After the short-lived tornado of “Bigotgate” on April 28, and the final televised prime ministerial debate the next evening the British opinion polls have been all over the place. They agree that David Cameron’s Conservatives will win and Gordon Brown’s Labour party will lose, but everything else is shrouded in fog. Either the surge of support for the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg is holding steady, or it’s fading to the point where the Lib Dems will come in third in votes after Labour (whatever happens, they will certainly come a poor third in seats). Either the Conservatives will have an overall majority, as most of the people I’ve been talking to are now anticipating without relish, or there’ll be a hung parliament, in which case Cameron will have to strike some kind of deal with Clegg. Each poll confidently suggests a different outcome on the long night of May 6.
For the past month, I’ve been following the election in my home country from a 5000-mile distance. My house in Seattle is littered with mint copies of the skinny national edition of the New York Times that are still in their blue plastic sheaths, while I’ve been reading online the Guardian, Independent, Telegraph, Times, Sun, Daily Mail, and News of the World. I’ve been listening to BBC Radio 4, and watching as much British television coverage of the election as the annoying copyright restrictions that prevent US viewers from tuning in live to Sky News, ITN, and the BBC will allow.
There’s a big flaw in trying to read the election in this way. One joins a virtual community of fellow political junkies—the journalists and pollsters whose interest in the proceedings is at least as avid as my own. If I could only pop down the road to the newsagents’ or the pub, or stand in line at the checkout counter in Waitrose, I’d be brought face to face with the single largest factor in the election: the boredom, indifference, disillusion, and cynicism (“They’re all as bad as each other”) of a great swathe of the electorate.
In our community, every slight shift in the polls looks like a near-religious conversion of thousands of people from one side and its policies to another. In reality, it probably means that in the five minutes that people spent watching the last debate, they took a shine to Nick Clegg’s face or were embarrassed by Gordon Brown’s painfully contrived smile. Then they changed the channel. Then the pollster called.
For many if not most people, a general election isn’t a thrilling event, charged with great consequence, so much as an annoying intrusion on the regular patterns of their lives, about as welcome as a seasonal pledge drive is to NPR listeners. It gets in the way of the football or the cricket, it causes traffic chaos on the High Street when a senior politico comes to town. For a lot of voters, no real thought or choice is involved: they’re “Labour” or “Conservative” by social and family tradition—tribalists who pencil their X on the ballot paper beside the party that their parents and grandparents always voted for. Does a Catholic have to decide on a Sunday morning which church to attend? At the last British election in 2005, 38.6 percent of the electorate failed to show up at their local polling stations. After the prime ministerial debates this time, a stronger turnout is expected, but it probably won’t exceed 70 percent.
I’m flying to England on May 3 to watch the election and its aftermath on the ground, and have booked a room for my first night in a village pub near Northampton where I’ve stayed before. The village is in the Daventry constituency, where in 2005 the Conservative candidate walked away with 53% of the vote, but retired at the end of the last parliament. Six candidates are standing there this time. I’ve made a bet with myself at 1/9, odds-on, that when I walk into the bar of the Coach and Horses the talk will be about anything but politics. If I lose, I’ll be surprised but happy to donate £50 to the collection box for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution that stands beside the beertaps on the bar, and a further £25 if, during the course of the evening, Nick Clegg’s name is mentioned once. (And “that Liberal bloke” won’t count.)