Tuesday 25 July 2017

Too close to call: Who will win keys to number 10?

Next Thursday's poll is the closest British election battle for decades. From 'Irish' Kilburn to Kent and the Midlands, our reporter goes on the campaign trail

British prime minister David Cameron
British prime minister David Cameron
Labour leader Ed Miliband
Admired: SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

When I see the British Labour leader Ed Miliband up close and personal he looks shiny and slick. The glistening white teeth and the jet black mane give him the other-worldly demeanour of a man who would look more comfortable on the set of Star Trek than a political soap box.

I am there for his speech to the party faithful in Islington in North London and it is meticulously stage managed, with directions issued by a floor manager with a microphone and headpiece.

The organisation of the event was all very hush hush. I was first invited to attend a speech by the Labour leader at an undisclosed secret location in central London.

It was only when I confirmed my attendance that the venue was revealed; so there would be no danger of heckling interlopers and malcontents in the Almeida Theatre.

While in Irish election campaigns, candidate and leaders move freely among the electorate, facing whatever abuse that is hurled at them as they go, British politicians are cosseted away.

Every move is planned so that they do not have to meet ordinary members of the public. Perish the thought.

Every party campaign manager lives in fear of a Gillian Duffy moment. That was the incident in 2010 when the then prime minister Gordon Brown met a voter, and she berated him about immigration. Brown was caught out when he left his microphone on, and was overheard referring to Ms Duffy as a "bigot".

In his early years as leader, Miliband seemed like an awkward geek.

But he has proved himself to be a much tougher campaigner than the Conservative prime minister David Cameron might have bargained for.

Britain goes to the polls next Thursday with all the indicators showing that its traditional two-party system is fragmenting, as the Scottish Nationalists overwhelm Labour in Scotland, and the Tory vote is squeezed by the right-wing UK Independence Party in England.

Andrew Russell, Professor of Politics at Manchester University, says: "It is a seismic shift, and no party will have an overall majority.

"Miliband has been more sure-footed on the campaign trail than people thought, while early in the campaign David Cameron seemed aloof, refusing to take part in some of the TV debates."

Who would have thought that the geekish Miliband would become the target of adoration among teenage girls, using the Twitter hashtag Milifandom?

In the flesh, there is a certain charisma, and if you gaze at him with your eyes out of focus, you might imagine him as a lesser member of a boyband.

In the crowd in Islington, Neil Kinnock, the former leader and now a grandfatherly figure, can be heard across the hall with his sonorous Welsh lilt as he utters the words "Hear, hear!" as Ed delivers his well-honed platitudes.

When I meet him afterwards, Kinnock graciously offers congratulations to Ireland on winning the Six Nations rugby championship.

He is keen to talk about the most significant potential impact on Ireland if the Tories win. David Cameron has promised a referendum on whether Britain leaves the EU.

"It would be disastrous for Ireland and Europe. If the Conservatives win, we will be plunged into two years of uncertainty over whether Britain stays in the EU.

"Cameron is only holding a referendum because he doesn't have the backbone to lead his own party on this issue."

There is no doubt that Cameron's government has steadied the economy since 2010, and unemployment at 5.6pc is extremely low by Irish standards.

As a city, London is vibrant as ever, and has lost much of its shabbiness.

Trains are slicker, faster and more punctual than during the Thatcher years, when I lived in England, but also much more expensive.

The Tory message on Labour and the economy is the same one that Fine Gael might deliver about Fianna Fáil at the next election - "They crashed the car. Don't give them back the keys."

But like the Irish recovery, the British economic uplift is not accompanied by any great feel-good factor, according to Professor Andrew Russell.

When I visited Solihull near Birmingham, voters were complaining that wages have fallen by 11pc since David Cameron entered government.

Cameron lacks the populist touch of Mrs Thatcher, or even John Major. At the bus stop in Solihull, where the Conservatives are bidding to win back a seat off the Liberal Democrats, Sarah Richards says: "The problem with Cameron is that he is there for the millionaires and billionaires."

Cameron's attempts to roll up his sleeves and deliver barnstorming rabble-rousing speeches have largely fallen flat; a week ago one such oration proved embarrassing when he talked about supporting West Ham, somehow forgetting that he had previously declared his undying love for Aston Villa. The Villa fans won't forget that.

The first thing you notice when out on the political stump in Britain is an eerie absence of posters. Unlike in Ireland, politicians are not allowed to litter lamp posts with their photoshopped mugshots.

As one German colleague noted, if you don't watch the BBC or Sky News, you might not notice there is an election on at all.

Candidates do not bump into each other as they try to evade dogs and talk to voters over garden fences.

In the house where I was staying in Holland Park in London, they had only been canvassed by one candidate, the sitting Conservative.

That is not to say that there is not a bitterly fought ground war going on, and that the parties do not plan their campaigns with utmost precision.

The strategists target voters relentlessly with the help of computer programmes and focus groups, but they have to be the right voters - those who will swing the vote in marginal seats, where there is a close contest.

When I joined up with the Labour canvassers in Kilburn and ­Hampstead, I found that they already knew which way many of householders in an area of council housing were voting.

They had been canvassing the area for two years.

Mary O'Reardon, a party worker originally from Dublin, said outside one door: "The woman here said she was voting Labour two days ago."

Kilburn is still the most Irish area in London, but it has recently become more gentrified, and some will tell you it is less Irish than it used to be.

While the new Irish immigrants tend to spread out across the capital, Kilburn has a high population of older Irish immigrants, typically builders who arrived in the 1950s.

"There is still a very strong Irish buzz," says Labour councillor Rita Conneely, whose family came originally from Co Galway. "Lots of Irish people come here to visit their relatives, and they find that they like the atmosphere."

I met a Mayo man, who arrived in 1962, outside a paper shop which sold up to 40 local Irish papers. He seemed more interested in Enda Kenny and the whole Siteserv business than whether Cameron was a worthy leader.

Kilburn and Hampstead is being saturated with canvassers, because at the last general election it was won by the film star Glenda Jackson for Labour by just 42 votes, making it the most marginal constituency in the country.

Thursday's election remains on a knife edge, and political pundits believe that it could be decided by as few as 30,000 swing voters in marginal constituencies.

It is these voters who will be love-bombed with phone calls and personal visits in the coming days.

As Andrew Russell of Manchester University puts it: "If you have not been identified as a target voter in a particular seat, the chance that you will not be contacted at all by a candidate are quite high."

To many, that would be merciful relief.

The key battles

MILIBAND vs CAMERON

Labour's Miliband was under-estimated as a campaigner, and early on the Conservative leader seemed complacent, but he has come out fighting in recent days. Jeremy Paxman says: "It seems like the choice between a flea and a louse."

SCOTLAND

The decimation of Labour and the other parties in Scotland by the Scottish National Party is likely to be the most significant result of the election. Based on a midweek poll, the SNP could even win all 59 Scottish seats. Leader Nicola Sturgeon  is admired in the same way as Margaret Thatcher was. On the campaign trail one hears remarks like "she's a feisty one".

The result forecast

Electionforecast.co.uk, a site run by university academics, predicts that no party will win over 326 seats, the magic number required for a majority.

The Conservatives are forecast to win 279 and Labour 270, but Labour is more likely to attract the support of other parties needed to form a government.

If no coalition can form a majority, a deal with smaller parties could allow a minority Labour or Conservative government to govern on an ad hoc basis.

Paddy Power has Ed Miliband as the odds-on 8/13 favourite to be Prime Minister.

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