No majority expected as UK election campaign begins
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Campaigning began this week in Britain for what is expected to be one of the closest general elections in decades, with neither of the main parties expect to gain an outright majority after the May 7 vote.
On Monday, Prime Minister David Cameron met Queen Elizabeth II to formally end the current parliament and launch the pre-election campaign.
The prime minister’s visit to the Queen, which used to be a constitutional necessity but is now a mere courtesy call since the introduction of fixed-term parliaments in 2011, was the last of the niceties in what will inevitably be a no-holds-barred campaign.
"In 38 days' time you face a stark choice,” Cameron told voters after he had returned to his Downing Street official residence. “The next prime minister walking through that door will be me or [Labour leader] Ed Miliband."
Opinion polls suggest that neither Cameron's centre-right Conservatives, currently in coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats, nor the centre-left Labour party, will gain an outright majority in parliament.
Even Britain’s bookmakers, whose predictions are often more accurate than the opinion polls, are giving extremely low odds on either party gaining a majority (although the Conservatives have a slight lead).
This means that once voting is over, negotiations will have to take place with smaller parties, such as the Liberal Democrats for the Conservatives or the Scottish National Party (SNP) for Labour, in order to form a government.
Striking a deal either way will be a tortuous and unpredictable business.
The Liberals have lost a swathe of support since teaming up with the Conservatives in the current government and are expected to lose half of their current 57 seats.
The Scottish Nationalists, meanwhile, have enjoyed a massive boost in support since last year’s independence referendum (even though the country voted to remain part of the UK). Their surge in popularity threatens to all but wipe Labour off the Scottish political map.
Any deal with the SNP will be informal and on a policy-by-policy basis, making the job harder for Labour to form a coherent government in the event of a hung parliament (where no party gets an absolute majority), although the SNP has indicated that it is willing to make a deal with Labour.
Smaller parties, such as the anti-Europe United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP, which is expected to win a handful of seats), have revealed that they have been talking with eurosceptics within the Conservative Party with a view to potential cooperation, but have ruled out entering a coalition with the Conservatives if they win.
It’s the economy...
But before the negotiations can begin, the gloves are off on policies that have deeply divided public opinion, particularly in terms of Britain’s economic direction.
Since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, the UK has emerged from recession and enjoyed a reasonable rate of growth. This has happened amid a round of painful austerity cuts, including a particularly aggressive approach to benefits claimants.
The party of Margaret Thatcher wants people back at work, not signing on for government handouts.
But stories about jobseekers finding their cash lifelines cut off, and the growing number of food banks needed to feed the most needy, have fuelled widespread distrust in the Conservatives who are seen by many as uncaring and elitist.
The Conservatives say they want to eradicate the deficit by 2018, and they want to achieve this through ever more spending cuts, rather than tax hikes.
Labour, meanwhile, say they want to increase taxes on the highest earners, introduce a “Mansion Tax” for those living in the most sumptuous properties and introduce taxes on bankers’ bonuses.
On Monday, Miliband unveiled the Labour Party’s manifesto for business which committed the party to remaining a member of the European Union – another divisive issue among British voters – claiming that it was in the best interests of business to remain.
"Our long-term future lies inside, not outside, the European Union," Miliband, 45, told an audience in the City of London financial district.
Cameron has told his supporters that if the Conservatives win, a referendum on whether to stay in the EU will be put to the British public.
The latest opinion polls show that less than half of British voters would vote to remain, just ahead of those who would vote for a so-called “Brexit” (the “don’t knows” fluctuate between seven and 20 percent).
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