Russia would like the EU to vanish. Carl Bildt

“This is massively new territory for the UK”

With just one more day to go before the British cast their vote in one of the most anticipated UK general elections in recent history, British newscaster Matthew Amroliwala talked to The European about the likeliness of a referendum, the new role of small parties, and the changing political landscape in the UK.

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The European: Mr. Amroliwala, the upcoming UK election has gotten a lot of attention here on the European continent and is considered by many to be a watershed event. Why do you think this election has attracted more interest than previous ones?
Amroliwala: It’s the most exciting and closely fought election we’ve had in a generation. With most of the last three or four, it was possible to pretty accurately predict the way they would go. I think this time, it really is in the balance. You have opinion polls that effectively show the two main parties neck and neck. It’s one percentage point, two percentage points as a difference. It’s a really fascinating election, because Labour and the Conservatives have very different visions going forward. So in the end not only is it very tight but whichever way it goes will be quite significant.

The European: There’s also been a lot of talk here in Europe about the potential for a UK referendum on EU membership following the election. In this sense, one could argue that it’s not only the internal political landscape that will be shaped by this election, but also the UK’s place in Europe. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
Amroliwala: I think it is. The Conservatives have said very clearly that they will hold that referendum in 2017 if they win. It was an election issue in terms of the debating between the two parties, and you may remember that Tony Blair spoke out on it. His only real entry into this particular election was over the issue of Europe and the dangers, the unpredictability, and the instability that any sort of referendum would trigger if one were to happen. So you have a very clear divide again between the Conservatives and Labour over the issue. And yet, the electoral maths makes it one of those intriguing things to look at because of the UK Independence Party, which obviously has really pushed this issue and done so successfully. I’ve covered politics for a couple of decades, and it wasn’t that long ago that UKIP was really on the margins of UK politics. You had Prime Minister David Cameron famously describing them as “fruitcakes” and “loonies” and yet, in recent elections in the UK — local elections, and then European elections — they preformed really strongly. Now, they can build on that for the Westminster elections.

The European: But it’s unlikely that UKIP will actually win many seats.
Amroliwala: With the first-past-the-post system, it’s difficult for them, but their hope is that they get a clutch of MPs. And if no party wins an outright majority, then Nigel Farage hopes that his voice will become louder in many areas, especially of course on the European referendum. But this doesn’t settle the issue of where the referendum idea will go. If Labour wins, it goes nowhere, because they have said they won’t hold a referendum unless there is some sort of significant change, and that is the Liberal Democrats’ position as well. So unless the Conservatives win, there is not really going to be the prospect of a referendum. This is actually a sort of intriguing subplot. For UKIP, the primary issue is to have a referendum on Europe. The party that can deliver that is the Conservative Party, which is also the party that will lose votes and MPs if UKIP does well. So if UKIP does perform strongly, it will actually undercut their party position, which is to have this referendum.

“The tail wagging the dog?”

The European: And do people voting for Labour know what they get in terms of a European referendum?
Amroliwala: Yes, they’ve been absolutely clear. They have actually come under quite a lot of pressure, because although UKIP was initially seen as a danger only to the Conservative Party, they’ve slowly been making inroads into working-class households, the bedrock of support for Labour. So UKIP pose a risk to Labour as well, but Labour’s been clear in its position on Europe. There are some within the party suggesting they start to talk about trusting the electorate and consider holding a referendum. That was openly discussed, but Ed Miliband has stuck rigidly to the position that there won’t be one unless there’s some sort of significant change within the European Union. On other issues, they’ve been less consistent, but not on Europe. The European issue is absolutely clear-cut: if you vote for Labour, you won’t get a referendum.

The European: This is an election in which not just UKIP specifically, but small parties in general are playing a significant role. The Scottish National Party in particular is poised to do exceptionally well. Polly Toynbee wrote an article for us in which she suggests that, should the Conservatives win, the SNP would then use the prospect of a referendum on Europe to push for another referendum on Scottish independence. How do you see that playing out?
Amroliwala: The whole nationalist area is probably the most interesting part of this election. Most pundits agree that Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, was the winner of the only television debate including all the parties’ leaders, and she has done really well in polling both north and south of the border. Now, the intriguing question for both sides is exactly what you mentioned: the possibility of another referendum. Sturgeon has been pushed on this issue, and her position is that — unless something changes — there won’t be a new referendum on Scottish independence. The one already held should hold for a generation. But of course you’re exactly right to point out that, if the Conservatives do win and put the UK’s European Union membership on the line, she can turn around and say, “well that’s the change that I was talking about.”

The European: And what role might the SNP play in the construction of a new government?
Amroliwala: Well, the other fascinating thing about the SNP is that they are doing remarkably, remarkably well in Scotland. If the polls are correct, they are going to wipe out Labour, who currently have around 50 seats in Scotland. Virtually all of them look like they will go to the SNP. In that sense, the SNP could come close to robbing Labour of getting anywhere near a majority, but it also puts into play the possibility of a Labour-SNP agreement, some form of working together which gets Ed Miliband into Number 10. Actually, since the leaders’ debate on television, that is what the Conservatives have pushed as an attack aimed at Labour. They keep saying not only that Labour can’t be trusted on the economy, but increasingly also that they can’t win on their own, that the SNP are potentially going to get them into Downing Street, and do you voters want that? The tail wagging the dog? The SNP really are the ones to watch in this UK election, because they are going to do well. Unless all of the polls are wrong, they will probably walk away with 50 seats, and if you’re talking about a hung parliament, 50 seats is a massive power base.

