First-past-the-post voting systems don’t lend themselves to coalition government. But that’s what we’ve got, and there are four possible governments we could have after the General Election on 7th May 2015.
How we vote on that Thursday in just over three months time has very little to do with the government we’ll end up with. The rise in support for the Greens across the UK no more translates into increased numbers of MPs than the rise of support for UKIP means they’ll become a major party.
But the SNP are likely to be the third or fourth largest party in Westminster after May 2015. Electoral analysis shows a huge swing to the SNP across Scotland, which – if we had a more representative electoral system – could translate to over forty seats for the SNP (Labour down to seven MPs and LibDems to one), But just as the tremendous fall in LibDem support isn’t likely to be reflected in an equivalent loss of seats – Greens are more popular than LibDems but aren’t likely to do more than retain their one MP – the Labour wipeout isn’t expected to be as extreme as a naive reading of the polling figures would suggest.
Toscafund, an established asset manager based in London and Dubai, chaired by former Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Sir George Mathewson, commissioned Professor Richard Rose to carry out seat by seat analysis of polling across the UK. For Scotland, their report says:
“A uniform ‘national’ movement of votes is unlikely because the SNP must jump from third to first place over different challengers in different parts of Scotland. Because the median Labour seat is held with a margin of 31.6 per cent over the SNP, any recovery by Labour would reduce the depth to which Labour plunged.”
I’m discounting the Voldemort option – Tory majority or Tory/UKIP coalition – because this is not a probable option. The Tories can’t win a majority, and UKIP can’t win enough seats to help them out.
650 MPs. Deduct one Speaker, who has a casting vote but seldom uses it. Deduct five Sinn Fein MPs, who never take their seats in the House of Commons because doing so requires an oath of loyalty to the Queen. A legal majority in the Commons is 326.
UKIP currently has two MPs and might have as many as five after 7th May, given a low turnout and a lot of media help. George Galloway may or may not keep Bradford West as the Respect MP. The DUP, the SDLP, the Alliance, and Sinn Fein, are all fairly sure of at 17 out of the 18 Northern Ireland seats. Plaid Cymru are likely to retain three seats in Wales, Green we hope will keep their one MP. That’s 28 MPs whose votes are unlikely to make any difference to the formation of a UK government except the narrowest working majority.
Electoral Calculus currently predicts Labour 29 short of a legal majority, but the single largest party.
Labour wins at least 326 seats, has a majority, and can form a government. Except for die-hard UKIP and Conservative supporters, this is probably everyone’s least-bad/second-best scenario, and a slight majority in the Commons would likely be supported in the event of a Slytherin attack by Greens, the Alliance, Plaid Cymru, and the SNP. (Which is why the Tories are so keen on enforcing “English Votes for English Laws” before May: it would mean they and the LibDems working together might regularly defeat a Gryffindor government.) A large part of the problem for Labour is that except for die-hard Labour supporters, no one can commit to much enthusiasm for the prospect of their party getting the majority: only acknowledge that a Labour majority and five years of dullish, right-wing-ish Labour government would certainly be less painful than Slytherin and probably less offensive than Ravenclaw.
The Conservatives fail to win a majority but are again the single largest party, and the LibDems don’t lose as many seats as currently predicted, thus making themselves useful coalition partners for the Tories: Tory and LibDem MPs together add up to at least 326 MPs, a working majority. (And UKIP and DUP MPs could most likely be relied on for a confidence-and-supply arrangement to keep the right-wing government in power.) The Conservative Party is likely to both lose and gain seats in May, but most of its gains are likely to come at the expense of LibDem losses – meaning the two parties could again form an effective majority, just with a larger proportion of Tory MPs than in 2010.
