It is the most wonderful time of the political cycle – the General Election. With little over three months until the election on 7 May, and each party’s campaign slowly shifting into gear, now is the opportune moment to take a look at the runners and riders, issues and personalities that will be contesting an election that really is too close to call.
Recent polling from 1 February (BBC Poll of the Polls), show the two main parties, Labour and Conservatives, to be neck and neck at around the 32% mark, with UKIP fluctuating between 15%, the Liberal Democrats between 8%, the Greens on around 7%, and the SNP on 3%. With Labour and the Conservatives currently on course to gain the same amount of seats in Parliament, it is likely that one of these two parties will have to form a multi-party coalition in order to govern.
There is a particular focus on the party leaders this time around and the Conservatives, in this case, are at an advantage in the fact that their leader is the incumbent Prime Minister David Cameron who, despite presiding over a divisive Coalition government responsible for deep spending cuts and austerity measures, remains the least unpopular party leader at -11%. His favourable approval ratings will be vital if the Conservatives are to sell their package of benefit caps, immigration control, income tax cuts and deficit reduction to the electorate.
The Conservative’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, face a fight to maintain political relevance as their vote is predicted to collapse and Nick Clegg’s personal approval rating lounging at -48%. Eager to distance themselves from the Conservatives, the party will look to push the standard issues of jobs, pensions, education and the environment to try to win back lost support.
Despite the unpopularity of the coalition government, Labour have a difficult task to prove that they are ready to regain power. Given Labour’s failure to convince on the economy, and committing to the Conservatives’ deficit reduction plan despite opposition to the Coalition’s spending cuts, the party will aim to make the NHS and the cost of living the main issues at this election. Any advantage they have in this area could potentially be held back by the unpopularity of leader Ed Miliband, rated at -28%.
The real intrigue in this election will be in the performance of the previously lesser parties – UKIP, the Greens, and the SNP. Nigel Farage’s heady mix of populism and personality has seen disenchanted voters flock to the Eurosceptic party, which has widened its agenda to immigration and welfare. UKIP are set to win a massively improved percentage of votes on 2010, but given the British electoral system are unlikely to see this translate into more than five to ten seats – though in the event of a hung parliament these could be crucial.
The Greens have also seen a recent surge in membership and polling and their policies on the environment, health, a living wage and a halt to austerity will seek to attract an unprecedented support.
Finally, though a regional party, the SNP, buoyed by the independence campaign, will look to wipe out Labour’s support in Scotland, which could see them gain up to 49 Westminster seats and thus hold a key hand in the event of a hung parliament.
For the first time in a long time, there is a real plurality of choices capable of influencing the balance of power in government, and it will be interesting to see if this results in an increase in voter turnout. Whatever the outcome, the stage is set for the tightest contest in years, one that will go right down to the last day of campaigning and the last ballot cast.