These are grim times in the world for anyone to the Left of, say, generalissimo Augusto Pinochet, what with, well, just about everything. So one of the few bright spots to lead us on our way is the series of elections, starting with the 2014 Victorian contest, that look to have right-wing governments falling on their faces. The possibility of a Queensland upset was a pleasant surprise, and then we were supposed to kick on to the defeat of the UK’s Cameron government, the election of the (hahahaha) progressivist Hillary Clinton, and then the ritual burning at the stake of the bad Abbott.

But oh noes, our fun little parade might be in trouble, with the UK election going wobbly on us. This was meant to be a slam dunk: there are 650 seats in the Commons, and they’re drawn along traditional community lines, town boundaries, valleys, rivers and so on. Because of suburbanisation, that gives Labour a whole series of underpopulated inner-city seats and a 3% advantage before anything’s even started. This time around, they gained a second advantage, with the rise of the UK Independence Party, the one-time centrist anti-EU party, moved rightwards over the past decade or so by its pint-swilling leader, priapic Toby Jug Nigel Farage. A former city bond trader and a Thatcher-worshipper, Farage has reinvented himself and his party by relying on the deepest resources of British politics: the urge to comedy, indeed pantomime.

As one crackpot UKIP candidate after another has had to quit after being caught saying that gays cause global warming by stealing the oxygen, or that Romanians have gills, Farage has used the ridicule to create a party identity. We’re not the folks who get things right, the schtick said, we’re not like politicians. We’re more like you. We don’t have all the facts, but we know what we think. Only in a culture where every Christmas, every X-Factor loser and soap star spends six weeks playing Widow Twankey on a seaside pier could this survive as a strategy. It makes Palmer United look like the Oxford General Synod.

This malarkey, plus a basic anti-EU, anti-open immigration message, has boosted the party to polling 11% for the upcoming general election (in the EU election, ironically, UKIP is the largest party, and effectively represents the UK there). Though right-wing papers like the Daily Mail like to say that those votes are coming from Labour as well as Tories, that a) doesn’t matter much because the “old Labour” votes they come from are safe old industrial Labour seats, and b) it’s not very true. Some 80% of UKIP’s votes are Tory crossovers. Were they to stay at 11% across the board, the Tories are gone. It would gut them in a whole range of constituencies, especially those where the Lib-Dems could field some of their vote from the Right side of their supporters.

The assumption is that it won’t, that many natural Tories are just sick of the puff-faced, cowpat old Etonians who aren’t giving them the pleasant whoosh that Thatcher did. Cameron has promised them a referendum on EU membership in 2017, if re-elected — even though the Tories themselves would then campaign to stay in the Union, which drives them mad. But as the election narrows, and in the privacy of the booth — ah, how delicious is the privacy of the booth — they’ll come back to Mother Party; working out by how much turns any real election forecast into guesswork. Past results say that minor parties halve their support, but this ain’t a normal time. If UKIP’s vote doesn’t come back below 8% — which would be up to 20% in their core seats — the Tories are in deep trouble.

With a four-party contest, Labour was on track to win 37%-31% — putting Labour in striking distance of a majority in its own right. But then the election became a five-party contest, and then a six-party contest. The fifth party is the Scottish National Party, which has enjoyed a huge rise in its support since the losing independence referendum, much of it taken from Labour, which had urged a “yes” vote.

“But the real threat to Labour comes from the Green party … no one saw this coming, and anyone who says they did is a liar.”

For decades, Labour voters have been wary of the SNP as the “Tartan Tories” — it was their vote that toppled the Callaghan government and ushered in Thatcher. But in the past decade the SNP has reinvented itself as a social democratic party that is going to create a Scandinavian-style Scotland using the oil that their canny leader Alex Salmond is going to find by drilling in the party’s own arse, apparently, as the price goes south. The SNP has ratcheted up to the point where they could now take up to 40 of the 49 seats Labour holds in Scotland. That won’t hold, but even if it falls back to 25, it will leave Labour short of a majority (which were the seats they worried they’d lose if Scotland left), scrabbling it together from the SNP and the Lib-Dems, with the prospect of another election later in the year, should such a coalition fall apart. The leader of the SNP in the Commons will be … Alex Salmond, who resigned from the Scottish Parliament the night of the referendum result and started heading south. Salmond is Keating-level parliamentary firepower, capable of sashimi-ing whatever dog-food leaders the major parties throw up post May.

