Thursday, May 6 is the finish line, election day, and the three major party leaders had their last debate (instant polls on that had Conservative party leader David Cameron "winning"). The results will come in very quickly; if there is no clear majority, though, the negotiations for a new government could go on for weeks or more.
One result that seems quite likely is a clear Conservative plurality (more seats than the other parties) without a majority, and no agreement for a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. In that case, there would be a lot of pressure for a minority government, in which the LibDems would agree not to vote against the Conservatives on key measures but would not participate in the governmental Cabinet. That would allow the moment to pass without major crisis, but would make for a fragile government, in which the LibDems could switch to opposition and bring down the government at any time.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. I promised a little discussion of the issues. Here are the four most salient emerging from the "manifestos" (platforms) of the parties and the highlights of the debates:
1) Gordon Brown--Yes or No?
This is the first general election since Tony Blair rode off and left New Labour's leadership and 10 Downing Street to his longtime Chancellor (roughly equivalent to our Treasury Secretary), Gordon Brown. Brown hasn't changed policies that much, but he doesn't have the personality, or oratorical brilliance, of Blair, and it's hurt (though Labour's popularity was already sagging before Blair left).
The voters seems to be looking for a new face, and they have two alternatives. LibDems' new leader Nick Clegg has been the sensation of the campaign, but that's largely because he wasn't known. There are a lot of similarities between Clegg and David Cameron, the Conservatives' new leader: both are upper-crusters (one's Oxford, one Cambridge, if that matters), wealthy, but with youthful energy and an ability not to seem like they are talking down to the public, something Brown hasn't quite mastered.
The Conservatives' strategy all along has been to make this a referendum on Brown, and they have largely stuck to that despite the rise of Clegg. Cameron's been making the argument that those who don't want Brown as PM any more had to vote for the Conservatives, implying that the LibDems would make a deal with Labour that would keep them in, but Clegg has countered that by saying he would not agree to a minority government headed by the party which finished third (that finish--in the popular vote--for Labour seems quite likely at this point, unless there is a late shift to them). Clegg would like to be in the catbird seat, with the option to give either party a majority--with his active support, rather than passively. That may not be an option,though, even if the numerical results put him in that mathematical position.
2) Foreign Policy, War, and the European Union
To an extent one might not consider possible, the Conservatives and Labour largely have the same positions: both supported the Iraq invasion (but would like to get out now), both are supporters of Britain's full participation in the EU (but not the Euro) on pragmatic arguments, both advocate replacing the British fleet of Trident submarines with newer models to keep their nuclear deterrent current.
The Liberal Democrats are the dovish party--one thing they are known for is their opposition to the Iraq invasion in 2003 (though it was fairly irrelevant to the actual decision). They oppose moving forward now with replacing the Trident (could that be more in line with the Obama Administration's position?) Clegg is a former Brussels bureaucrat and a fairly strong advocate for the EU (though it's not clear that is a material difference in position).
At this point I should stick in the parochial concerns of the US: we have none, basically--all three parties want to be the ones most loving and loved by the US, there is no anti-American party or anything like that (at least among the three top parties). If we did have some preference (for example, if the UK's development of a new submarine fleet were important to our defense posture, which I seriously doubt), we would be best advised to keep our mouths shut, and I'm sure that's what advice Obama will receive, and that's what he'll do. Just congratulate whoever on whatever. There is some evidence that there is some antipathy between Brown and Obama, but probably no more than between Brown and any other figure.
3) Economy, Budget, Etc.
I think Brown deserves more credit than he gets for acting forcefully and effectively when the economic crisis hit. The key move was essentially nationalizing the largest domestic bank, the Royal Bank of Scotland, which was in danger of folding up from its losses with US mortgage obligations (the other, more international banks, Barclays, HSBC, and Standard Chartered, weathered the crisis very well and are doing well). Given those facts, the LibDems differing positions, that they would have nationalized the banks, don't seem that substantial.
Despite the good reactions, the economy in Britain is at least as bad as the US', and that has to make Brown an underdog to come out of this election still heading the government. Labour defends the current level of essential services like universal health care, and is proposing an unpopular increase in the tax which supports it. The Conservatives have come out for cuts in spending, while the LibDems, having the advantage of knowing they neither will be heading the government nor have to defend the status quo, naturally support services without tax increases.
There are gaps between the Conservatives and Labour on domestic policies, but the Conservatives are not arguing for major rollbacks in the welfare state--that would scare the voters. Instead, they are allowing voters to see them as not so different from the LibDems, for example in opposing the growth in power of the central government--in areas like the national identity card, which Labour has tried to push without any other party's support--except that they know how to govern (unlike the LibDems).
4) Election Reform
This is the Liberal Democrats' key issue, and some accommodation to them will be the price of forming a government for either Labour or the Conservatives, should they not be able to get an outright majority. The LibDems clearly will not get representation in Parliament to the level of their popular vote this time, and this has been their consistent problem over time. So they want a change in the system. Labour has been sympathetic, the Conservatives have not. A change might make the LibDems permanently a major contender for leadership in the government (which they have not been since the rise of Labour in the 1920's); Labour seem willing to gamble that they can make an enduring agreement with the LibDems, which, combined with some electoral reform, could keep the Conservatives out of power for another decade or more.
The Liberal Democrats would propose proportional representation, with seats being allocated in multi-seat "constituencies" according to their shares of the vote. The nature of the reform Labour would propose (through a referendum) would be something like an "instant runoff" (known as the "Australian system" in England), in which voters rank their preferences among candidates for Parliament, keeping the one member/one constituency system now in place. The votes for the candidate with the least would be allocated based on the second-choices, and so forth until a candidate has 50%+. This would keep things much as they are in much of Britain, where districts tend to be either LibDem vs. Conservatives (in the more rural areas) or Labour vs. Conservatives.
To me, this is the key issue actually in play: will the LibDems' numbers rise enough to make their active support critical (which will mean some softening of positions for the Conservatives, and accommodation from Labour), or will the Conservatives win a clear plurality (over Labour) or even a clear majority, in which case the LibDems' gambit for potency will have been thwarted?
So, it's really down to tactics and strategy, rather than policy. More still about this in Part III.