The U.K.'s unwinnable election

The days of majority government in Britain are dead. So which unlikable leaders will form the next coalition?

Peter Nicholls/Reuters; Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

Peter Nicholls/Reuters; Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

Christine Gillham can’t even be bothered to come to the door. She just sticks her silver-haired head out of a second-storey window and lets fly. Her litany of complaints begins with some broken pavement that her husband tripped over and the local council still hasn’t fixed, two years on. Then there’s the massive new supermarket going up behind her home, which is destined to bring more noise and traffic to an already congested corner of “rural” England. She gives the National Health Service a scathing review for its long waits and bureaucracy, which she feels contributed to her uncle’s recent death. But if there is an underlying theme to her balcony speech, it would be immigration. “I’m not prejudiced at all,” she says. “It’s just that we’ve got so many foreigners coming over. And they get houses, and free lunches, and childcare, and they never look after us!”

Mike Le-Surf, the local Labour Party candidate for parliament, gamely points out that there’s actually a seven-year waiting list for council housing in the constituency of South Basildon and East Thurrock, and that no one is jumping the queue. The information makes no discernible impact. So he continues to stand on the front walkway in his dark suit and sneakers, accented with a red tie and matching campaign rosette, looking up and making sympathetic noises. As a social worker with 25 years experience dealing with learning-disabled adults, his supply of patience is inexhaustible. When Gillham finally runs out of steam 15 minutes later, Le-Surf makes a pitch for her support in the coming May 7 general election. “We really need your help to get their lot out and our lot in so we can start changing all that,” he says.

Gillham is not buying. “I’m fed up. I’m not voting,” she proclaims. “At the end of the day, none of you are doing me any good.”

South Basildon and East Thurrock, a riding of 72,000 electors near the mouth of the Thames, about an hour southeast of London, has a reputation as a bellwether. Residents have backed the winning party in every national vote since 1966. In the Margaret Thatcher years, the shorthand for one of its constituents—many of them East Enders who moved down the river to planned “new towns” after the Second World War—was “Essex Man.” When they swung their support back to Labour and Tony Blair in 1997, the preferred term was “Mondeo Man,” after a popular mid-sized car from Ford. Today, the consultants talk of “White Van Man,” but the definition of the target voter is largely the same: mostly white and working-class, often self-employed, with a strong sense that their country has left them behind.

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It’s not hard to see why. Pitsea, the town where Le-Surf is canvassing on this day, is grim. Hard by the busy A-13 and commuter rail line, the main street boasts a mock-Tudor funeral parlour, a betting shop, Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Bargain Booze store, with a drug and alcohol rehab centre conveniently located directly above. Since David Cameron’s Conservatives and their Liberal-Democrat coalition partners took power in 2010, the local council has seen its budget sliced by almost a third. Essex police have laid off around 600 officers, with more cuts to come, and the streetlights are now extinguished between the hours of 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. as a cost-saving measure. The constituency is also home to two large facilities that take in most of London’s garbage and recycling. “The people here feel like they’re getting dumped on. Literally,” says the Rt. Hon. Baroness Smith of Basildon, a.k.a. Angela Smith, the pleasant former Labour MP for the area, since elevated to the House of Lords. She arrives for the door-knocking with lipstick on her teeth, driving a Nissan Micra.

Other parts of the riding are leafier and posher, and helped carry Stephen Metcalfe, the Tory incumbent, to a 5,800-vote victory over Smith in 2010. But a poll released just before the campaign began suggests that the riding is again in play, with the Conservatives enjoying a small lead over the right-wing, anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), with Labour close behind. Pitsea at least, seems ready for a change. Many of those who are home on an early Wednesday afternoon say they are voting Labour. Albeit without much enthusiasm. “No, no, no!” says one man, recoiling when Le-Surf offers him a placard to hang at home. “I won’t do that. People will put a brick through your window.”

With less than a week to go, the U.K. election remains too close to call. Opinion polls have had Labour and the Conservatives tied throughout the campaign, and are now tilting slightly toward the Tories—although not enough to result in a majority. A second straight “hung parliament” is the likeliest outcome. But just who will form the next coalition remains an open question, with support for the moderate Liberal-Democrats cratering while the separatist Scottish National Party (SNP) surges in the north, and UKIP continues to poll around 13 per cent. One political projection website lists 11 potential power arrangements whereby the two main parties might pick a path through the fringes to the 326 seats needed to control Westminster. The 12th possibility is no workable outcome, and another election.

Stephen Fisher, a political sociologist at Oxford University’s Trinity College, says the U.K.’s days of majority rule may well have come to a permanent end. (Before 2010, there had only been one hung parliament since 1929, a short-lived Tory minority in 1974.) In 1955 the Tories and Labour combined to capture 96 per cent of all votes cast. This time, their share will be closer to 60 per cent. “It’s a long-term story about globalization, decreasing party identification, and increasing distrust of mainstream politicians,” he says. “Brands don’t mean as much anymore.”

