. The Tories have lost a number of MPs to UKIP in recent months.

Then there are the smaller parties like the Green Party, which has one MP and could get a few more elected next month, and regional parties like the DUP, the UUP, the SDLP and Sinn Féin in the North. Not forgetting Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party.

The electoral system: Why British politics is actually not like Irish politics 

So there are quite a few parties in the mix, but there are two certainties after the election on 7 May:

  1. Labour and the Conservatives will be the two largest parties with, by far, the most number of seats.
  2. Only one of these two men can become prime minister:

Budget 2015 Stefan Rousseau Stefan Rousseau

This is because the UK’s electoral system, First Past the Post (FPTP), benefits the big parties.

Under FPTP, the candidate who wins the most votes is deemed elected. There is no quota, no eliminations, and no second or third counts.

The effect of the system is that big parties gain a disproportionately larger share of seats, while small parties get a disproportionately smaller share of seats.

UK Parliament / YouTube

For example, in 2010, the Lib Dems increased their share of the vote but actually returned five fewer MPs than they did in 2005. It’s because of this that UKIP, although enjoying as much as 15 per cent support in opinion polls, may return as few as one or two MPs in May.

This may all strike you as terribly unfair but it’s what British people want. In 2011 a referendum to switch to the alternative vote system was defeated.

FPTP brings a degree of certainty in that theoretically you have a strong, single-party government that can implement its policies without needing to compromise on its manifesto pledges. Since 1945, 16 of the 18 UK governments have been single-party majorities.

But the polls indicate that’s not what the people want right now… 

BBC poll of polls BBC Poll Tracker BBC Poll Tracker

As we’ve already mentioned all polls right now indicate that neither the Conservatives nor Labour will emerge with an overall majority after the election. One of the two main parties would need be pushing over 35 per cent to win an outright majority.

Why can’t one of the big two win enough support? 

The Conservatives, with the Lib Dems, have overseen huge budget cuts over the last five years, implementing unprecedented austerity in an attempt to grapple with the UK’s spiralling budget deficit. This peaked at around £150 billion in the dying days of the previous Labour administration.

Despite the severe cuts, the UK economy is now growing again and unemployment is falling. But Labour argues that austerity has had a devastating effect on living standards. It says the well-off have not been hit as hardest as the, er, less well-off.

It’s the economy, stupid… 

Both parties are obsessed with the deficit – the gap between what the government spends and what it takes in in tax.

The Tories pledged to eliminate it by now, but have only succeeded in halving it while insisting it will be gone if given a second term. The Conservative message is that the UK is on the road to recovery and that this will be secured if it is returned to Downing Street.

Meanwhile, Labour criticises the Tories for not sticking to the promise to eliminate the deficit. The opposition party says it will get rid of the deficit, but do it in a fairer way. It’s proposing a bankers’ bonus tax and a tax on mansions, among other revenue-raising measures.

In the middle are the Lib Dems who have pledged to stop the Tories from cutting too much and stop Labour from borrowing too much.

Though by many estimates the beleaguered party is set to have its number of MPs halved (and Clegg could even lose his own seat) the party could still have a significant role to play in coalition negotiations after the next election.

What about the other parties? 

The recent seven-way leaders debate put smaller parties on the radar, most notably the SNP, whose leader Nicola Sturgeon has risen to prominence in recent days and drawn the ire of some on the right:

But the SNP could be significant power brokers at the next election. Polls put the party on course to nearly wipeout Labour in Scotland and sweep over 40 Westminster seats.

The SNP’s raison d’etre is for Scotland to secede from the UK but that’s not on the horizon after last autumn’s referendum defeat. So, Sturgeon’s pitch to voters is for an ‘anti-austerity progressive alliance’.

This would seemingly make the SNP natural bedfellows with Labour, and indeed there’s been talk of ‘locking David Cameron out of Downing Sreet’. But Ed Miliband has already ruled out any formal coalition with the SNP having been somewhat spooked by this rather excellent Conservative election poster:

vote conservative Conservative Party Conservative Party

HOWEVER, that does not discount the possibility that Labour could govern as a minority with the support of the SNP on an issue-by-issue basis.

Where do UKIP and the other parties fall into this? 

It’s all a numbers game. The more seats you have the more influence you wield. As we explained already UKIP is not on course to return the number of seats that its opinion poll support would return under the Irish electoral system.

Rochester and Strood by-election Nigel Farage with a trademark pint EMPICS Entertainment EMPICS Entertainment

But despite this the party has undoubtedly succeeded in ensuring the larger parties are talking about its major concerns. Among these are immigration and the EU referendum, something Labour has NOT pledged to hold.

The Green Party was buoyed by the election of its then-leader, Caroline Lucas, to the House of Commons five years ago but its progress, which has mainly involved attracting Labour voters, has been hampered by current party leader Natalie Bennett enduring a series of car crash interviews.

current news / YouTube

What about the DUP, SDLP and Sinn Féin up the North? 

The DUP would be considered sympathetic to the Conservative Party and would likely side with Cameron if he needs the DUP’s support after the next election.

The SDLP would likely side with Labour. Meanwhile, the Tories’ suggestion that Sinn Féin could prop up Labour after the election has been given short shrift.


Sinn Féin’s policy of abstention from Westminster will continue, as party leader Gerry Adams insisted last month. The party currently has five unoccupied seats in the London parliament.


So, what’s actually going to happen then? 

It really is just too close to call. With 326 seats needed for an overall majority, it appears neither Labour nor the Conservatives will reach that number.

All forecasts currently point to a hung parliament with the Conservatives winning slightly more seats than Labour:

hung May 2015 May 2015

In which case, it will all come down to who can do a deal with who.

Otherwise, the party with the most seats will look to form a minority government with support on a case-by-case basis from the SNP and/or the Lib Dems and others.

With that kind of instability, the prospect of the parties having to do it all again next year, or even sooner, cannot be ruled out.

UK election latest: David Cameron is under fire for eating a hot dog with a knife and fork

Meet the candidates:  Would you vote for this man?

Read: Why it looks increasingly like our own general election will take place in February 2016

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