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In Britain, Coalition Government Eyed Ahead of Parliamentary Elections

May 5, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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British voters are preparing to weigh in at the polls in the country's general election on Thursday. Simon Marks previews the heated election as three political parties vie for a majority in Parliament.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, a very close British race on election eve.

NewsHour correspondent Simon Marks prepared this report.

LAURA EDGE, parliamentary candidate, Liberal Democrat Party: Thanks for your time. Thank you.

SIMON MARKS: Laura Edge has a spring in her step this springtime.

The 31-year-old lawyer is running for Parliament in Britain’s general election, representing the country’s traditional third-ranked party, the Liberal Democrats, in one of the country’s most closely contested districts. And like Liberal Democrats all over Britain, she is daring to dream that the country is on the eve of seismic political change.

LAURA EDGE: I hope so.

LAURA EDGE: I really, really hope so. And I think the thing is that lots of people do, because I think we really, really need a change.

SIMON MARKS: It’s been a whirlwind month since Prime Minister Gordon Brown, flanked by leading members of his governing Labor Party, announced the country’s general election outside his office, Number 10 Downing Street.

GORDON BROWN, British prime minister: The queen has kindly agreed to the dissolution of Parliament, and a general election will take place on May the 6th.

SIMON MARKS: The man who inherited Tony Blair’s mantle in 2007 is seeking the people’s mandate for another five years in office. When the campaign began, the major threat to that dream came from David Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservatives, and, three months ago, comfortably ahead in most polls.

DAVID CAMERON, leader, British Conservative Party: Do we want five more years of Gordon Brown? Or do we want change with the Conservatives, who have got the energy to really get this country moving?

SIMON MARKS: Inspired by the Republicans’ 1994 Contract With America, he signed a contract with Britain’s voters, promising to lead the country out of recession, clean up politics soiled by malfeasance in Parliament, and protect public services, like Britain’s government-run health care system.

But the traditional two-party battle between Labor and the Conservatives that has dominated the political landscape in Britain for nearly a century has been rocked by the performance of the Liberal Democrats, and, in particular, the televised performance of their leader, Nick Clegg.

MAN: Tonight, who do you want to be your next prime minister?

SIMON MARKS: Mr. Clegg has been catapulted to prominence by three American-style TV debates, the first in British political history. He’s sold himself as the solid, sensible alternative, able to deal with the domestic policy issues that have dominated the campaign and to reform and clean up Britain’s political system.

NICK CLEGG, Leader, U.K. Liberal Democrat Party: This is your election. This is your country. When you go vote next — next week, choose the future you really want. If you believe, like — like I do, that we can do things differently this time, then, together, we really will change Britain.

SIMON MARKS: And that has inspired Liberal Democrats all over the country, like candidate Laura Edge. The polls have shown that, for the first time in modern memory, it’s a three-horse race in the battle to win the largest number of seats in the country’s Parliament, and, with them, the chance to lead Britain’s next government.

LAURA EDGE: Especially talking to younger people, I do get the real feeling that they’re energized, and that the reason that they’re registering is because they’re intending to vote differently and vote Lib Dem. So, hopefully, it’s — it’s fairly solid.

SIMON MARKS: The district that Laura Edge is battling to represent in Parliament is Finchley and Golders Green in the northwest suburbs of London. An affluent area by national standards, its ethnic composition has changed over the last 20 years, as new migrants from Central and Eastern Europe have moved in alongside older Jewish and South Asian communities.

Its residents have felt the heat of Britain’s recession. Local businesses have failed. House prices have fallen. And many white-collar local residents either work in the city, London’s financial district, or work in the real estate business, both hard-hit by tough economic times.

MIKE FREER, parliamentary candidate, Conservative Party: Obviously, the key issue facing David Cameron, if he wins a majority and forms the government, is he has to get to grips with the economy. Unless we get the economy growing, nothing else can really be sorted out.

SIMON MARKS: Mike Freer is hoping to be part of David Cameron’s victory. He’s the Conservative Party candidate in Finchley and Golders Green, and he wants to be part of the area’s rich conservative tradition.

Pictures of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the local Conservative Party offices are a reminder that, throughout the 1970s and ’80s, this was her seat in Parliament. But Labor narrowly won here 13 years ago, and Mike Freer is battling on the doorstep.

