LONDON -- Britain stood at the edge of its future yesterday as the prospect loomed that the Labor Party, led by the loquacious Welshman, Neil Kinnock, would be coming into power following today's election.
But there are no certainties. And Prime Minister John Major reasserted his conviction yesterday that the polls are wrong, that he and the Conservatives would be returned for a fourth $H consecutive term with a working majority in the House of Commons.
The polls over the three weeks of the campaign have kept Labor slightly ahead, by two or three points.
This narrow margin has created a strong expectation that the PTC election will result in a hung Parliament, a situation in which no party will win an overall majority of seats.
Over 43 million people can vote. The closeness of the contest is expected to produce a high turnout, about 76 percent.
The Conservatives know that the polls are susceptible to a three-point margin of error, which they say could conceal a bare lead. But it could also conceal an even greater Labor one.
The Conservative Party, throughout the course of the campaign, has tried to exploit fears over what might happen should Labor win.
Mr. Major and his ministers have predicted deeper recession, further unemployment, a resurgence of destructive industrial strikes, riots in the streets, and even the breakup of the United Kingdom -- this latter a consequence of Labor's plans to transfer local authority to Scotland (which most Scots want) through a devolved parliament.
Jitters governed in the stock market, and panic reigned in some other financial sectors.
The Conservative scare strategy is also aimed at winning those voters who told pollsters that they had not yet decided whom they would vote for. The Conservatives say these voters, faced with the "stark choice" Mr. Major says they face, will support them.
Labor, for its part, feels it has won back the confidence of the British people, lost more than a dozen years ago by a weak, union-ridden Labor government that nearly brought the country to ruin.
Now, Labor says, it is the Conservatives who have done this, by engineering two major recessions in Britain in the past 13 years, the currentone the longest since the 1930s.
The Conservatives, Mr. Kinnock said in Lancashire this week, are "asking people to treat what they have done as a success. After all they have done, they do not deserve to be re-elected."
Labor believes it will win because of the ravaged economy. Its strategy was to win back the hundreds of thousands of skilled and semi-skilled workers attracted to the Conservative Party by Mr. Major's predecessor, Margaret Thatcher.
Polls also say that Labor has been gaining in what are called the "marginal constituencies" in Northwest England, the Midlands and London.
In a way, the people in the marginals will decide the election. These are the the constituencies, about 80, where the Conservatives won in 1987 with a majority of 15 percent or less and which now may swing to Labor. Sometimes the majority is very small. The Conservative member for York, for instance, won his seat by only 147 votes.
A hung Parliament could give the third of Britain's major parties, the Liberal Democrats, a decisive role in deciding the country's immediate future. Its leader, Paddy Ashdown, could agree to support the party that wins the most seats but falls short of an absolute majority of 326 seats.
Should the Labor Party be that party, an agreement, or coalition of some sort, might be expected, since the policies of these two parties are not vastly different. But should it be the Conservatives, an agreement is highly unlikely.
In the event of a hung Parliament, and in the absence of an agreement or coalition, whichever party has the most seats might try to govern. But such minority governments are liable to fall on any major issue, which could force another general election.
This nobody wants. But it's what Britain might get.
House of Commons seats at stake.. . .... ... ....... ....651.
Needed for majority. . ..... ...... ..... ...... .... 326.
Number of candidates. ... .... .... ... ...... ..... 2,903.
Eligible voters. ..... ....... .... ... ... ....43.6 million.
Voting hours.. . . 7 a.m. (3 a.m. EDT) to 10 p.m. (6 p.m. EDT.)
Popular vote in 1987: In the most recent election: Conservatives, 42.3 percent; Labor, 30.8 percent; Liberal-Social Democratic Alliance, 22.6 percent; others, 4.3 percent.
Seats won in 1987: Conservatives, 376; Labor, 229; Liberals, 17; Ulster Unionists, 9; Social Democrats, 5; Scottish National, 3; Plaid Cymru, 3; Democratic Unionists, 3; Social Democratic and Labor, 3; Ulster Popular Unionist, 1; Sinn Fein, 1.