The European: Let’s look more closely at the economy-based criticism of Labour you mentioned. In some polling, voters have claimed to care more about immigration and healthcare than the economy. That surprised me, because usually economic issues are at the forefront of an election. Do you think these voter self-assessments are accurate?
Amroliwala: I don’t. Most polls do show economic concerns as the top of the list by far, and then usually the NHS. Immigration then comes after those two. But make no mistake, the economy is the big issue. And that’s always been the major flank for the Conservatives’ attack. Their line has always been “Labour got us into this economic mess, we have partially fixed it, and you have to stick with us or you go back to the mayhem of what you had before”. Certainly economic figures are all going the Conservatives’ way at the moment on jobs and growth. Yet, when you listen to ordinary people talk about their lives, they talk about the tough times they’re having, all the pressures and the squeezes. And Labour’s hope is that enough people feel that whatever the economy is doing overall, the ordinary people, the hardworking households they talk about, haven’t felt any benefit and don’t think this government has helped them. These are the people Labour hopes will come on board for them. The economic numbers are set, but it’s difficult to call how people will view them. Is it through their own experience or the bigger-picture data?

“There are a million and one questions”

The European: We also wanted to ask about the style of campaigning. A lot of MPs seem to be running as individuals with personal brands rather than relying on their party affiliations and the party platforms. Is this a reaction to competition from smaller parties, or is it a greater shift towards American-style, personality-based campaigning?
Amroliwala: It always ends up like this. I remember covering elections with John Major, with Tony Blair, with Gordon Brown. By the time you’re nearing the end of a government, usually that government is fairly unpopular. Individual MPs are very aware of that sort of backdrop and naturally distance themselves from their leaders. So, you quite often get situations where the election information they push through people’s letterboxes doesn’t have a reference to their own party leaders. Look at Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, having to apologize for doing a complete about-turn on tuition fees. Before the last election he said unequivocally that there’d be no increase in tuition fees, and then he goes into government, and they tripled! That has caused an absolute meltdown in Liberal Democrat support, so you have Liberal Democrats now who campaign with no reference to Nick Clegg in their campaign material. The same is true of some Conservative MPs who think that David Cameron isn’t particularly helpful to them. And the same is actually also true for Ed Miliband in part, because he’s taken a lot of hits about his personality, his awkwardness, over the last few years. Certain MPs have slightly distanced themselves from him and just talked about their work for the local constituency and hoped that that is enough to get them re-elected. It’s not a system with proportional representation, so you have individual constituencies with individual MPs and what those MPs do is a sort of saving-their-own-skin-type default approach. For a lot of MPs, that’s how they try desperately to buck the trend of whatever the polling is in their area and hang on.

The European: Who do you think will be the leader of the UK on May 8?
Amroliwala: It’s really difficult to say. One of our most respected pollsters, Peter Kellner, recently likened this election campaign to the trenches of the First World War. You’ve had loads of noise and fury, but neither side has really moved anywhere in this campaign. And actually it’s true that, in terms of polling, there hasn’t been a huge amount of movement. The Conservatives’ hope going in was that there’d be more movement their way once they got into an election campaign. Being in government, they sort of accepted that Labour would be slightly ahead through the years of unpopular government decisions. I think the hope was that with the economy coming through, with a long election campaign of six weeks, they would have nudged ahead more convincingly, and that hasn’t happened. Having said that, Labour too would have been hoping to put more distance between themselves and the Conservatives, and that hasn’t happened either. So, unless all the polls are wrong, it looks likely there will be a hung parliament. Then the math is really complicated about who can get to that magic number of 326 MPs. The current thought is that the Conservatives likely can’t get there, whereas Labour just might with the support of the SNP. So there are a fair number of people who think that, even though Labour might end up with fewer seats than the Conservatives, as a bloc together with the SNP and other left-leaning parties, they might just have enough in terms of the numbers. But, with the margins of error being as they are with any sort of polling, that could easily be off, and Conservatives could get there after all.

The European: So it really is too close to call?
Amroliwala: Coming full circle to where we started, that is why this election is really so exciting, because it is genuinely very, very difficult to call. You have the voting results, how the parties do their horse-trading, and who individually walks through the door of Number 10 at the end of that horse-trading. It could end up being quite a long period before we find out. The election’s on Thursday, we’ll get the results Friday, but then how long will it be before we get into a position where somebody can form a government? That may take days, or weeks. We got a coalition agreement quite quickly last time, and a formal coalition. We’re not going to get that this time. All the indications are that there will be probably a minority government, loosely working together as parties. This is massively new territory for the UK. The rest of Europe has gotten used to coalitions, but we only just had our first one in generations last time around. This time it looks like we’re heading for minority government, and that leads to all kinds of questions. Who will it be as Prime Minister? How much will it get done? How stable is it? There are a million and one questions, and we’re not that far away from knowing the real answers.

Did you like the conversation? Read one with John Major: “We are the grit in the oyster”


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