Posters are being printed and slogans are being polished as Britain’s politicians battle it out in the most unpredictable national election in decades. One top election analyst has dubbed it “the lottery election.”
Voters, though, don’t seem very excited about who gets the prize.
“There’s nobody who can run a country. They all lie to us,” said Victor Loach, a fishmonger selling his wares in the cobbled central square of Atherstone, 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of London. “And why do they shout at each other like children?”
It is a common refrain. Opinion polls suggest voters are lukewarm about both Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, seeking a second term, and Ed Miliband’s opposition Labour Party.
So who is going to win the May 7 vote?
“The simple answer is nobody,” said Leighton Vaughan Williams, director of the Political Forecasting Unit at Nottingham Business School. “It’s very, very unlikely indeed that any party will get a majority. “Indeed, it’s very, very unlikely that any two parties can put together a majority after the election.”
Britain’s electoral landscape has become a patchwork of parties, including Scottish and Welsh nationalists, Greens and anti-Europeans. Any of them could end up holding the balance of power in Parliament.
It is a radical change after decades in which Britain’s electoral system usually delivered either Conservative or Labour majorities in the House of Commons. Not anymore. Support for the two big parties has plummeted,
Strathclyde University political scientist John Curtice, who coined the term “lottery election,” has said that “the 2015 election looks less like a simple battle between two straightforward alternatives than any of its postwar predecessors.” Although Labour is traditionally left of center and the Conservatives to the right, increasing numbers of voters find it hard to tell the difference.
“They come in force, promise you the world, and disappear,” said Margaret Warman, a retiree in the central England town of Coleshill, already weary with more than two months to go before polling day. Tired of both Labour and the Conservatives, she is planning to vote for the U.K. Independence Party, which wants to curb immigration and leave the European Union.
The cracks in Britain’s political system have been visible since 2010. In an election held amid a global economic crisis, the Conservatives won the largest share of Commons seats, but not enough to govern alone. They formed a coalition with the smaller Liberal Democrats.
Since then, the political landscape has fractured further. Supporting the Conservatives through five years of spending cuts has cost the Lib Dems much support, and the party stands to lose a big chunk of its 56 seats.
One big beneficiary of the disillusionment is UKIP, led by the affable, beer-loving Nigel Farage. The party has benefited from — opponents say fueled — a growing resentment of immigrants and European bureaucrats amid a squeeze on British jobs and welfare benefits. Polls put UKIP in third place ahead of May’s vote, though Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system means it will likely win only a handful of seats.
Meanwhile, the Scottish National Party has seen support surge since it came close to victory in last year’s Scottish independence referendum. The SNP could take many of Labour’s Scottish seats and make it hard for that party to form a government.
Despite the electoral drama, politicians are struggling to capture the imaginations and loyalty of voters.
Cameron’s Conservatives are centering their campaign on Britain’s economic turnaround. Unemployment and inflation are low — proof, they say, that spending curbs and fiscal discipline are working.
Labour argues that millions of middle-class Britons have seen real wages fall, and paints the Tories as a party of millionaire fat cats who can’t be trusted to run the vital but overstretched National Health Service (NHS).
With the outcome so close, politicians are laboring for every vote in areas like North Warwickshire, a key central England battleground where the Conservatives beat Labour by just 54 votes in 2010.
The area is a varied slice of Middle England that is home to half-timbered Tudor buildings and ancient churches as well as big-box stores and suburban cul-de-sacs of modern brick homes.
Many of the tidy villages and towns look affluent, but they don’t feel it. People here are anxious — about the health service, about jobs, about money. Once, the area was home to heavy industry and coal mining. Today, many residents work in retail and service sector jobs that pay much less than the trades they replaced.
Here, candidates say, the election will be won the old-fashioned way — by speaking to voters, one at a time, on their doorsteps.
“You’ve got to show how you’re different,” said Craig Tracey, an insurance broker who is running for the Conservatives. “I’m certainly not a career politician. I run a business and my reason for getting into politics was disillusionment with politicians as well.”
Labour candidate Mike O’Brien, a former government minister who represented the area for 18 years until 2010, agrees that some voters are “fed up and switched off.”
But he thinks the allure of UKIP and other upstarts will fade as voters focus on what is most important to them.
“The mood is changing,” he said. “During the (European election) campaign it was immigration, immigration, immigration. Now it’s NHS, NHS, NHS.”
Nationally, the outcome remains impossible to predict. Most opinion polls put Labour slightly ahead, but betting markets think Cameron is more likely than Miliband to be prime minister once the dust has settled.
“If I was (Cameron) I wouldn’t be going to bed confident I was going to be prime minister,” Vaughan Williams said. “I’d be a little bit more confident than Ed Miliband — a little bit.”