A week into the 2010 United Kingdom election campaign, and all predictions have been thrown into disarray.
The introduction of American and Australian-style televised debates was seen by many as a positive yet unexciting addition. Bound to be dull due to the vast number of restrictions insisted upon by the politicians and the broadcasters, it was largely assumed that they would ultimately have little impact on the election's results.
Prior to the first debate, held on April 15, opinion poll results had remained relatively consistent since the beginning of 2010. Current Prime Minister Gordon Brown's party, the Labour Party, usually polled at around 30 per cent, while their main opposition, the Conservatives, commonly referred to as the Tories, had been polling between 35 per cent and 40 per cent. The party generally seen as the third option, the Liberal Democrats (or Lib Dems), regularly pulled about 20 per cent of voters.
Yet, just one day after the first debate, the campaign has been turned upside-down. Viewers and critics alike almost unanimously proclaimed Lib Dems leader Nick Clegg to be the winner. The Tories' David Cameron was deemed to come in second place, while a surprisingly relaxed-looking Gordon Brown was relegated to distant third. And with just under 10 million Brits tuning into the debate, it appears that the impact has been enormous.
The first opinion poll conducted after the debate came via YouGov for The Sun. The poll still had the Tories holding onto their lead, at 33 per cent, but the surprise movement came from the Lib Dems, who shot into second position with an increase of 8 percentage points on the last poll, taking them to 30 per cent. Labour was forced into third, at 28 per cent. This was the first time that a third party has out-polled either Labour or the Tories in an opinion poll since 1983. A different poll conducted for The Daily Mail even put the Lib Dems on equal footing with the Tories, at 32 per cent each, with Labour trailing on just 26 per cent.
Now officially a three-horse race, and with two more debates to come in the lead up to the May 6 poll, so dramatically has the situation changed that even Labour's election co-ordinator, Douglas Alexander, confessed that "It is now impossible to predict the course of the next three weeks."
It is worth pointing out that the election of MPs in UK general elections works differently to Australia's system. Instead of working on a preferential voting system, in which votes for one candidate can be “transferred” to another candidate via the voter's stated preferences, general elections in the UK rely on a “first past the post” method. This means that the candidate with the most votes wins, even if they do not possess an absolute majority of votes. Consequently, opinion polls do not necessarily indicate the way the election will actually go, as the number of elected MPs from each party may not reflect each party's percentage of the popular vote.
So although a significant swing is predicted towards the Conservative Party and away from Labour, if the Lib Dems can manage to secure a few marginal seats, Gordon Brown may still be able to hold on to the Prime Ministership, albeit in a hung parliament controlled by the Lib Dems.
Unfortunately for the Lib Dems, this now means that the knives are out for them. While Brown and other Labour Party members have been making none-too-subtle hints about wanting to form a coalition with the Lib Dems (an idea Clegg audibly scoffed at during the first debate), the Tories will be doing all they can to sabotage the Lib Dems' recent gains. Will they be successful? Hard to say. Cameron is already trying - the day after the first debate, he was already warning that a hung parliament would hinder economic recovery. Critically, the Lib Dems are unapologetically Europe-focused, and wish to eventually adopt the Euro as the British currency, a plan which the Tories can leverage to their advantage amongst voters who already think the European Union has too much influence on the UK's internal affairs. Clegg is also in favour of extending an amnesty towards illegal immigrants; this will appeal to few outside the far left.
The Lib Dems should be able to overcome much of the Conservatives' attacks, however, simply by continuing to remind voters disillusioned with both the main parties that there is another choice. Their insistence that a vote for the third party is worthwhile should be very successful, and should ensure that policy, not politicking, remains the focus of the election.
Ignoring the likelihood of a hung parliament for the moment, let's look at what the election of one of the two major parties would mean for the UK.
A Conservative government, the first since their defeat at the hands of Tony Blair and New Labour in 1997, would apparently bring about a more people-focused society. Cameron has said that the only way for Britain to move forward is for the government to work hand-in-hand with the people. "We'll give you the power, so you can take control," he said at the launch of the party's 2010 manifesto. Their election would bring about changes such as the introduction of California-style local referendums, more involvement of parents in their children's schools, and the direct election of police commissioners. Cameron is calling this “Big Society”.