Tight election battle as UK voters go to the polls
In the closest general election in decades, British voters were choosing between candidates in a virtual dead heat today – circumstances that are widely predicted to produce an ambiguous result and lead to frantic political horse-trading.
Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives and Ed Miliband's Labour Party are running neck and neck, and neither looks able to win a majority of Parliament's 650 seats.
Many voters are turning elsewhere – chiefly to the separatist Scottish National Party, which will dominate north of the border, and the anti-immigrant UK Independence Party. UKIP is third in opinion polls but Britain's electoral system means it can win at most a handful of seats.
If no party wins outright, it may take days or weeks of negotiation to forge a workable government.
The carefully stage-managed campaign lacked impromptu drama. But television debate appearances in which the public put questions directly to the politicians made plain that many distrust promises to safeguard the economy, preserve the National Health Service from severe cutbacks and control the number of migrants from the European Union.
Cameron and Miliband were both up early to vote. The prime minister voted in his Oxfordshire constituency with his wife, Samantha, while Miliband cast his ballot alongside his wife, Justine, in northern England. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg walked hand-in-hand with his wife Miriam to the polls in the city of Sheffield.
Voters headed for schools, halls, pubs, gyms and churches to make their voices heard all across this island nation of 64 million people. In the bright early-morning sunshine in London, voters cast ballots at a polling station close to Parliament as police stood guard.
Signs of the unfolding political drama were all around. The squares opposite Parliament were packed with temporary outdoor television studios, while commuters picked up newspapers urging voters to the polls.
"It's going to be important for Britain for the next five years," said Gerry McQuillan, 61, an arts administrator voting Labour. "We're coming out of economic austerity but we've got to get the right government for the next five years."
Alexis Thomas, 34, a doctor, was mindful of all the predictions of a dead heat and wanted to make her voice heard.
"Because it's so tight, I think that if I didn't come out and vote, and didn't get the result that I wanted, then I'd only have myself to blame," Thomas said – though she wasn't saying what result that was.
About 50 million people were registered to vote, and early indications are that turnout will be high.
There was an excitement about taking part – if only for the pleasure of being involved in a big national event.