In just over 24 hours the polls will have closed, and the fun will begin. The nation will have chosen, but unless the polls are very badly wrong it won’t be clear what the nation has chosen. The fact is, until we get the first key constituency results we’re not going to have the slightest inkling how the election has unfolded – and really it comes down to three key questions:
- Have the SNP swept the board in Scotland? It is likely that they will advance, but if Labour prove adept at holding on to their seats, Ed Miliband’s bargaining hand is potentially much stronger. I for one suspect that if the option is on the table for a Lib-Lab majority coalition, the two parties would jump at it with both feet – but that will only happen if the SNP advance falls far short of their current polling projections.
- Will the Lib Dem vote hold up? Their vote is certainly going to collapse – I am absolutely certain that it will do so in east Oxford – but where they have a sitting MP (and that MP is staying on) it will be interesting to see how well they hold on. If the night is a disaster for them, it may well be a sign the Tories have done enough to win the tranche of Lib/Con marginals they failed to take in 2010. If they’re doing better than the polls, they may well be in a strong position despite their collapse in support.
- Will the UKIP bubble burst? This is the biggest variable. So far the UKIP share of the opinion polls has stayed stubbornly at 13%. It is assumed (not necessarily a given, but certainly probable) that a large number of these UKIP identifiers would otherwise have voted Conservative. If they conclude in the quiet of the voting booth tomorrow that they dare not take the risk, then the Conservative vote share might prove substantively higher than the opinion polls are suggesting. If it holds up however, then the Conservatives can probably wave goodbye to any hope of a clear majority.
In deference to the opinion pollsters, who frankly have had the second most horrible job of this election (after all the poor souls actually standing for office) they are quick to remind us that there are too many variables to accurately predict the outcome – they are stressing they are making projections (ie. this is what the result would be based on current polls) rather than predictions – they aren’t any more confident than the rest of us. And top of the list is the assumption that the SNP have Scotland bought and paid for – I certainly expect them to advance, and I think the main parties have a lot to learn from how the SNP energise their supporters – but it is not a given! Every vote really is going to matter – and I have unashamedly urged readers to vote Conservative wherever they live, because in such an uncertain environment it is the only way to ensure the continuation of a government with a coherent plan for the economy.
That said – I would now like to sketch out two scenarios, which show that regardless of the outcome, there is work to be done, and we all need to be ready to stand up and pitch in.
In scenario one, we have a badly hung parliament, where at least two parties (or at worst, more than three!) are required to form a majority government. It will be hellish for the MPs, but more importantly it means our electorate will be fractured beyond all recognition. The task then will be for parties, activists and voters to learn how to adapt to the new political reality – and not least to divine if this is a short term tremor, or a long term shift. In either event, in the chaos there is an opportunity to shape the future of British politics, and that shape will be determined by those who show up – whether for good or for ill.
In scenario two, the Conservatives win a majority, or close enough to a majority to safely govern for the foreseeable future. First of all, there is no way Labour can win a majority – the SNP are doing too well in Scotland, and the Conservatives too well in England. The best Ed Miliband can hope for is to reach a deal with the Lib Dems. Secondly – even if I wake up on Friday to find (to my intense relief) Britain has stayed with the Cameron government, the battle is not won. This election campaign has been fraught, grisly, and notable for the failure of not just the parties, but even the pundits and the voters to reach beyond their core support. There is a huge opportunity for any party and politician brave enough not simply to rise above the demonisation that has arisen in political life, but to stand up to it. I touched on this theme a few months ago – that basic respect has left public life. There is a gap in British political life for someone who has the integrity to stand firmly and unashamedly for their principles, but treat their opponents respectfully.
That is why the result of tomorrow’s poll is only the beginning – the real work begins on Friday morning.