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A two-horse race or a hung parliament?

The UK is in the grip of election fever, and elections – like wars – always give rise to new words and phrases. Like the last US presidential election, this is the first major British one of the Web 2.0 era. This adds to the unpredictability of it all, and ensures that anything interesting spreads at the speed of light. One effect is that the parties have almost abandoned the use of big posters: earlier in the campaign, every new poster that was unveiled was almost instantly ‘vandalized’ and circulated on the net with a new (and uncomplimentary) caption.

The campaign’s biggest gaffe came when Prime Minister Gordon Brown had a friendly chat with a member of the public, then drove off muttering that she was a ‘bigoted woman’ – not realizing that his radio microphone was still on. Within seconds, the clip went viral, and a new word was born: bigotgate (by analogy with Watergate and all the other –gate words). As I write, there are over 200,000 instances of bigotgate on Google.

The other big story is that (surprisingly) this is the first time there have been televised debates between the party leaders. The TV stations have a group of floating voters watching the debate, equipped with electronic voting pads. As each leader speaks, the audience reaction can be monitored from minute to minute, and the results are displayed in the form of a line that wriggles up and down in response to positive or negative feelings: this is called the worm. You can see the worm in action in this video:

As a consequence of the debates, the election is no longer a two-horse race. Until now, British elections (just like those in the US) have been dominated by two major parties. The newspapers even talk about Buggins’ turn – the idea that when one party has been in power for some time, the other one deserves a go.

But this time it’s different. Nick Clegg, leader of the third-largest party (the Liberal Democrats), and up to now not very well known, took part in the debates on equal terms with the Labour and Conservative leaders. The general view was that he performed well, and suddenly the race was wide open. Some papers talked about Cleggmania (echoing the Obamania that swept the US in 2008), while supporters said they were in Cleggstasy (a political nerd’s version of ecstasy). The big question now is whether the election will lead to a hung parliament – the most frequently looked-up word in the Macmillan Dictionary during the past week or so. The two largest parties issued dire warnings about the dangers of a coalition government, so supporters of the idea gave it a less scary name: not a ‘hung’ parliament but a ‘balanced’ parliament. For once, the experts don’t have a clue what will happen, and parliament may already be hung by the time you read this.

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Michael Rundell


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