The tight race has produced a remarkably narrow campaign, as Cameron and Labour Leader Ed Miliband concentrate on shoring up their own eroding bases. The two parties’ manifestos could easily be confused, with Labour’s promise that “Britain can be better” by controlling immigration, and the Tories’ claim to be the “real party of the working people,” offering “security at every stage of your life.”

There have been few fireworks and only one tame debate featuring all the players. The daily speeches and photo ops take place inside strictly controlled bubbles before audiences of the party faithful, captive school children, or bored factory workers with their bosses looking on. (Perhaps for good reason. On one of the prime minister’s rare forays into the real world, a walkabout to buy a Northumberland sausage in Alnwick, 450 km north of London, he was greeted by a protester strumming a ukulele and singing a composition entitled F–k Off Back to Eton.)

Leaks of planned speeches guarantee that the morning papers are filled with what the leaders “will say,” rather than what they’ve already done.

As the campaign enters its final stages, it has mostly become an attempt to scare voters rather than woo them. The Conservatives are full of dark warnings about the potential for some sort of Labour-SNP alliance. During a recent stop at a train factory in Crewe, Cameron stood in front of a bright yellow engine and admonished voters like some not-quite-so-Fat Controller from the Thomas stories. “It will be a match made in hell,” he said, that will “bring the economy to a grinding halt.” A couple of days later, the party unfroze former prime minister John Major and reanimated him in front of a group of pensioners at a lawn tennis club. “This is a recipe for mayhem,” he said in his characteristic monotone. “The Scots are a clear and present danger.” A far cry from the tear-stained “Better Together” campaign that the government waged last fall to help convince the very same Scottish voters to remain part of the Union.

Miliband has flatly and ungrammatically said that an alliance with the SNP “ain’t gonna happen.” He is accusing Cameron of engaging in a “grand deception,” trying to divert voters’ attention away from the “extreme” spending cuts the prime minister plans to undertake after the election.

Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, who are currently polling at nine per cent and on track to see their 56 seats reduced by at least half, has been reduced to pleading that he is the least objectionable choice to be kingmaker. “Liberal Democrat MPs are the only thing blocking [UKIP’s] Nigel Farage and [former SNP leader] Alex Salmond from the door of 10 Downing Street,” he said last week. On social media, the party has taken to tweeting, ad nauseum, “we will add a heart to a Tory government and a brain to a Labour one.” Whether or not they have grasped that Clegg is therefore the Cowardly Lion is unclear.


Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg could see his party’s seats reduced by half. (Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images)

Russell Brand lopes onto the tiny stage with a white blanket draped over one shoulder, looking like a particularly tall and hairy Gandhi. The standup comedian, actor, and more recently, political provocateur, senses that his fashion choice is somewhat off-putting, even on a cool spring evening. “I shouldn’t have worn this,” he mutters into the microphone. “It makes me seem eccentric.”

The occasion is a London screening of his just-released film, The Emperor’s New Clothes, a Michael Winterbottom-directed “polemic documentary” about Britain’s economy in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial meltdown. Or as the 39-year-old former husband of pop star Katy Perry puts it, “the toxic air of capitalism that we are forced to breathe.”

It starts in his home town of Grays, Essex, a short 16 km away and one riding over from Pitsea. He describes a town that was never wealthy, but now seems considerably worse off, as residents struggle to make ends meet in an age of stagnant wages, benefit cuts and diminished opportunity. Yet Grays is less than a hour’s train journey from the financial heart of London, the City. Brand spends much of the rest of the movie channelling Michael Moore, trying to infiltrate gleaming bank towers and put their multi-millionaire CEOs on the spot. His stunts raise some pertinent questions. U.K. taxpayers bailed out their banks to the tune of $228 billion, offering another $611 billion in loan guarantees, and have suffered through five years of austerity measures as the government seeks to backfill the holes that the crisis left in its books. Meanwhile, the bankers have awarded themselves more than $147 billion in bonuses. And not a single one has faced prosecution for playing fast and loose with the country’s economy.

The staunchly conservative Telegraph gave the movie perhaps the greatest backhanded rave of all time, under the headline “Puerile, yet compelling,” admitting that Brand has a “surprisingly thought-provoking point.” Thirty-five years ago, under Margaret Thatcher, the U.K. had a “secret revolution” the comedian intones at the conclusion of the film. Now, the country needs a revolution “for everyone else.” Except Brand, for all his righteous indignation and 8.5 million Twitter followers, won’t be the man to lead it. Before the screening, he tells the audience that he is a spiritual, rather than political man, and hasn’t even bothered to register to vote. “Do what you want to do. Democracy is every day, not twice a decade,” he says. “And hopefully, everybody’s wills will align.” Such fatalism didn’t discourage Ed Miliband from paying a late-night visit to Brand’s home, ostensibly to tape an interview, but really to seek an endorsement.

Brand’s young fan base could make a difference in a tight election. After all, the student vote helped propel the Liberal Democrats into relevance the last time around. But Clegg’s decision to back Tory plans to triple university tuition—despite having explicitly promised never to do so—destroyed his credibility. And polls suggest that his party, which once enjoyed 50 per cent support among young voters, can now count on six per cent.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The U.K. has been leading G7 nations in growth for a couple of years, but the recovery is, at best, fragile. Figures released this week show that the economy expanded by just 0.3 per cent in the first quarter of 2015—about half the expected rate. With the global oil shock, and continued troubles in the eurozone, there are concerns that the country could tumble back into recession.

