British election: Uncertainty as UK goes to the polls to decide future

In a photo taken on Oct 29, 2019, a Union flag flies over the Houses of Parliament in central London.
In a photo taken on Oct 29, 2019, a Union flag flies over the Houses of Parliament in central London.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON - The people of Britain are going to the polls on Thursday (Dec 12) in a general election which will not only decide who will govern them for the next five years, but will also determine whether the nation stays or leaves the European Union, a decision affecting generations to come.

Curiously, however, few of the candidates have provided any details on their vision for the country's future; the campaign was dominated by general slogans and a personality contest between leaders of the two main parties.

For much of the four-week electoral campaign, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's centre-right Conservatives were ahead of the main opposition centre-left Labour in all opinion polls, and by as much as 10 percentage points, a huge lead which, if translated into parliamentary seats on Thursday, could give the Conservatives an overall majority of around 60 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons.

But the latest extensive research conducted on the eve of the ballot by YouGov, one of the most respected British pollsters, indicates that the Conservatives' lead has been slashed, with the government projected to win only 339 of the 650 seats, a majority of only 14 MPs over all other parties.

And even this is just a very tentative prediction, for traditional party loyalties are breaking down, and the question of Brexit - as Britain's separation from the European Union is now popularly called - has divided the electorate in ways never encountered before.

No less than four different electoral trends are unfolding in Britain today, and each one of them could generate an electoral upset.

Prime Minister Johnson, who supports separation from the EU and has led the electoral campaign with the slogan "Get Brexit Done" and promises to pull his country out of the EU by the end of January, traditionally draws his support from the prosperous constituencies in southern England, and especially the leafy suburbs of major cities.

These voters are usually against Brexit, and may well punish the ruling Conservatives by defecting to the Liberal Democrats, a small centrist party which advocates staying in the EU. Dominic Raab, the current British Foreign Secretary, may well become the biggest political casualty on Thursday since he risks losing his seat on the outskirts of London to precisely such a trend.

However, in the industrial north-eastern part of England which is the heartland of the Labour opposition, voters are strong supporters of Brexit and may well desert Labour which has an unclear policy on the issue, and opt for the Conservatives instead.

 
 

In Scotland, which accounts for around 9 per cent of all the parliamentary seats and used to be a Labour fiefdom, the undisputed winners will be the Scottish National Party, which seeks independence for the territory.

But Scots who oppose separation from the rest of the United Kingdom may well vote Conservative, so Mr Johnson may gain some useful seats here.

Yet the biggest imponderable is the importance of personalities in Thursday's ballots.

Neither Mr Johnson nor Mr Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour opposition leader, are especially popular. But while Mr Johnson has an affable style and is an engaging speaker, the 70-year-old Mr Corbyn is a veteran far-left politician and a dour campaigner, who currently suffers from the worst popularity ratings ever recorded for a party leader in British general elections.

Mr Johnson is pushing his personal advantage hard: the sight of Mr Corbyn as prime minister "would be beyond satire if it wasn't so tragic for the country", he told a rally on the eve of voting.

Predictably, Mr Corbyn has ignored the personality question and instead focused his electoral campaign on traditional Labour themes such as welfare provision and warnings that Britain's National Health Service (NHS) will be underfunded by Mr Johnson.

 
 

"Our message is quite simply this: Our NHS is under threat, our NHS is at risk," the Labour leader told supporters at the last rally before polling day.

What neither party leader has done, however, is articulate a vision of what would happen to Britain after the election on Thursday.

Mr Johnson claims that, once out of the EU, Britain would negotiate a trade deal with Europe by the end of 2020. Yet he will not say what this will include, or what will happen if - as is most likely - the negotiations with the EU drag on beyond the end of next year.

Mr Corbyn, meanwhile, mouthed generalities about the need "to listen to what the people want" on Brexit, without specifying what his stance on the matter may be should he become prime minister.

Either way, the race appears to be tight, with wafer-thin majorities deciding the outcome in various constituencies.

"As things currently stand, there are 85 seats with a margin of error of 5 per cent or less," warned Chris Curtis, political research manager for YouGov, the pollsters.