Why This General Election Will Be Like No Other

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Never mind who is going to win this General Election, we can’t even tell what the shape of battle is going to be.

I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Sir David Butler, the Oxford University professor who just about invented “psephology” – the political science of studying elections.

Even he admitted that he would normally make a confident forecast just 100 days out from polling day, but feels unable to do so this year.

That’s because this will not be a “uniform swing” election, in which a decisive minority of voters switch from Conservatives to Labour, or from Labour to the Conservatives.

This time, the electorate has many more viable parties to choose from – including UKIP, the Greens and the Scottish Nationalist Party – as underlined by the broadcasters’ proposals for TV election debates with seven party leaders.

The political landscape was very different back in 1992 for Britain’s first 24/7 General Election, covered round the clock by Sky News.

Some have drawn parallels between Ed Miliband and Labour’s leader Neil Kinnock, who many considered to be unpriministerial. But then again, the same was said of the uncharismatic and modest John Major – the surprise choice to take over from Margaret Thatcher just two years before the vote.

It was a straight left-right battle in 1992. The old Liberal-SDP Alliance had descended into civil war, and the Greens had failed to build on their surprise third place in the 1989 European elections.

John Major won another five years in office for the Tories. But months after the election, Britain crashed humiliatingly out of the European exchange rate mechanism. By the time Major took on Labour in 1997, the Conservatives had been in power for 18 years. They were tired, compromised and split over Europe.

It was no surprise that they were thrown out of office. But a defeat was turned into a rout by the appeal of Tony Blair, a politician who was fresh, feisty, and campaigned more like an American presidential candidate than a would-be MP and parliamentary leader.

He abandoned left-wing ideology in a bid to get as many people as possible, including rich businessmen, into his “big tent”. He won by a landslide and had no need to strike a deal with the Liberal Democrats, in spite of a long political courtship with Paddy Ashdown.

Outside England, Nationalist sentiment was building, but Blair hoped to appease it by introducing devolution for Scotland, Wales, London and Northern Ireland.

The momentum was with Labour in 2001. Blair built up a ruthlessly effective style of “sofa government”, while the Tories were feuding over Europe.

Blair’s biggest problem was delaying polling day because much of the countryside was paralysed by an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott got into a public brawl with a protester. Despite all this, Labour still won by another landslide.

At the General Election in 2005, Britain was at war following 9/11. The country was split on the invasions, but the security situations in Iraq and Afghanistan had not yet deteriorated into the vicious civil wars which would grip both occupied countries.

The Conservatives had run through a succession of leaders – William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard – who warmed the cockles of the hearts of right-wing activists, yet had little broad appeal. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown could point to an unbroken eight-year record of growth and public services. Labour won again.

In 2010, it was Labour’s turn to be the tired party of Government, with a leader who had less to offer than his mercurial predecessor. Meanwhile, the Conservatives had studied the New Labour playbook to come up with a Blair-style leader of their own.

David Cameron did not win an outright majority in the last election. But he was the star, in spite of a meteoric challenge in the UK’s first-ever televised election debates from the Lib Dems own Blair-lite, Nick Clegg.

Cleggmania was a harbinger of increasing willingness of the voters to shop around for alternatives, and Cameron let the idea gain currency by forming a Coalition Government with the Liberal Democrats.

Many Tories rejected the idea of a coalition, and eventually, some were repelled all the way to supporting UKIP, the explicitly anti-EU party.

Meanwhile, the SNP consolidated their grip in the Scottish parliamentary elections, and the Greens joined UKIP in appealing to voters alienated by the “LibLabCon”  – three mainstream parties considered to have little fresh to offer.

All of which brings us to 2015, the UK’s most unpredictable election for decades. Stick with Sky News to make sense of it all.

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