- - Thursday, February 26, 2015

LONDON — Five years after the first general election to produce a “hung” Parliament in more than three decades, British voters appear poised to do it again, denying the country’s major parties a clear mandate for the years ahead.

A “volatile” campaign season lies ahead for Britain this spring, as smaller political groups stand to reap the benefits from voter dissatisfaction with the mainstream parties, analysts say.

The general election May 7 will be the first since 2010, when neither the Conservative nor the Labor Party won a majority in the House of Commons.

The vote resulted in a hung parliament. Conservative leader David Cameron formed a government by entering into an unusual coalition with Britain’s third-largest party, the center-left Liberal Democrats, ending 13 years of Labor rule.

A hung parliament looks possible again, with another round of postelection bargaining, because no party is on track to single-handedly choose a prime minister. A right-wing outlier, the surging anti-immigrant UK Independence Party, could have an outsized say in the final vote.

“At the moment, neither [major] party looks likely to win the majority it was once presumed,” said John Curtice, a politics professor at Strathclyde University. “A hung parliament looks at least as likely an outcome as an overall majority, if not more so.”

Polls show that a growing number of prospective voters are backing smaller parties, demonstrating public dissatisfaction with a coalition government forged by politicians whom many never supported.

Asked who he thought had the inside track to victory May 7, the succinct answer of Leighton Vaughan Williams, director of the political forecasting unit at Nottingham Business School, was: “Nobody.

“The simple answer is nobody,” Mr. Vaughan Williams told The Associated Press. “It’s very, very unlikely indeed that any party will get a majority.

“Indeed, it’s very, very unlikely that any two parties can put together a majority after the election.”

Stephen Booth, research director at the European Union policy think tank Open Europe, said the mix of cross-currents in the election could result in votes massing on the fringes of the political spectrum rather than in the middle.

That’s good news for the handful of small, far-right and far-left British political parties but bad news for the Conservatives and Labor, as well as the Liberal Democrats, he said.

“Uncertainty is high whatever happens,” said Mr. Booth. “This is the squeezing of the mainstream parties. It is going to be much more volatile potentially.”

Britain’s economic circumstances provide a backdrop for the political drama. The country’s economy has improved slowly since 2010, when Mr. Cameron pursued an unpopular austerity agenda in response to the worldwide recession.

Mr. Cameron’s reorganization and privatization of the National Health Service, for example, have drawn withering criticism from opposition Labor lawmakers and constituents of the Liberal Democrats, his coalition partners.

Last month, 46 percent of Britons said the health care system is the most important issue in the election after the economy and immigration, according to a YouGov poll.

Weakening mainstream support

Chris Ham, chief executive of health care think tank The King’s Fund, echoed many British voters’ concerns about the national system. He said historians “would not be kind” in their assessment of the Tory and Liberal Democrat government’s record on health care reform.

“The first three years [of government] were wasted on major organizational changes when the NHS should have been concentrating on growing financial and service pressures,” Mr. Ham said.

Others posited that the lackluster performance or Mr. Cameron’s coalition and the colorless persona of Labor Party leader Ed Miliband also had dampened excitement.

The coalition was “highly unpopular” and alienated the public, said Londoner Jon Hinchmore, a social media manager.

“It has been five years of cuts to — and unnecessary reorganization of — public services from an unelected government,” he said. “People are now looking for alternatives to the mainstream. Our politicians are so detached from the real world — low incomes, rising rents, high costs of living. It is hard not to feel resentful.”

But Labor hasn’t managed to exploit voter unhappiness while it has been in the opposition, a sign of its decline as a political force since the departure of Prime Minister Tony Blair, who led the party for 10 years through 2007, and the resignation of Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2010.

Mr. Curtice estimated that if the vote took place today, Labor would receive about 30 percent of the vote, roughly the same as in 2010. Although that percentage could change, he said, he doesn’t see much movement unless a surprise upends voters’ views.

“The party has been left with only a narrow lead over the Conservatives, whose support has remained largely stagnant,” Mr. Curtice said.

In addition, the Liberal Democrats, long the small third party struggling in the wake of the two main parties, would win 10 percent of the vote compared with 24 percent in 2010, a high-water mark for the party in recent decades, he said.

Up-and-coming parties

At the same time, support for the Scottish National Party, the Green Party and the UK Independence Party — which won more seats in recent European parliamentary elections than any other in Britain — is at unprecedented levels, Mr. Curtice said.

The Scottish National Party’s growing popularity, especially, could eat into Labor’s vote.

“In Scotland, polls taken since the independence referendum in September 2014 have detected a surge of support in favor of the SNP,” Mr. Curtice said.

In four recent polls, the SNP support on average was around 46 percent in Scotland, up 26 points from the 20 percent the party won in 2010.

The party surged even though 55 percent of Scottish voters in a national referendum last year rejected its goal of declaring Scotland independent from England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

If Scottish voters opt for the nationalist party on Election Day, Labor stands to lose a significant number of parliamentary seats north of the English border, dashing Mr. Miliband’s hopes of becoming prime minister anytime soon.

Mr. Cameron is playing up the dangers of a Labor-SNP alliance to form a government. He warned voters last week that it would represent “a unique unprecedented coalition of people who would like to break up our country and the people who would bankrupt our country.”

“The only people who can stop them are us,” the prime minister said.

Yet Mr. Curtice contends that the UKIP now presents “the most significant independent fourth-party challenge in postwar English politics.”

The party, which campaigns heavily against immigration and wants Britain to leave the European Union, has developed a high concentration of support along the eastern coast of England. Tories and Labor formerly competed for votes in the region, but UKIP has gained popularity there by criticizing globalization and other trends that party leaders argue have harmed traditional industries such as fishing and mining in developed countries.

UKIP’s popularity could backfire, however, when voters go to the polls.

James Gowdy, a software engineer in London, said he feels there is no difference between Conservatives and Labor but would vote for either party to make sure UKIP leader Nigel Farage doesn’t gain power in Westminster.

“The reason I would vote for either is to keep UKIP out,” said Mr. Gowdy. “There is such a drive for reactionary voting to teach the two main parties a lesson that we could end up with letting UKIP in — the last thing I would want.”


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