Cameron’s coalition has cut the deficit in half since 2010, mostly by hacking $64 billion from government spending. Yet it remains an eye-popping $160 billion. Independent estimates suggest that balancing the books will take billions more in cuts to things like welfare, defence, transport, and law and order. (Education and health spending have been protected throughout. All parties are promising at least $15 billion more a year for the NHS to help it cope with a rapidly aging population.) The Trussell Trust, a charity that operates 445 food banks around the country reports a 19 per cent jump in users last year, with almost half of its clients blaming cuts or delays to their government benefits.

The enormity of the country’s fiscal problems have paralyzed its politics. In this campaign, all the major parties are promising further spending reductions. The only quibbles are over their scale and speed. Cameron’s grand plan post-2010 to create the “Big Society,” reducing government’s role and instead empowering individuals and local communities via “compassionate Conservatism,” has been quietly shelved.

Sitting in a café in Pitsea, Stephen Metcalfe, the local Tory MP, seems taken aback when asked to provide an example of how it worked out in his own constituency. He finally settles on an awards night for local volunteers. Metcalfe, a small businessman, prefers to focus on his government’s economic record. “Five years ago, we were on the brink of bankruptcy,” he says. “Now, we’ve turned it around. But the job is only half done.”

Danny Kruger, a former Cameron adviser and speechwriter—best known for having penned the then-opposition leader’s “hug a hoodie” proposals on youth crime—laments that the Tories are no longer interested in finding innovative solutions to the country’s many social problems. “David had an opportunity and licence to speak quite creatively when he was a young leader,” says Kruger, who now runs Only Connect, a charity that focuses on at-risk youth. “But talking in those terms was seen to alienate an important constituency. Once he became PM, he needed to look strong.” Never more so than now, when Boris Johnson, the wildly popular mayor of London, is running in a Conservative safe seat and openly campaigning for Cameron’s job.

Ed Miliband has also ditched the vision thing. After clinching the Labour leadership in a surprising victory over his older, more popular brother David in 2010, Miliband talked a lot about “responsible capitalism” and making British society more just and level. Now, after being torched in the media for everything from his two-kitchen home to his awkward attempts to eat a bacon sandwich, he expends most of his energy trying to convince voters that a Labour government wouldn’t behave like one. “He wants to do the right thing,” says Neal Lawson, a friend and chair of Compass, a think tank that promotes left-wing debate. “But he has largely had to follow a strategy of not scaring people.”

Or, occasionally, playing to their fears. This week, Miliband promised an “action plan” on immigration within 100 days of a Labour government, which would include 1,000 new border guards, exit checks and a clampdown on benefits for EU citizens, stopping new arrivals from accessing free health care and child subsidies for at least two years.

Net migration to the U.K. was 298,000 last year, about the same as Canada’s intake. Studies suggest the new arrivals—mostly young, healthy and willing to take low-paying jobs—seek few benefits and actually bolster the economy. But the perception remains that they are a big problem, with 70 per cent of voters citing immigration as a top issue.

Ian Luder, who is carrying the UKIP banner in South Basildon, is convinced that such concerns will propel him to victory. The long wait for housing, the overburdened NHS, crowded highways, even the threatened green belt around London all come down to population pressure, he says. “You take one step back, and it’s all immigration.”

All four of Luder’s grandparents arrived in the U.K. as refugees, fleeing anti-Jewish pogroms in the early 20th century. He started his political career as a Labour councillor, and stood for parliament for the party in 1979. An accountant by trade, he went on to become the lord mayor of London in 2008—a mostly ceremonial, one-year job that involves dressing up in funny 17th-century outfits and acting as an ambassador for the City, rather than the real political work of London mayors like Boris Johnson. By custom, if not right, he should be Sir Ian by now, but then-prime minister Gordon Brown excluded him from the honours list in 2009, after he publicly defended bankers’ bonuses. For the last few years Luder oversaw the charitable trust that runs the hospital in Basildon, but he continues to live a few blocks from the House of Commons. He wasn’t UKIP’s first choice for the constituency, but ended up being drafted into service after the preferred candidate, Kerry Smith, a local councillor, was caught on tape employing slurs against gays and Chinese people.

Luder says he favours a points system, like Canada, that could be used to screen all of the U.K.’s immigrants. “It’s not an issue of race or orientation, but the type of person in terms of skill set,” he says. “Right now, we’ve got no controls over unskilled labourers from Romania, but very tight ones on doctors from Singapore.”

We’re sitting in a park, in the centre of the City on beautiful spring day. In the financial district, there are no billboards, or placards, or any other visible indication that an election is taking place. The pavement is perfect. The streetlights shine all night. And almost every suit-and-tied banker and trader on the streets and in the pubs has an accent that suggests they were born in a foreign land.