UK vote: A lackluster election that could transform a nation

Brits finally went to the polls today, after a long campaign marked by frustration with mainstream parties and growth on the fringe. But despite low public enthusiasm, this election could be a major turning point for the UK.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
Chelsea Pensioners smile as they see the media after voting at a polling station in London, Thursday. Voting opened in Britain's national general election Thursday, with opinion polls widely predicting an inconclusive outcome.

When Niall Brady casts his vote today in the British general election, he has his job on his mind, and his baby. As daycare costs loom, the contracts he relies on as an information technology worker have gotten harder to secure.

“There is nothing historical about this election,” says Mr. Brady, a straightforward man in his 40s who hails from Northern Ireland and lives in the London neighborhood of Twickenham.

But in fact, if the majority of Brits, like Brady, are voting on  bread-and-butter issues like the economy, healthcare, and immigration, the 2015 general election may indeed prove pivotal – no matter which way the voting goes.

If the Conservatives are able to eke out a victory, Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to hold a referendum two years hence on whether Britain should remain part of the European Union. If Labour wins the most votes, it may need to rely on the left-leaning Scottish National Party (SNP) to form a government, allowing a separatist party to rule.

Neither scenario is a sure bet. Indeed, this election itself has been described as one of the most unpredictable in the past century. With neither of the major parties expected to win enough seats to form a government outright and fringe parties appealing to disillusioned voters, the results could have a lasting imprint on mainstream politics and  government agendas.

“Elections don’t tend to make history, but tend to reflect it,’’ says Nick Anstead, assistant professor in the Department of Media and Communication at the London School of Economics. “The way the electorate is voting is creating such a difficult outcome to deal with. There is a legitimacy crisis surrounding the current system, and this election might very dramatically reflect that.’’

Scotland in Britain, Britain in the EU

The campaign itself belies the import of the outcome. Always low-key by American standards, the British campaign trail has been even more anodyne this season, with Mr. Cameron and his main challenger Ed Miliband proving they can best catch public interest with a gaffe.

The prime minister, for example, made headlines when he confused the name of his favorite football club while reading a scripted speech in April. Mr. Miliband was mocked last May when he was photographed struggling to eat a popular bacon sandwich, hurting his credentials of a man of the people.

With little public interest, talk at local pubs in London has centered around the birth of Princess Charlotte and the latest matches in football's Champions League – rather than the sharply divergent paths the results could shape.

First up is the question of Scotland. Labour has said it will not form a coalition government with the SNP, which has trounced the party in Edinburgh. But if Miliband is able to secure more votes than Cameron, political analysts have said he may resort to some informal alliance with the group, with whom Labour shares many social principles.

In any case, the SNP’s projected landslide – polling shows a jump from its current six seats to as many as 56  – will boost its message, which advocates not just more social spending but an independent Scotland. And that would have untold implications for 308 years of shared history, and the whole of Great Britain.

The outcome that could most directly impact the future of Britain’s place in the world, however, is a Conservative victory – because that would lead to a promised referendum on EU membership in 2017. A YouGov survey this month showed British support for staying in the EU has grown to 45 percent, against 33 percent who want out. Yet minds could change, especially if Cameron is unable to renegotiate Britain’s position within the bloc.

The question of membership is a top concern for just 15 percent of voters, according to a recent poll, says Jacob Nell, an economist at Morgan Stanley in London. But it affects everything from Britain's relationship to the US to access to its European markets. “That protracted period of uncertainty, plus the potential loss of investment and service exports, points to a significant impact on the economy,” he says.

That resonates with Cori Cliff, who has worked for almost two decades at a Toyota car plant in Durham, in northeast England, which exports to Europe and elsewhere in the world. Her husband works for a car-parts manufacturer, whose sales are “off the roof,” she says, thanks to exports.

“We should stay in the EU,’’ Ms. Cliff says. ``We can’t afford to leave. I don’t think a lot of people realize what being in the EU means.’’

A fracturing system

The questions of Scotland’s membership in Britain and Britain’s membership in the EU have been fueled by fringe movements – the SNP and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the far-right, anti-EU group that has captured many conservatives (as well as a frustrated working class).

The result has been a fracturing of the two-party political system that, while long under way, has accelerated in the past five years.

For psychologist Cary Cooper, at Lancaster University, this race is a collective national protest of politics as usual.  “What they are doing is trying to exercise some control, and trying to send a message,” he says. “It is in a way a protest vote about the way in which politics has been done in this country. This election is historic from that point of view."

It could even spur reform of Britain's increasingly dysfunctional "first past the post" system, in which the party with the largest share of votes – even if a minority – wins the constituency.

This year's vote is likely to be the most divergent yet between popular support and "first past the post" results. The Scottish party could win some 56 of Parliament's 650 seats – about a 9 percent share – with only about 5 percent of the national popular vote. And UKIP may earn a mere three to six seats – not even 1 percent of Parliament's seats – despite having about 10 percent of the popular vote. Such results, when the mainstream is losing appeal, could catalyze the construction of a system based on proportional representation.

Battling until the last minute, Cameron and Miliband addressed the electorate in a plea for the undecided vote today. The prime minister used an interview in The Telegraph to say a Labour win would mean an unstable government that will bring in high taxes, reckless borrowing, and empower the SNP. Miliband used his Facebook page last night to call for support and to attack what he described as the government’s policies to protect the rich and bankers. 

One person who isn’t paying attention: Mr. Brady, the IT worker.

He calls himself the classic floating voter. But one thing is sure this year – he’s not going for either mainstream party.  “Cameron and Miliband share a similar background, they are all cut from the same cloth,” he says. “If you put them all together in the same room you wouldn’t tell one from the other.”

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