General election 2015

Silly coalition talks and nightmarish results

There are still weeks to go in the election campaign, but it does seem reasonably likely that the result will be a hung parliament. For that reason, there are all sorts of coalition talks: and they are often used to put forward rather fanciful arguments. The Conservatives are keen to point out the dangers of a possible coalition between Labour and the SNP, which may or may not work to frighten the English into not voting Labour. Labour floats the idea that the Conservatives will be in league with UKIP, though the likelihood of UKIP gaining a sufficient number of seats, more than say the DUP in Northern Ireland, seems rather remote, and I would be seriously worried for the future of the country were UKIP to achieve substantial gains. The same could be said of the Greens: it would seem far-fetched for the Greens to sweep the land.

There are naturally possibilities of a very tight result, and the next government may have to depend on a majority cajoled of the smaller parties such as the DUP, but in the main there are going to be four parties that are going to be decisive in the formation of the next government: the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the SNP.

It may be argued parenthetically that the SNP will win whatever the broader results. A Conservative-majority or Conservative-led government would bring the prospects of Scottish independence closer, while also reinforcing the argument that Labour cannot win an election. A Labour-majority government allows the SNP to play the part of the opposition at Westminster while being in government in Holyrood and utilize the national-level opposition to good effect within Scotland against Labour. A coalition with Labour or supporting Labour means that the SNP can demand concessions at Westminster and it will neutralize the Labour party in Scotland as the main opposition party to the SNP. The only way the SNP can lose is to set itself too high an expectation and not reaching it.

There are some truly interesting and nightmarish possible results. The first possible result is that the only arithmetically possible two-party coalition is either a grand coalition of the Conservatives and Labour, or a Conservative-SNP coalition, neither of which will happen, resulting either in cobbling together a multi-party coalition involving the Liberal Democrats (if they survive reasonably well), the Northern Irish parties, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, UKIP, and any other party with seats, or the largest party forming a minority government. My guess is that the political culture in the UK is not ready for a grand coalition, and neither the Conservatives nor the SNP will gain electorally in the future from forming a coalition between them. Multi-party coalitions and minority governments are not necessarily disastrous, but forming and then keeping together a multi-party coalition would be pretty tough, and it would be interesting to see how the opposition plays the game with a minority government.

The second possible outcome is where there is an overall UK majority of more than 326 seats (in practice, the number would be lower because Sinn Féin MPs do not take their seats, and the Speaker is not partisan) but no majority in England, for example in case of a Labour-SNP coalition, where Labour has failed to win in more than half of the 533 constituencies in England. It would be even worse if the Conservatives won in more than half of the constituencies in England, so no Labour-led multi-party coalition could command a majority. This will exacerbate the debate on the West Lothian question and fuel English resentment, where the UK government legislating on matters concerning solely England – and on matters that have been devolved to the parliament in Scotland and to the assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland thus English MPs cannot vote on – does not have a majority in England, and can only pass legislation by relying on MPs from other areas of the UK.

The third potential tricky outcome is a single-party majority government – which may be considered as a ‘good’ thing by a lot of people – but with a low share of the vote, or the party with a smaller share of the vote than the other main party winning a majority in terms of seats. It is theoretically possible for a party to win a disproportionate number of seats relative to its share of the vote due to the first-past-the-post system, as a seat is a seat whether the winning candidate wins by a single vote or by a majority of 10,000, especially if there is a splintering of the vote to many smaller parties which reduces the share of the vote required to win the seat. In 2005, the Labour party won a comfortable majority with 35.2% of the vote. Could a party with say less than a third of the popular vote claim to have the mandate? It certainly does so under the electoral system, but it may be argued that two-thirds of those who casted their ballot had not voted for the party.

Part of me wants to see a quirky result: while it may be detrimental in the short term, for example in terms of market reaction, fudging on some fundamental constitutional issues – be it devolution, the electoral system, or the British membership of the EU – could prove to be costly in the long term. It would be good if there were serious and considered debate on the future of the UK constitution, not just by the politicians, but also by the British people, on what the country should be like and how it ought to be governed.