Over a century has passed since two consecutive General Elections produced indeterminate outcomes. Hung parliaments – at least whilst a first-past-the-post voting system persists – may be the new norm. But should coalition government invariably follow?
Certainly, opinion polls and betting over the past year suggest we may well once again be in this territory come May. With the two main parties typically hovering at just above 30 per cent in the polls, at no time in the past four-and-a-half years has it looked less likely that there will end up being a majority Conservative or Labour government. Yet Nick Clegg and Ed Davey are adamant that the Liberal Democrats will not prop up a minority government with Confidence and Supply.
Even those of us who supported a second 2010 election (and believe even without hindsight that this would have best served the national interest) recognise that the mood of the nation at the time dictated, following Cleggmania, that the Liberal Democrats had earned their places at the cabinet table. I suspect that this will categorically not be the case in the wake of May 2015’s poll.
My working assumption until early 2014 was that the erstwhile third party of British politics would recover from its dismal single digit poll ratings and end up with at least 40 seats. However, it now seems more likely that the junior coalition partners will end up with no more than one-tenth of the popular vote.
Whilst this may well still provide the Liberal Democrats with a multiple of the number of seats that UKIP win (even on a markedly smaller vote share), I suspect it will be difficult for them to have the credibility to insist upon a coalition. In truth the sort of indeterminate outcome to the next election which most commentators now expect will only have one certainty – that the Lib Dems will be seen as the big losers. How can they surf the national mood to stay in office?
We may also be heading towards an election outcome in which the largest party does not win the most votes (this happened in both 1951 and February 1974). That might well be compounded by the party coming third in the national vote securing far fewer seats than the fourth party and the SNP (which contests only 59 of the 650 constituencies).
Do not discount that the combination of the first and third parties’ seats will still not comprise a majority. This all augurs ill when it comes to maintaining public support for the current electoral system. Indeed, 2015 could be the election outcome that brings the first-past-the-post system to breaking point, although our electoral system has hitherto had an uncanny knack of reflecting the national mood. Despite all the fevered speculations it may yet still do so in May.
The potential triumph of the SNP also raises the intriguing prospect that minority rule will become more palatable. Alex Salmond has already indicated that no deal will be offered that keeps the Conservatives in office (a pre-emptive strike to the Labour charge that ‘Vote SNP, get the Tories’). Nevertheless, were the SNP able to secure 35 or more seats, reducing Labour to a fraction of their present strength and all but wiping out the Lib Dems north of the border, the strong argument made in 2010 that the Conservatives could not form a plausible government with a solitary seat in Scotland would not necessarily play out.
One of the unsung benefits of coalition was that the Government was able to claim 12 MPs with Scottish seats. But a massive SNP advance might in Westminster political terms simply turn Scotland into ‘another Northern Ireland’ – a place where political party allegiance as we know it in the rest of the UK is simply ‘different’.
In May 2010, there was an almost unseemly headlong rush to ‘do a coalition deal’. By late spring this year, however, the alibi of imminent economic crisis is unlikely to be there. It is also the case that the financial markets are unlikely to take fright at the prospect of weeks of political horse-trading. In truth, by May 7 political uncertainty of some sort will already have been factored in by the markets. Nor will a hung parliament be such a novelty – so the UK political class would, I suspect, be rather more relaxed about coalition negotiations taking weeks rather than days. The next Queen’s Speech may not be delivered until June.
In the meantime, special party conferences may be the order of the day before any deal is endorsed by potential coalition parties; such delay will also result in plenty of ‘noises off’ from MPs and Party activists, making it far less likely that even the most determined leaderships will be able to railroad a coalition deal to fruition as happened in 2010. Even if the numbers were to allow for a Labour-Lib Dem coalition, I suspect that tribal loyalties will probably hold firm, not least as Labour have over the past five years reaped the benefit of the ‘left wing vote’ not being as divided as it has been since the formation of the SDP in 1981.
It strikes me that despite all its apparent inherent unsustainability for a fixed five year term, minority government becomes potentially a more palatable, practicable and popular option.
What is the problem with a minority administration anyway? The arguments against such an arrangement are well-rehearsed. Progress on getting the government’s legislative programme through parliament could grind to a halt with each detail subject to painstaking negotiation. This could serve to heighten public scepticism about politicians’ ability to deliver solutions to the nation’s problems. Some would also point to financial market uncertainty but, as I have suggested, this may already have been priced in by election day.
It is also worth remembering that we have already had a minority administration in one house of Parliament over the past 16 years without insuperable difficulty. Naturally, this has constrained governments to a certain degree but, in the Lords, they have had to negotiate with other parties to get business done. From time to time (in fact rather frequently) votes have been lost in the Upper House, but arguably better legislation has emerged. What is so objectionable about extending this practice to the elected Commons? Perhaps minority government will truly allow Parliament, and MPs, to rise to the occasion.
We Conservatives should instinctively support the passing of fewer Acts of Parliament and better, more extensive scrutiny of legislation. Minority government will make necessary thorough pre-legislative scrutiny of government Bills, and the whips will need to be pragmatic at the prospect of losing clauses in their legislation where they cannot persuade a Commons’ majority. Life will assuredly go on – but, say it in hushed terms, the influence of party managers will go into decline!
In fact, a minority administration might well last the full course of a five-year fixed-term parliament, though only if party managers realise at the outset that a fundamental change of mind-set is required, alongside a reversal of the trend since the Blair years for power to flow towards the executive and away from the legislature.
This means a fresh style of operation and attitude from Whips’ Offices quite unlike that which it they have been accustomed to when coalition government commanded a clear majority. Flexibility will be their watchword, with coalitions of support built as and when they are needed.
There is an assumption that a minority government would – even could only – operate through Confidence and Supply agreements. But the avenues open to party managers, especially in a six party set-up, might be broader than that. Let us not forget that the opposition parties themselves may not collectively form a majority, and have their own electoral anxieties and vulnerabilities that leave them open to deals.
This makes ad hoc pacts, such as an agreement not to vote down a Budget or support for key items or parts of legislation, a distinct possibility. This would especially apply if the government were able to appeal to the public over the heads of its opponents by putting forward sensible, considered policy proposals. The desire among opposition parties to avoid a return to the polls (on costs grounds, if nothing else), and the difficulty in dislodging a government once it holds power in such circumstances, should also never be underestimated.
As the two main parties are becalmed in the polls, and support for smaller parties waxes and wanes with greater volatility, a minority administration that puts forward a measured and thoughtful legislative programme, calling for public and parliamentary support on each of its agenda items, might well prove just the tonic for an electorate disillusioned by the inability of majority government to reflect its views. For a nation that continues to face some relentlessly tough economic choices after May’s poll, sharper legislation and more open public debate over its difficult decision-making would also be no bad thing.