There are exactly one hundred days until the general election and they’re not going to be pretty. A lot can happen in three and a half months, and a lot will happen, but the chances of any hopeful changes in British politics between now and May 7th are slim, if not already gone. Don’t believe what you may have heard. It is more than likely that today simply sees the rounding of the final corner in a five-year race to be the people’s least unpopular politician.
Two party politics is, for now, over. But you wouldn’t think that from the way both Labour and the Tories are carrying themselves. Much like the people they govern, politicians in Britain are no more used to the idea of coalitions and minority rule than they were in January 2010. Both major parties are focusing their campaigns on the elusive goal of a Parliamentary majority. Both hope, against the odds, to avoid another forced political marriage. Should they fail then it will be the first time since the early 1900s that Britain has been governed by two coalitions in succession.
Labour hopes their focus on healthcare (‘100 days to save the NHS’) and inequality, coupled with their small but stubborn poll lead will carry them over the line. The Tories are relying on their more charismatic leader and the slow economic improvement that they have engineered. Both parties have major problems in terms of trust from the electorate. Labour’s association with the 2008 crash and the suspicion that a Conservative government would enact cuts far deeper than the party has so far suggested are key issues here. Both parties are also struggling, so the polls suggest, to improve on their share of the vote from the last election. A few years ago members of both parties would have been quietly counting on winning over support from disaffected Liberal voters yet now that seems like a distant, naive dream.
The collapse of the Liberal Democrats, who if recent polling is accurate will be left in sixth place and with only one Welsh MP come May, has been spectacular. It is perhaps the greatest collective fall from grace in British political history. No one likes Nick Clegg and no one trusts him. One can now suggest that the moment Clegg walked out onto the Downing Street lawn in 2010, the final nail was driven into coffin of two party governance. The Lib Dems had prospered, both in 2010 but also for long before, on being the alternative to the often-stale battle of Labour vs. Tory, Left vs. Right. In many ways they’re continued, moderate electoral success had kept the system balanced. Now dissatisfied voters, who exist in greater numbers than ever, have to look elsewhere.
This elsewhere comes in the form of UKIP, the Green Party and for Scottish voters, the SNP. All three parties have gained more than anyone could have predicted even twelve months ago and all three are claiming that they will be the ones to hold the balance of power come May. The increasing support these three parties have gained from voters outside of the traditional Labour or Tory bases has been the defining narrative of the last two years. It will continue to define the last hundred days of this government. The SNP, with their projected triumph in Scotland against a Scottish Labour party lead by Blairite MP Jim Murphy, are most likely to be king makers but it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that, in a very tight Parliament, the Green or UKIP might be called upon to pass or block legislation (as could the DUP, one party constantly forgotten in Westminster commentary). On one hand this diverse break from two party slogging matches over the dispatch box sounds like a welcome change. On the other, the thought of either the Greens or UKIP being able to influence laws is somewhat alarming.
This then, is the landscape of the last hundred days. A messy, disjointed world of swing voters and marginal seats and contradictory polling. We’ve already seen the party election machines warming up for what almost every commentator agrees will be one of the dirtiest elections yet. A race to the bottom as well as a race to the electoral finish line. At some point there will be a televised debate, probably with seven or eight party leaders shouting well honed attack lines at each other. Don’t expect nuance and don’t expect clarity. Don’t expect the big parties to play fair and don’t expect their smaller alternatives to stay ‘nice’ for long. Welcome to one hundred days of televised misery.