After Brown's Gaffe: Can Anyone Win the U.K. Election?

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Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

Prime Minister Gordon Brown attends a party poster launch

"The time for debates has finished, and the time for decisions has begun," said Gordon Brown on April 30. The previous evening, Britain's Prime Minister had failed to sink his challengers, Conservative David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, in the final televised leaders' debate ahead of the May 6 election. Now, flanked by Cabinet ministers, he was preparing to launch campaign posters inscribed with Labour's folksy closing plea to voters: DON'T FORGET TO VOTE LABOUR, MUM. As the party's big beasts lined up on the podium, a screech of brakes and the unmistakable noise of crunching metal and splintering glass added an unexpected resonance to the event. Witnesses report that a garbage-truck driver had slowed down to peer — or jeer — at his Prime Minister. A car, possibly attempting to overtake the truck, lost control. Labour's slow-motion car crash of an election campaign had finally occasioned a real one.

With polling day less than a week away, it's hard to find a Labour activist who really believes the party can win the election. The question troubling many such activists is whether the party can survive the election. The mood in the Labour camp hasn't been helped by "bigotgate," Brown's cringe-making gaffe in which he dismissed a voter he had just publicly schmoozed as "just a sort of bigoted woman." The private comment to aides was broadcast over a radio microphone the Prime Minister had accidentally left attached to his lapel after a TV interview.

But even before the PM's blunder, Labour was already in deep trouble. The first two TV debates sent some Britons into Cleggstacy, bouncing the Liberal Democrats ahead of Labour in many opinion polls and leaving Labour facing the possibility of coming in third in the popular vote. A devastating defeat on Thursday could see Labour consigned to the wilderness for years, perhaps even elbowed aside by the Lib Dems just as the Labour Party supplanted the Lib Dems' forerunner party, the Liberals, back in the 1920s.

Yet some Labour loyalists and many voters of all persuasions are worried by a different scenario. Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system will likely give Labour more seats than the Lib Dems, even if the latter poll higher nationally. Labour could even emerge with more seats than the Conservatives despite a low share of the popular vote. And some Labour insiders fear that clinging to power in such circumstances would send demonstrators into the streets and earn the party the enduring enmity of voters.

With the Conservatives extending their lead, that particular danger appears to be receding, but the Conservatives are still falling short of the overall majority they crave. That could leave Cameron heading up a minority government, reliant on the Lib Dems or other parties such as the Ulster Unionists to push through legislation. The Tories devised a spoof political broadcast for the "Hung Parliament Party" to win over what one Conservative who's campaigning to be returned as an MP described to TIME as "the sort of light-blue Tories who switched sides to vote for [Labour's] Tony Blair and might be foolish enough to flirt with Clegg." The Hung Parliament Party's platform includes "behind-closed-door politics," "indecision and weak government," "more dithering policies than the other parties" and a pledge "to paralyze the U.K. economy."

The scare tactic may work, but young Britons appear to like the idea of a hung Parliament, which they believe might lead to reform of the voting system and a move toward a less adversarial political model. A Populus poll of 18-to-24-year-olds found that 47% of respondents favored power-sharing, compared with 39% across the electorate as a whole.

In the final days of the campaign, the Conservatives will forcefully put the case for majority government. But if Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, is right, they'd do well to temper their enthusiasm for outright victory. American economist David Hale revealed King's alleged private views in an April 28 interview with Australian television. "I saw the governor of the Bank of England last week when I was in London, and he told me whoever wins this election will be out of power for a whole generation because of how tough the fiscal austerity will have to be," said Hale.

With every party promising swingeing measures to slash Britain's budget deficit, a win on May 6 could indeed prove something of a poisoned chalice. Factor in the voting system that could theoretically deliver victory to a third-place party, and one thing becomes clear about this murkiest of British elections: the losers could win and the winners could lose.