With only days of campaigning left, the election of 2010 remains one of the most uncertain Britain has ever seen. The result itself is still unpredictable. Whether our electoral system will survive in its present form is an open question. And, according to many experts, we still don’t know what any of the parties would actually do about the biggest issue facing the country – the huge hole in the public finances. So, when we vote next week, will we be doing so in the dark?
Any politician will tell you that election campaigns are the most nerve-wracking part of political life precisely because they are so unpredictable. Some of the unpredictability is, as it were, to be expected; some of it is not. In this election we’ve had both.
The first sort of unpredictability was what befell Gordon Brown on a Rochdale street on Wednesday. He was on a walkabout. A Labour-supporting pensioner, Gillian Duffy, was out to buy some bread. They bumped into each other, talked about issues, parted amicably and then the world fell in round the Prime Minister’s ears. As he drove away his still-connected radio mike broadcast to the world the private conversation he was having with an aide. The encounter had been a ‘disaster’, Mrs Duffy was ‘a bigoted woman’ for having complained about the number of immigrants in the country, and it was all his staff’s fault for putting him in such a compromising position.
The rest is history. Mr Brown spent the rest of the day trying to limit the damage, using a forty-minute visit to Mrs Duffy’s house to beg forgiveness. Even his own supporters acknowledged the potential harm to Labour’s campaign from this bolt from the blue. They feared it would play to the worst aspects of the Prime Minister’s reputation – that he may charming in public but ill-tempered in private; that he blames others for his own shortcomings; and that he needs to be in control of everything, including chance chats with members of the public. They feared too that calling a Labour supporter a bigot merely for asking a perfectly legitimate question about immigration would make many others think he is not listening to them about an issue that matters to them.
Despite the fact, though, that this piece of pure chance dominated the media for the rest of the week, it’s still far from clear that it will have done Labour the damage they fear. While some people are critical, others seem to take a rather charitable towards it. After all, they say, anyone can get caught muttering things they’d prefer others not to hear. It was just Gordon Brown’s misfortune to be the one; but it could have been David Cameron or Nick Clegg, they say, so why should we let it affect the way we vote? We shall see.
A much bigger effect on the outcome of the election, however, has been something few people predicted would have such an effect: the leaders’ debates. Nick Clegg’s success in the first debate turned the election into a three-party battle which it has remained. As a result, the uncertainty is not just about which party will end up the ‘winner’, but what winning will actually mean. An outright victory for one party, and with it the chance to govern on its own for the next five years, remains the less likely outcome, according to current polls. The debates have made a hung parliament, and all the uncertainties that entails, the likelier result.
The final debate does not seem to have changed this state of affairs. Instant polling made Mr Cameron the winner, with Gordon Brown third yet again. But there is no sign as yet of Cameron’s success translating into an unstoppable surge for his party. The Conservatives are still falling short of the sort of lead needed to secure an overall majority of seats.
The main topic of the debate was the economy. With inflation rising, unemployment sharply up, growth still sluggish and the deficit in the public finances at a record peace-time high of 11% of national income, this was supposed to be the occasion voters would get the chance to choose between the different approaches the parties were offering. But it was always a slim hope.
Earlier this week the respected economic think tank, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, produced a report attacking all three main parties for having not got “anywhere near identifying” the cuts in government spending they acknowledge in principle will need to be made to control the deficit.
The IFS said: “Repairing the public finances will be the defining domestic policy task of the next government. For the voters to be able to make an informed choice in this election, the parties need to explain clearly how they would go about achieving it. Unfortunately they have not. The opposition parties have not set out their fiscal targets clearly, and all three are particularly vague on their plans for public spending. The blame for that lies primarily with the government for refusing to hold a spending review before the election.”
According to the IFS, the Tories have identified less than a fifth of the £64bn cuts a year that will be needed by 2014; Labour only an eighth of the £51bn it will need to find; and the LibDems only a quarter of its £47bn. The difference in the totals is explained by the fact that the Tories aim to tackle the deficit by cutting spending rather than raising taxes by a proportion of four to one, whereas the others plan a balance of more like to two to one.
But the IFS casts doubt on this whole approach. In the 1990s, they say, governments reduced deficits by having a 50/50 split between spending cuts and tax rises. This is politically more realistic, they argue. So the parties are not coming clean on tax rises either, they imply. Another economic think tank, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, says that tax rises equivalent to another 6p on income tax will be needed. And virtually everyone predicts that VAT will be raised after the election. No party, however, is advocating it; they are all just refusing to rule it out.
What’s clear is that whoever wins the election is going to have administer some very unpleasant medicine. The governor of the Bank of England is reported to have said that whichever party does so will become so unpopular it will then be out of power for a generation.
Maybe the parties’ current coyness on the issue is just election politics. But voters could be forgiven for thinking that in this most uncertain of elections we know less about what the effect of our votes will be than ever before. How our votes will translate into who takes hold of the reins of government is more uncertain than ever; and what they will do with that power could be said to be more unpredictable too. There are a few days left to get some answers.
Does the unpredictability of the election excite or alarm you? Have the leaders’ debates been helpful or not? Did all the interest in Gordon Brown’s encounter with Mrs Duffy affect what you think about him and how you may vote, or did it get out of proportion? Do you think you know enough or not about what the parties plan to do on the deficit to choose between them? And do you want one party to win outright next Thursday, or would you welcome a hung parliament?