A Game of Votes: The Lowdown on the United Kingdom's May Election

Could we see a hung parliament?

The United Kingdom goes to the polls on May 7, 2015. Opinion polls indicate that neither of the country's two major parties, the Conservatives (also called Tories) and the Labour Party, is likely to command an outright majority. Complicating matters, the Tories' coalition partner in the last government, the center-left Liberal-Democrats, are trailing in the polls, fourth place behind the anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). In the north, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) appear on the verge of obliterating Labour and capturing a clear majority of Scottish seats.

The UK 2015 elections are exceedingly messy, the outcome very uncertain and the consequences could lead to greater political instability in the country having the “mother of all parliaments.” British historian Simon Jenkins in his A Short History of England (2011) warned "...the asymmetric nature of the Westminster parliament, with England's government in partial thrall to MPs from the semi-autonomous Celtic fringe, cannot be sustainable in the long term." Indeed, the 2015 election could be dubbed the “Revenge of the Celtic fringe,” since what happens in Scotland and, to a lesser extent, in Wales and Northern Ireland will be critical to the shape of the British nation.

On the surface, the "big" election issues are the economy, income inequality (which touches upon the issue of better management of the National Health Service, or NHS) and immigration. The UK is currently enjoying moderate economic growth, and inflation is under control. However, the sharp economic downturn in 2008-2009 made income inequality painfully more evident.

The question for many British voters is who will be a better steward of the economy going forward: Prime Minister David Cameron or his Labour rival, Ed Miliband? The former presided over the economy's stabilization and its recovery, but imposed harsh austerity measures. Cameron wants another term to stimulate greater economic growth, which will help generate employment and reduce income inequality.

In contrast, Miliband favors raising taxes on the wealthy, more programs for the poor and directing more tax money into the NHS. Miliband's approach is more statist and in many ways harkens back to Labour's left wing of the 1970s, represented by the likes of Michael Foot and Tony Benn. British industry is wary of Miliband, but he appeals to a beleaguered working class.

Immigration is an ugly issue in the 2015 election. According to opinion polls, 45 percent of Britons consider immigration to be the nation's most formidable challenge. In some quarters, it is believed that foreigners are taking too many jobs and keeping downward pressure on wages. The problem is that the Conservative and Labour approaches to the issue have left a degree of ambiguity in many voters’ minds.

In contrast, UKIP's policy stance is clear—radically reduce the flow of immigrants, which strikes a chord with some Britons. UKIP's views have been called racist and the party's appeal is limited, but it could eat into Conservative votes in a number of constituencies and help Labour.

While immigration, income inequality and the economy are the major issues of the 2015 British election, the stealth issue is the pending destruction of the Labour Party in Scotland. While Wales and Northern Ireland are not demonstrating strong separatist tendencies, last September, Scotland held a referendum on whether or not to secede from the United Kingdom. The separatists were defeated, capturing 44.7 percent of the vote, compared to the 55.3 percent who preferred to remain part of the United Kingdom.

The Scottish issue, however, has not gone away. Despite the referendum’s failure, there is a lingering appeal for an independent, or more autonomous, Scotland. The 2015 election has brought this issue sharply into focus.

Labour has traditionally done well in Scotland, having a strong appeal among the working class. In the 2010 elections, Labour captured forty-one seats out of a possible fifty-nine. The Liberal-Democrats won eleven seats, and the SNP an anemic six seats and the Conservatives one seat.

But the political landscape has changed. Opinion polls indicate that the SNP is enjoying a surge in popularity at Labour's expense. Under the leadership of their new leader, Nicola Sturgeon, the party of separation appears reinvigorated. Going into the May election, Labour held forty seats, but a recent ITV News/Con Res poll indicates that the party could lose twenty-nine seats to the SNP. Such a change could radically tip the balance of power in parliament.