But the real threat to Labour comes from the Green party, which is now heading towards 11%. No one saw this coming, and anyone who says they did is a liar. The Greens currently have one seat, Brighton, basically a St Kilda hived off from the city of London proper. The Green MP, the rather mild-mannered Caroline Lucas, is not the party leader — wisely, she was replaced with Natalie Bennett, an Australian long-time resident in the UK who has a voice that could crack a crystal bong in an Earls Court squat at 40 paces. She and the Greens have benefited hugely from a recent decision by the broadcasting regulator to not grant the party a place in the new, expanded election debates (which UKIP got into) that are not likely to happen anyway.

The Greens were on 7% at that point, about a month ago, running just above the hapless, loathed Liberal Democrats, who are actually in government. Despite that number holding consistent over months, they couldn’t get in (they’re challenging the decision in court), and the publicity they’ve gained has been invaluable. Bennett is confident, direct and to-the-point, where Labour leader Ed Miliband is a diffident Hampstead intellectual with more hang-ups than a Warren Truss phone sex line, and many of the Lib-Dem defectors from the party’s Left have simply bypassed Labour and gone straight to the Greens. Trouble is, very little of it is sufficiently grouped. The Greens may have a chance of a seat in Cambridge, and one in the once-feral, now-hipster zone of Bristol East, but that’s about it — and they may simply be fighting to retain Brighton. If they keep these levels up, they could do a lot more damage to Labour than UKIP does to the Tories. So Labour and the Greens are now playing a game of chicken. They should come to an agreement that would give the Greens a free run in a few seats in exchange for withdrawing from key Labour marginals, but Labour is as loath to do that in the UK as in Australia — and without the excuse of exhaustive preferential voting. It could be a disastrous resolve.

Leaving the Greens’ seat tally at one, the possible combinations remain dizzying. What the Lib-Dem vote will be is another unknowable. Its current polling at 7% is due to spitting white-hot anger at its betrayals, principally on tripling university tuition fees to 9000 pounds a year. But many of its supporters may come back, especially in the 75 or so seats where it is competitive — due to a decade of canny, focused campaigning — and the 58 it won in 2010. It could be cut to 30 seats, or even closer to 20.

Should it fall that the SNP have 23-28 seats, the Lib-Dems 20-28, and UKIP five to six, then the Tories, with a plurality of seats, may cobble something together with the latter two. If it’s close either way, then Labour would have greater claim with the implicit support of the SNP. But it may even come down to a wooing of the very minor parties — the one or two Greens, one or two Plaid Cymru (Welsh nationalists), a stray independent or two, and the Northern Irish protestant parties. There’s a possibility that the implicit, final balance of power may be held by the Sinn Fein MPs, who do not take their seats in the House of Commons on the principle of abstentionism.

Should it get down to that — and how great would that be, almost better than a Labour victory — then another election would be in the offing in a few months, as happened in the ’70s. This time, however, there’s no guarantee that the major-party vote would reconsolidate for a clear result. Indeed, it may exacerbate the fracturing. At that point, first-past-the-post would have to be hanging in the balance. And that is what’s really at stake in this election: a fundamental change in the way that power is exercised in the UK.

Peter Fray

Save 50% on a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

The US election is in a little over a month. It seems that there’s a ridiculous twist in the story, almost every day.

Luckily for new Crikey subscribers, we’ve teamed up with one of America’s best publications, The Atlantic for the election race. Subscribe now to make sense of it all, and you’ll get a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year’s digital subscription to The Atlantic (usually $70AUD), BOTH for just $129.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW