General election 2015

Certainties, uncertainties, and the English question

With only a few days before the polling day, there remains a lot of uncertainties regarding the outcome of the election. There are however a few projections that can be stated with a reasonable amount of confidence, even if it is still possible that something catastrophic befalls a party or a party leader and completely changes the dynamics of the election. The next prime minister of the United Kingdom will be either David Cameron or Ed Miliband, but neither the Conservatives nor Labour will command an absolute majority in the Commons. The SNP will be the third-largest party in the chamber. The Liberal Democrats will lose many seats. UKIP will not win many seats: it may end up with fewer than the two seats it currently holds, or it may pick up a couple more seats, but it is going to have fewer seats than the DUP.

It is not possible to know which party will win the largest number of seats or the largest share of the vote at the moment, as it depends on which poll and which projection is looked at: it could be the Conservatives, it could be Labour. However the largest party may not have enough support whether in coalition or based on an informal agreement for motions of confidence and supply. For example, there may be a determined anti-Tory majority in the Commons, that is to say the Conservatives even with the help of the likes of the Liberal Democrats, the DUP, and UKIP will not be able to muster the necessary support for confidence and supply motion, without there necessarily being a Labour or Labour-led majority.

While Mr Miliband has been forceful in ruling out coalition or any deal with the SNP, if Labour and the SNP combined were to command an absolute and stable majority in the Commons after the election as a number of projections seems to suggest, then it would seem natural for the two parties to come to some sort of arrangement, or at least the SNP will be the first negotiating partner for Labour, protestations by Mr Miliband notwithstanding. It is highly doubtful that a formal coalition between Labour and the SNP will be formed, but Labour is unlikely to be able to conjure up a majority from the other parties, which would mean negotiating with multiple parties ranging from the Liberal Democrats to Plaid Cymru to the Greens (if Caroline Lucas holds her seat) to the Northern Irish parties. Labour will have to seek support from other parties, not just abstentions, if Labour were to be the second-largest party in terms of numbers, or even if Labour were the largest party but the Liberal Democrats much diminished in numbers but still sizeable go into opposition with the Conservatives and outnumber Labour.

There is one possible set of outcomes that will raise a number of important and acute constitutional and political questions. The scenario is as follows. The Conservatives win the most number of seats, ahead of Labour. Furthermore the Conservatives win an absolute majority in the constituencies in England (i.e. at least 267 seats), however fall short of an overall majority across the UK (the absolute majority would be 326 seats, but lower in practice and the Conservatives fall far short of that de facto number). There is no possible coalition that would give Mr Cameron a prospect of a majority, since the anti-Tory bloc of Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, etc, form a majority, and this anti-Tory bloc stands firm and would vote down motions of confidence and supply. In this case, Mr Miliband becomes the prime minister, most likely leading a minority government, as the anti-Tory bloc could and would vote for him for motions of confidence and supply in exchange for concessions.

The above scenario – the Conservatives who had won the most number of seats and perhaps the highest share of votes does not form the government – may not be such an issue, except for the proviso that the Conservatives had won a majority in the seats in England. It is true that the Scots and Welsh have had to endure UK governments they had not voted for, and there is nothing wrong as such for the government – the executive – of the UK as a whole to govern and legislate for the UK without enjoying majority support in all the constituent countries of the UK, so long as it commands the confidence of the Commons. When the government is governing for the whole UK, then which party has an absolute majority in which constituent nation of the UK does not matter. However, it does become an issue in areas where the powers have been devolved to Holyrood, Cardiff Bay, and Stormont. Since there is no separate English executive or English legislature, the UK government and parliament assume those roles.

So long as there is a single executive commanding the confidence of the single legislature that governs and legislates for all parts of the country, this issue does not arise. After devolution, this West Lothian Question is acute. For a piece of legislation that only affects England, and on a matter that has been devolved to Holyrood (as well as to Cardiff Bay and Stormont), could or should a Labour minority UK government supported by the SNP and others using its UK-wide majority vote down legislation by the Conservatives who in this scenario have an absolute majority as far as the seats in England are concerned? Or to put it in another way perhaps, if a Labour minority UK government were to use its arrangements with other parties from outside England to govern and legislate for England on devolved matters, because of and despite the Conservative absolute majority in England, for example in return for more devolution of powers and competences to Holyrood, then is that not likely to fuel resentment in England?

The UK has had a reasonably stable coalition government for the past 5 years. The fact that there has been no appetite to go back to a two-party system suggests that the voters now know that coalition governments – the norm in many democracies – can work in the UK. Perhaps Britain is now ready for a minority government, even a minority coalition government. Holyrood, Cardiff Bay, and Stormont have had coalition and minority governments: Northern Ireland is somewhat of a special case for historical reasons, but Holyrood and Cardiff Bay seem to have worked reasonably well. The most controversial question might arise not on the form of the government whether coalition, minority, or minority coalition, but on what to do about England: the duality of the UK and English government and legislature may require proper examination in the very near future.