MIKE FREER: Can we count on your support on Thursday?

MAN: Absolutely.

MIKE FREER: My view is that I think we will win with a majority, not only from what I see here a substantial swing to us. But, also, I speak to my colleagues who are fighting seats in the Midlands and in north of Manchester, and they’re finding the same response on the doorsteps, that they are expecting to win with a comfortable majority. So, I think David will pull it off.

SIMON MARKS: If that prediction is right, if David Cameron does find himself moving into Number 10 Downing Street on Friday morning, he may have this 65-year-old grandmother to thank.

Ten days ago, Gillian Duffy went shopping for a loaf of bread in the northern English town of Rochdale. There, she encountered Prime Minister Gordon Brown campaigning for votes. And, disillusioned with the performance of his governing Labor Party, she decided to give him a piece of her mind.

GILLIAN DUFFY, Britain: … don’t say anything about the immigrants because you’re saying that you’re — you’re — you — well, all these Eastern European what are coming in, where are they flocking from?

GORDON BROWN: A million people come from Europe, but a million people, British people, have gone into Europe. You do know there’s a lot of British people staying in Europe as well.

SIMON MARKS: And that’s where things would have ended, had it not been for the microphone Gordon Brown forgot he was wearing when he got into his official car and departed the scene.

GORDON BROWN: That was a disaster. Well, I just — should never have put me in with that woman. Whose idea was that? It’s just ridiculous.

MAN: What did she say?

GORDON BROWN: Oh, everything. She was just a sort of bigoted woman. She said she used be Labor.

SIMON MARKS: Mrs. Duffy, despite later receiving a personal visit and apology from Gordon Brown, says she certainly won’t vote for his Labor Party tomorrow.

Back in Finchley and Golders Green, the local Labor Party candidate, Alison Moore, is trying to make sure that area voters don’t follow suit.

ALISON MOORE, parliamentary candidate, Labor Party: You don’t know who you’re likely to vote for?

MAN: I have lost all respect for Gordon Brown altogether.

ALISON MOORE: All right. I think we will probably have to agree to differ there.

ALISON MOORE: Thanks very much, Mr. Pearson.

SIMON MARKS: On the doorstep, she promotes herself as a local candidate steeped in local issues. Gordon Brown? Almost an afterthought.

ALISON MOORE: Certainly, middle-aged and older voters remember the recessions of the ’80s and the ’90s, and they certainly don’t want to go back to a time when there were massive job losses and dozens — thousands and thousands of housing repossessions.

And Gordon Brown’s been very clear about that, and so I have no problem with standing up and talking about that, particularly as a local councillor who sees the value of local services locally.

SIMON MARKS: Gordon Brown has tried to portray himself as the steady hand on the country’s economic tiller, the man with a track record that proves he can help the country overcome its estimated $270 billion deficit. But his message, that he’s a man of substance, not style, hasn’t persuaded many of the voters in Finchley and Golders Green.

WOMAN: He doesn’t look very comfortable being the prime minister, to be honest, just on a personal level. I don’t think he — I don’t think he sends out a message that gives me a lot of confidence, just in the way he presents himself. And I don’t think he’s very articulate.

MAN: As a leader, I’m not comfortable with him. I think he’s a great guy and I think he did a good job with the economy. But he’s not a leader, and I think the country is tired of him. And we need someone fresh.

SIMON MARKS: There is no guarantee that the country will end up with someone fresh when the votes are counted in the early hours of Friday morning. Political analysts say the polls indicate virtually any result is possible: an outright victory by one of the major parties, or a lengthy period of horse-trading that leads to an era of coalition government for the first time since 1974.

And that’s remarkable, given that, just four months ago, one poll showed David Cameron’s Conservative Party, also known as the Tories, with a 17 percent lead.

ALEX STEVENSON, deputy editor, I spoke to a senior member of David Cameron’s shadow cabinet yesterday, and he said there was only a slim chance that the Tories were going to get an overall majority.

I think what the Tories realize is that they haven’t quite won the hearts of the British people in the same way that Tony Blair did in 1997, and it’s because of that failure to really win them over that it’s so unpredictable.

SIMON MARKS: In Finchley and Golders Green, conservative candidate Mike Freer is favored to win. But, like everyone else, he’s in for a long night of uncertainty tomorrow, as he waits to see just who will govern Britain.