In Search of Britain’s Swing Vote

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While trapped in the United Kingdom by volcanic ash, I decided to visit one of the dozen crucial swing constituencies to find out what British voters are thinking ahead of next week’s general election. Over the past decade, I’ve canvassed thousands of voters in just about every swing state: I once spent two days in Pennsylvania exurban gas stations looking for voter reaction to gas prices; I’ve canvassed Texas cattle shows and I’m more  familiar than I care to be with Florida’s senior centers. British voters, it turns out, are a breed apart.

The British elections are reaching their crescendo with the final debate due to take place this. The first two debates – the first time in British history that candidates have debated on tv — thus far have already had a big impact on the race, propelling third party candidate Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg ahead of Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Clegg is now neck and neck with Conservative Party Leader David Cameron in most polls. Clegg’s danger to Cameron is two-fold: he draws more votes from Cameron than Labour’s Brown and a strong Liberal Democrat showing could lead to a hung Parliament, making Clegg a king maker and more likely to make a deal with Labour the Conservatives.

I chose the town of Guildford, a 38-minute train ride from London, because it’s a seat the Liberal Democrat hope to take from the Conservatives. Presumably, if there’s a Liberal Democrat surge, there’d be evidence of it here. In fact, Guildford was where Clegg unveiled his manifesto (known as a platform in America). Guildford is essentially part of the suburbs of greater London, and is known for its great shopping — lots of malls, though a little more urbanized than the strip variety found in American suburbia: many are within walking distance of the railway station. Its population is mostly white and middle class, although some immigrants are now finding their way onto Guildford’s lanes.

I parked myself at the bus stop in front of the Marks & Spencer (think Target) on the High Street (Main Street). “Excuse me, sir? Ma’am?” And for an hour people would look at my press credentials and rudely either walk away, put a hand to my face (literally, talk to the hand!) or utter “No, thanks,” and scuttle off. I spoke to two people in 65 minutes — in the U.S., even in New York, a city famous for its rudeness, I’d have easily interviewed 20 people in the same period. Folks waiting for the bus told me, “I’m sorry, I don’t have time,” and then would proceed to stand next to me staring blankly into the street for five minutes until the bus came.

But, finally, when people did begin to talk others became curious and would stop as well. Of the 14 people I interviewed in three hours five were voting conservative, six Liberal Democrat and two were undecided. Right now the Conservatives have a small lead in all the daily polls, but to unseat Labour and to avoid a hung Parliament they would need a bigger lead. Unfortunately, Britain doesn’t do my favorite kind of polls: voter enthusiasm. In the U.S. you can always tell which party has momentum by how much enthusiasm voters express about going to the polls. Ahead of the 2008 presidential elections, Democratic enthusiasm was sky high. Ahead of the 2009 gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, Republicans had the momentum. What enthusiasm tells you is how many volunteers are going to go out and canvas and take the time to drive granny to the ballot box.In my own little, unofficial poll, Liberal Democrats definitely had the enthusiasm. All six LibDem supporters gushed about Clegg’s debates and how he’s a fresh face who’ll bring change to a stale two-party system. One voter, Richard Casey, 75, a retired technician, was such a huge Clegg fan he planned to switch his vote from Labour to Liberal Democrat just so he could be part of the surge. It would be the first time in Casey’s life he’ll have voted for any party other than Labour. In the last election in 2005 Labour garnered less than 10% of the vote in this district. “I know it’s been a bit of a wasted vote I the past,” Casey sighed, “but this time, it certainly won’t be. I’m going to help swing this borough LibDem.

The British system is different than in the U.S. in that voters don’t actually vote for Prime Minister, they vote for their local Member of Parliament – so parochial loyalties also come into play. Sharon Webb, 54, a housewife, said she’d voted LibDem in the past but has become attached to the local Conservative MP, Anne Milton. She’s been impressed by Clegg but the top of the ticket won’t sway her local party loyalties. And while the Liberal Democratic supporters have been energized by the debates, three out of the five Conservative voters said they were leery of what they called Clegg’s skirting of the illegal immigration issue in last week’s debate. “Clegg is for allowing illegal immigrants amnesty, by all accounts,” said John Rouse, 77, a taxi driver. “If you do that you are totally disregarding the law.”

The two undecided voters were an 18-year-old girl who hadn’t had time to read about the candidates yet and Jill Bottick, 54, a housewife. Bottick voted Conservative last time but she’s sorely tempted by Clegg and the change message this time. Plus, she’s not a huge fan of Cameron. “I feel like he’s trying to sell me something,” she says. But she remains undecided and may tune in to Thursday’s final debate to make her decision. When we were done talking, Bottick lingered by the bus stop benches behind me, watching bemusedly as I tried in vain to get others to speak to me. After a few minutes she murmured to me, “See, they think you’re trying to sell them something,” she laughed. “Sorry.”