One reason why I don’t expect LibDem to lose as many seats in the General Election as they have in opinion polling is that I expect many voters in marginal seats with an effective choice between the LibDem incumbent and a Tory in second place, will hold their noses and vote LibDem to ensure the Voldemort option doesn’t come to pass. So it could be that the LibDems turn again to the Tories, and the two parties form another coalition government in which LibDem MPs obediently vote for Tory policies, regardless of what was in the LibDem manifesto. The only prospect for hope in a Slytherin win is that the LibDems are already on their way out as a party: another five years of supporting Tory policies might well end them completely. The Tories are hoping for another 1992 win, but Slytherin – Tory/LibDem governance – is their most probable option for government.
Labour fails to win a majority but are the single largest party and the LibDems don’t lose as many seats as predicted: the party thinkers decide that the wisest, most prudent, most sensible thing to do is for Labour and LibDems to go into coalition. I quite expect this will happen, if Labour wins over 300 seats and the LibDems fall to no more than half their present number. Ravenclaw is certainly better than Slytherin, but a key problem for Labour and LibDem leaders is that no one except a proportion of die-hard LibDem supporters (the ones who identify as left-wing but who have clung to their party despite its voting Tory for five years) would actually want it to happen. Still, the Essex forecasting model – proved quite reliable in previous elections – predicts this as a likely possibility, though Professor Paul Whiteley acknowledges that his model ignores the effect of the SNP winning more than 15 seats in Scotland.
LibDems are a toxic brand for most: Tories at least we knew already will sell off the NHS and cut public services to the bone and shatter the welfare system, but the Liberal Democrats had been touting for our votes for decades as a left-wing alternative to Labour, only to install a Tory government in 2010. But it would be far less of a PR problem for Labour with London-based media and English voters than if Labour went Hufflepuff.
Neither Conservatives nor Labour have a majority, and the LibDems have lost so many seats they cannot offer themselves to either party as coalition partners: but the SNP has won enough seats to give Labour a majority in coalition government. (No SNP leader would offer a coalition to the Tories even if they were the single largest party: they know it would be political death in Scotland.) The more SNP MPs there are, the more appealing the Hufflepuff option could look to Labour: especially as the SNP will look to provide new MPs with little experience and top party loyalty, willing to surrender principles to “political realism”. The key problem with Hufflepuff government is that the rest of the UK – especially English voters – would find themselves with a party in government that they know virtually nothing about and that none of them could have voted for, since the SNP only stand candidates for election in Scotland. This would be a PR problem that might be insurmountable, with London-based media expressing angry ignorance at the idea of “tartan nationalists” ruling the UK.
While numerically Hufflepuff may appear to be more probable than the Ravenclaw option – the SNP seem very likely to have more MPs than the LibDems – for Hufflepuff Government to work, the LibDems, the Tories, and the possible UKIP MPs put together would need to have no majority over Labour. (If Electoral Calculus predictions based on January’s polls are borne out, LibDem (17) and Conservatives (265) would not be able to outvote Labour (297).) Labour would certainly need to have more English MPs than the Tories. You can see why this must be so: the SNP commits to no votes in Commmons unless the matter being voted on directly affects Scotland. If the Tories could count on their old coalition partners and their traditional allies voting with them to overset Labour on English Votes for English Laws, Labour could not form a government for the UK, since the SNP would only help them pass laws for Scotland, and perhaps with Plaid Cymru’s support, for Wales.
Still, if Labour is the largest single party and the SNP are the third-largest party, and their coalition provides a solid majority in the Commons, refusing that coalition to let the Slytherins win would be a blight on Labour for the next five years and more.
You may wonder why I’m comparing the serious issue of UK governance to Hogwarts houses. I want to be able to neatly refer to the four possibilities – and the horrifying fifth option – in future discussions of the general election.
And also, it seems to me the more I think about it that we’re in a situation like first year students at Hogwarts waiting for the Sorting Hat to sing: we know where we don’t want to end up, but we don’t know what’s going to happen next: no matter what we wish for, no matter which way we vote, the final decision could as well be drawn out of a hat.