British Prime Minister Gordon Brown ran third behind the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in three polls late yesterday by margins that, because of uneven vote distribution, may still give his Labour Party the most seats in Parliament after next week’s election.
The wrinkle is the record number of undecided voters, which has created what Brown calls a “wide open” election. Conservative leader David Cameron is stepping up his campaign to attract those who, disillusioned after 13 years of Labour government, could make him prime minister.
“People have normally made up their minds a couple of weeks before this stage,” said Anthony Wells of pollster YouGov Plc. “If we’ve had one big switch during the campaign, anything could happen.”
Last night’s polls were the latest to suggest the May 6 election may produce the first Parliament since 1974 in which no party wins a majority. Support for the Liberal Democrats has surged since their leader, Nick Clegg, 43, was judged the winner of the first televised debate in polls following the April 15 event. Labour was third in 24 of the last 30 polls. If that result is borne out in next week’s voting, it would be the worst result for the party since 1918.
The Conservatives will tonight air a television spot telling those who want change that voting for any other party might keep Brown, 59, in office at the head of a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.
While support for the Liberal Democrats has jumped about 10 percentage points since the debate, a YouGov poll completed April 23 found 27 percent of their supporters would consider switching. That compared with 17 percent of those who back the Conservatives and 15 percent for Labour.
Cameron yesterday began targeting districts held by Labour that the Conservatives had previously viewed as not winnable. That was an acknowledgement that they might now be unable to seize control of about 20 Liberal Democrat-held seats they need to win to gain a House of Commons majority.
“We have extended our battleground,” Cameron, 43, said as he headed to the southern coastal city of Southampton.
A daily ComRes Ltd. opinion poll published last night found 32 percent of respondents supporting the Conservatives, with 31 percent backing Clegg’s party and 28 percent for Labour.
Translated into seats in the House of Commons, that would give Labour 268 seats, 58 short of a majority, the Conservatives 238 and the Liberal Democrats 112, according to ComRes, whose poll was based on 1,003 telephone calls with voters on April 24. No margin of error was given.
The ComRes numbers are in line with an ICM poll for the Guardian and a YouGov poll for The Sun. ICM showed support for the Conservatives at 33 percent, with the Liberal Democrats at 30 percent and Labour at 28 percent. YouGov had Cameron’s party at 33 percent, 4 points ahead of the Liberal Democrats and 5 points ahead of Labour.
“In polling terms, he’s dead in the water,” ComRes Chairman Andrew Hawkins said of Brown. “The only asset they’ve got is the electoral mathematics. They could easily become the largest party on a very small share of the vote.”
An outcome in which Brown loses the popular vote and wins the most seats -- and the first crack at forming a government -- would push an overhaul of the voting system to the top of the post-election agenda just as investors and credit-rating companies seek swift action to reduce the U.K.’s mounting debt.
The pound has declined 4.3 percent this year against the dollar. It would be vulnerable to sharper declines should political wrangling detract from action to bolster the economy and cut the budget deficit, said Mike Turner, head of strategy at Aberdeen Asset Management Plc in Edinburgh.
“The fear is you don’t get any clarity, immediately anyway, and it still hits sterling,” said Turner.
Clegg said April 25 it would be “preposterous” for Brown to stay on if Labour comes in third.
“It’s the sort of thing that’s so absurd it would lead to change,” said Bill Dinning, head of strategy at Aegon Asset Management in Edinburgh. “One of the effects is electoral reform is on the agenda.”
Each of the three main parties is advocating some sort of electoral change, and the tighter the result, the more such debate will dominate the post-election agenda, according to Nicola McEwen, a politics lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.
‘Weakness of the System’
“It would show that people wanted to kick the government out, so the weakness of the system will be exposed,” she said. “There would have to be a referendum on political reform.”
In each of the 650 electoral districts, voters cast their ballots for a single member of Parliament, and the winner is the one with the most support. The so-called first-past-the-post system doesn’t necessarily mean the party with the biggest proportion of the national vote comes away with the most seats in London’s Westminster parliament. That’s complicated further when another party is added to the mix.
“It’s a third party entering a system designed for a two-party world like in the U.S.,” said Charles Pattie, a geography professor at the University of Sheffield. “You could have all three parties tied on about 30 percent and Labour just about reaching the winning post. It’s quirky and weird.”