Predicting election results is a notoriously difficult task, therefore as this column was being written it was prudent not to hazard a guess as to who would emerge the winner in the UK’s general election.
Some may recall the celebrated example of the 1948 US presidential election, when pollster George Gallup led the incorrect predictions of victory for New York Governor Thomas Dewey over President Harry Truman. Many newspapers rashly took their cue from the supposed experts and one of the most famous photographs in US political history, taken the morning after the election, shows the triumphant Mr Truman delighting in the discomfiture of those who had written him off, holding up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune with the headline ‘Dewey Defeats Truman.’
The science of polling has improved exponentially since 1948 but, up to yesterday, only the brave would have put money on forecasting a definitive result except perhaps that the incumbent prime minister, Gordon Brown, was not expected to win. Indeed, with the UK’s closest election in decades being anticipated, there is even the possibility that readers will be perusing these lines today still awaiting the final result, if recounts are called for.
There are, of course, different possible outcomes, with much riding on the approximately 100 Labour/Conservative marginal constituencies and the last-minute decisions of large numbers of previously undecided voters.
Today, we could be contemplating an outright Conservative victory with David Cameron being invited by the Queen to head a new government, although most polls on the eve of the election suggested that the Tories would not win enough seats to claim an overall majority in the House of Commons.
Indeed, the smart money was on a hung parliament, with the Conservatives claiming between 268 and 294 of the 650 parliamentary seats, but short of the 326 needed for an absolute majority. In this scenario, Labour could win around 248-274 seats, with the Liberal Democrats winning 77-82 seats, thereby allowing their leader, Simon Clegg, to play the role of king-maker in either a Conservative-led coalition or a Labour-led minority government.
If, however, most British voters have reverted to type and voted for either of the two larger parties, then the influence of the Lib Dems could be diluted in a classic case of ‘third party squeeze.’ If so and if the result is still up in the air, the balance of power could lie with the smaller Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish nationalist parties.
Whatever the outcome, this election to the Palace of Westminster, the “mother of all parliaments” and the progenitor of the system of parliamentary governance in the Caribbean and most of the Commonwealth, has been notable for a number of reasons.
The introduction of US-style televised debates; the use of the Internet and communications technology to reach out to younger voters in particular; the wooing of the Black vote by all the main parties; the surprising surge of the Liberal Democrats and the new vistas afforded by a strong third party in a system traditionally dominated by two heavyweight contenders; the talk of electoral reform of the UK’s first-past-the-post system and the possible introduction of some form of proportional representation to allow for a more equitable distribution of parliamentary seats; all this has been fascinating to observe and all this has relevance in our region where there is growing discontent with our inherited governance systems and the limitations of the Westminster model.
The advent of the debates was largely welcomed, even though Mr Brown – unsurprisingly, given his dour persona, his intellect and reputation as a bit of a policy wonk – complained that they led to an excessive focus on personalities rather than policies. But personality and character cannot be separated from policy and one’s ability to master one’s brief; they are all essential elements in the total package that a modern leader must represent, especially to younger voters, who, if readers will forgive the cliché, truly represent the future, which is what every campaigning politico claims to wish to safeguard.
As for the prospect of a hung parliament, while it may be the only straw that Labour has to cling to and may be the best chance that the Lib Dems will have for a long time of getting a seat at the top table of power, it is certainly not the ideal outcome sought by the Tories, who only six months ago were being regarded as a shoo-in to be the next government.
For the Telegraph newspaper, a traditional backer of the Conservatives, a hung parliament is “the last thing the country needs” in the face of the economic crisis that will not go away, a record budget deficit and the consequent need for strong and decisive leadership. According to a commentary published on Wednesday, a hung parliament “will not lead to men of goodwill sinking their differences in the national interest, as its proponents fantasise; it will lead instead to cynical horse-trading behind closed doors, with the voters firmly excluded.” The Telegraph’s fears regarding the cynicism of politicians is perhaps well founded, given recent history in the UK. On the other hand, a hung parliament may well represent a real possibility for meaningful change to a democratic system in need of refinement.