As recent forecasts have made clear, the probability that the general election will result in one party being able to form a majority government is very low. In this post, Philip Cowley discusses four issues that ought to be given more consideration during discussions of various post-election scenarios.
At least this time it has dawned on people early that no party is likely to win a majority at the election. Last time, no matter what the polls said, many people just assumed that normal service would somehow continue on election night. This has triggered a sudden bout of post-election scenario discussions, which can very quickly get complicated and abstruse.
At times, it can feel a bit like those arguments you had as a child about who would win in a fight between Superman or Batman. (Superman, obviously.) So what would be useful would be a piece that would simplify things, and cut through the fog. This article is not that piece. Here, instead, are four things that are being missed in much of the discussion so far. I may merely be adding to the fog.
Majorities versus majorities
The first is the crucial distinction between entering Downing Street and being able to govern. This was one of the big, under-discussed issues in 2010. It was certainly possible to come up with scenarios then under which the Lib Dems could do deals with either Labour or the Conservatives. Both would have generated a majority and enough, therefore, to form a government. But only one (Con-Lib) generated a majority large enough to govern, day-in, day-out, on the run-of-the-mill legislation that is the stuff of government. The other (Lab-Lib and others) generated a bare majority, and had far too many moving parts.
And, as MPs have become increasingly independent-minded, so the size of a majority required to govern increases. Even with a majority of 80-plus, this government has been defeated in the Commons. This applies to a majority government too; you don’t have to be Mystic Meg to see the problems either a Conservative or Labour administration with a majority of 10 would face. But it could be a crucial factor in post-election negotiation.
We all assume the finishing line is around 323 seats (if Sinn Fein do as well as last time, and then don’t take their seats). But there’s little point in crossing the finishing line first if you soon fall back over it. Any deal that can guarantee significantly more than 323 on a regular basis will be prioritised over razor-thin deals.
Coalitions and “confidence and supply”
The second issue relates to the difference between a coalition and an agreement (of which a confidence and supply arrangement is the most commonly mentioned type, although there are plenty of others). They are often spoken about as if they are identical, but they are not. It would, for example, be difficult to see the Lib Dems in a formal coalition with Ukip. But it is much more imaginable to see a situation in which Ukip helped prop up a Conservative-Lib Dem minority coalition.
Where the difference is perhaps most important is with the SNP. The SNP may not form a coalition with either party, but they can still be significant. And here is where the difference between just winning Number 10 and be able to govern becomes more important. Whatever the size of their bloc after the next election, the SNP have almost no bargaining power in terms of the formation of a government. Having ruled out keeping the Conservatives in office, there is only one other option. But in terms of governing, a large chunk of SNP MPs could make life easy or hard for Labour, depending on what agreement can be reached.
How do you get to a second election?
The third issue relates to all these snap second elections we are forever told are being planned. As a crude rule of thumb, ignore any article or broadcast on this subject that does not at least discuss the problems caused by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2011. It is true that the FTPA allows various ways in which a second election might take place. One is for the government to lose a vote of confidence, and no alternative administration to be able to form within 14 days. But why assume no alternative would form? If you are the Opposition leader, you would at least try.
The second is for a super majority of the House (67 per cent) to vote for an early election. Various people seem to assume that if the governing party voted for that early election, the opposition would have to join in, for fear of looking frit. Maybe. But by its very nature, the point at which a Prime Minister wants to call an early election – because he or she thinks they might improve their position – is the point at which the Opposition would be most resistant.
Another option, of course, would be to repeal the Act, but to do that requires a majority, and a government would only to be trying to repeal it if it failed to win one. Plus, as Philip Norton and others have argued, repeal isn’t enough. You’d have to replace it, or at least amend it, as otherwise there would be no method to trigger dissolution.
At this point the House of Lords gets involved, where the party make up is similarly tricky, and things get tougher still. This isn’t to rule out the various multi-election scenarios being touted, just to note that it much harder than much of the discussion seems to assume.
Moreover – and this bit is key – if the government lacks a majority it is not in the sole power of the Prime Minister to decide this any more. A second election is easier to envision if a party wins a small majority (because it can no confidence itself and no other majority can form) than if it is a minority administration.
And last, even if you do have a second election, what happens then? All of the discussion seems to assume that if party X sneaks it in May 2015, and holds a quick election, then a grateful public will sweep them to a landslide. Why should it be like this? It wasn’t in 1910 or 1974, when the two elections produced similar results, albeit in 1974 by just enough to give Wilson a small majority (although the examples of the five years that followed are hardly encouraging).
A better precedent might be 1964-1966, when Wilson did manage to improve from a bare majority to one of around 100, but in general why should we assume that all the things that make this election so complicated and potentially messy will just vanish in a puff of smoke?
The party system has been fragmenting for 40 years now. It is unlikely to meld itself back together just because we have two elections in a year. (As an aside, I’d add that it seems almost as likely to me that if party X sneaks it in May, and holds a second election somehow, they might sneak out again, as voters think, “What was the point of that?”, but we will see.)
So imagine you have a second election, and it’s equally indecisive. I assume we don’t just have a third. Instead, the parties will get on with coping with the hand the voters have given them. It might be better to do that the first time around.
Note: This post was originally published on the New Statesman’s may2015.com blog.
Philip Cowley is co-author of the Nuffield Election Studies, published since 1945, and Professor of Parliamentary Government at Nottingham. He is writing the latest in the series, The British General Election of 2015, with Dennis Kavanagh, to be published later this year by Palgrave.