- - Tuesday, May 5, 2015

MANCHESTER, England — One of the world’s oldest democracies is proving it’s not above embracing new traditions.

For the second election in a row, British voters head to the polls Thursday to pick a government with all the signs pointing to another “hung parliament” — forcing the major parties to find a partner after the election to cobble together a governing coalition.

The days when a Margaret Thatcher or a Tony Blair could dominate the scene with an unassailable majority in the House of Commons are a fading memory, as parties and voters adjust to a new, more fluid and uncertain political landscape.

The final polls reflect the new uncertainty: Whether voters will keep the coalition between Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives and the moderate Liberal Democrats in power or give Labor Party leader Ed Miliband a chance to form a government remains anybody’s guess, pollsters and political analysts say.

“Based on the latest polls, there is a high probability that no single party is going to have a straightforward majority in the House of Commons after the election,” said Nick Vivyan, a political scientist at Durham University.

Widespread disaffection among British voters is making predictions even more difficult, with an unusually high number of voters still undecided and expressing dissatisfaction with the choices on offer.

“I could never vote Tory, but I don’t want to vote Miliband either,” said Michael Yates, 25, a marketing manager in London. “It’s a bit of a conundrum. I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

The Cameron government’s austerity policies, including spending cuts, higher fees and the contentious reorganization of the National Health Service, have soured many independent voters on the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The 45-year-old Mr. Miliband, meanwhile, is widely regarded as having been a lackluster opposition leader since taking over the party five years ago.

Five years on, the British economy is out of recession — it grew by 2.8 percent in 2014, although by a less impressive 0.3 percent in the first quarter of 2015. The spending cuts have helped drive down the national deficit, while unemployment has fallen from nearly 8 percent to 5.6 percent under Mr. Cameron’s watch.

“People can see in the end it is all about the economy and keeping the economy moving forward, and that’s what we offer, and that’s the argument we’re making in this closing stage,” the 48-year-old prime minister told supporters at a suburban London garden center Wednesday, claiming the Tories had the momentum in the campaign’s final days.

Many British voters don’t believe Mr. Cameron can take credit for the rebound, but they are suspicious of giving Labor the reins of power given the party’s record having been in control of Westminster when the 2008 global financial crisis first hit.

Mr. Miliband, making his closing argument at a campaign stop Wednesday, said Britain’s economic rebound had failed to help the vast majority of working Britons.

The choice, he said, was “between a Labor government that will put working people first or a Tory government that will only ever work for the privileged few.”

Whether the messages are hitting home is another question.

“All the existing political parties are finding it very difficult to convince the electorate that they are telling the truth,” said John Bartle, a professor of government at the University of Essex.

Labor supporter Dave Marsland from Manchester echoed a common view among left-wing voters. “Labor would save the National Health Service and put an end to the draconian austerity measures that Cameron insists are necessary,” he said. “David Cameron is aloof and out of touch.”

But Conservative voter Steve Timothy, a resident of Sheffield in northern England, felt the Tories hadn’t played up the economic recovery enough.

“The Conservatives have done a good job of keeping the country going after the mess Labor created, but I don’t think they’re selling it as well as they should,” he said. “Their problem is that although the economy has turned around, not enough people are feeling the benefits.”

Neck and neck

The two main parties are currently neck and neck, with around a third of the vote each, according to polls. British research institute ComRes estimates that four in 10 voters are still undecided or might change their mind.

The rising popularity of minor parties, particularly the anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, which wants Britain to exit the European Union and curb immigration, and the Scottish Nationalist Party, which wants Scotland to leave the United Kingdom, compound the difficulty in predicting the next government.

“The parties that have cut through and [have] that appeal to the electorate are those who say the politicians are not telling you the truth, such as UKIP and, to some extent, the SNP,” Mr. Bartle said. “They are able to criticize the political class.”

Their rise presents a problem for both Mr. Cameron and Mr. Miliband.

Experts suggested the Conservatives might win the largest share of votes, but the Liberal Democrats would lose seats, leaving the prime minister without an obvious coalition partner. The decline of the Liberal Democrats stems from what many voters here see as their broken campaign pledge to prevent Mr. Cameron from hiking university fees. Annual tuition at British universities rose from $4,500 to more than $13,600 under the coalition.

The Liberal Democrats are expected to lose as many as half of their 56 seats in Parliament, greatly complicating Mr. Cameron’s math for staying in power.

Scottish Nationalist leader Nicola Sturgeon has ruled out working with the Tories. If Mr. Cameron’s party finishes first but can’t form a government, Labor and Mr. Miliband would then get a chance to forge a coalition.

Labor backbenchers wouldn’t support joining with UKIP, which is forecast to win only a few seats anyway. So the Scottish Nationalists could become Labor’s best partner, putting Mr. Miliband in the odd position of governing with a party dedicated to dissolving the nearly 300-year-old union between England and Scotland.

A Labor coalition with the Scottish Nationalists would be bitter fruit for the Labor leader. The party’s majority during the Blair and Brown years depended heavily on Scottish voters. Polls now say the Scottish Nationalists are on course to win all 59 parliamentary seats in Scotland, meaning Labor faces a total wipeout in its former stronghold.

The projected sweep by the Scottish Nationalists comes even though 55 percent of Scots voted against breaking away from the United Kingdom in a furiously contested referendum in September. Despite that loss, the Nationalists have capitalized on the outpouring of Scottish pride and the political organizing that occurred before the vote to cement their popularity. More than 84 percent of eligible Scots turned out to cast ballots in the independence referendum.

“You’ve got a completely different election going on in Scotland,” said Chris Hanretty of Electionforecast.co.uk. “The campaigning politicians there seem to be more open, seem to be happier to talk to people on the streets.”

Liberal Democrat party leader Nick Clegg is even using the prospect of post-election uncertainty as a reason for voters to back his party, warning that there could be another national vote by Christmas if Mr. Cameron or Mr. Miliband shuns a “stable and strong coalition” with his party and tries to set up a minority government.

“If they try to stagger through with a messy and unstable minority government instead of putting the country first, then they will risk all the hard work and sacrifices people have made over the last five years,” Mr. Clegg said on a campaign stop in Wales.

• This article was based in part on wire service reports.


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