2015: A Year of Instability?

December 19, 2014, 3:32 PM UTC

A two-week holiday over Christmas and the New Year seems to have become the new norm. There will be plenty of us, of course, continuing to work through the festive season but by the time I write my next column we’ll be well into January. So what are the prospects for 2015?

Short of some unforeseeable and appalling cataclysm, British public life next year is likely to be dominated by the general election, or possibly by general elections in the plural. May’s vote is the most unpredictable election any of us can remember. It is not just that we can’t be sure which party will win. That’s quite often the case five months before polling day or even as the votes are being counted. It’s rather that this time it seems increasingly likely that no-one will.  If there’s one thing on which most observers agree, it’s that no single party will win an outright majority  What are the implications of that and, in particular, what does it mean for your democratic right to choose your political leaders?

It is sometimes said, perhaps rather piously, that electorates in mature democracies somehow manage collectively to find a way of reaching a decision about who should govern them that proves wise in the long run. I’ve heard even defeated politicians admit this years after the event, though there was a celebrated case of an American presidential candidate who, asked for his reaction to being trounced in a primary, put on his gravest expression and declared: “The American people have spoken – the bastards!” But in fact the outcome of elections can often be more accurately regarded not so much as the result of deep reflection by a wise electorate but as the almost random consequence of our failure to make up our collective mind.

Take the last general election. Whatever one thinks of the record of the coalition government that was formed after it, one thing is certain: the option of voting for it was never on the ballot paper. Rather, the inconclusive result of the election in which Labour lost scores of seats but the Conservatives failed to win enough of them to secure a majority in the House of Commons,  forced all the parties to haggle about how best the government of the country should be carried on. Eventually the Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition was agreed. It has certainly provided stable government for the last five years but there are those who still feel that it was somehow illegitimate because the public didn’t directly vote for it.

So what about next time? The reason to think that no party will end up with an outright majority lies both in the current evidence of the polls and also in long-term trends in voting.

Over sixty years ago in the general election of 1951, the two main parties, the Conservatives and Labour, together attracted 97% of the total vote between them. There was therefore never any doubt in that era that one or other of these parties would form a government (though, in fact in that election, Labour lost power even though it polled more votes than the Tories because their opponents won more seats.) Since then, however, the two parties’ combined share of the vote has been in sharp decline. At the last election the two managed to attract only 65% of the vote. Inevitably this means that even in a first-past-the-post electoral system in which many votes are supposedly ‘wasted’, it is harder for any one party to secure enough votes in the right places to win the seats they need for a majority in the Commons.

At the moment the polls suggest that the combined vote of the two big parties will be even lower next May, perhaps only just over 60%. This makes the chances of a single-party government emerging even more remote.

It has long been thought that Labour stood the best chance of scraping through with a majority simply because the unreformed boundaries of parliamentary constituencies give them a big advantage. Both parties have been floundering in the low thirties recently, but  it could probably squeeze a majority if it won 35% of the overall vote. The Tories would  need many more votes to achieve the same result. But the revival of the Scottish National Party since the referendum in September threatens to deprive Labour of perhaps twenty or more of the Scottish seats on which it has long depended in order to win power at Westminster.

As for the Tories, they face not only the disadvantage of current boundaries, but also the threat from UKIP, likely to be much greater than it was back in 2010. If they couldn’t win a majority then, it seems hard to imagine them winning one next May.

So we are likely to find ourselves once again with a ‘hung’ parliament in which no party commands a majority on its own. The question then will be a question that won’t have appeared on the ballot paper: what should happen next?

The most obvious solution would be to do what was done in 2010 and see if a coalition can be formed. But who should take the lead in trying to form one? Constitutionally, it is not the party that emerges with most seats that has the initiative. That remains with the sitting prime minister who can remain in office up to the point where he is (or isn’t) defeated in a vote in the Commons. So Mr Cameron would have the first throw of the dice.

His most obvious first port of call would be his existing coalition partners, the LibDems. Nick Clegg’s party has paid a big price for getting into bed with the Tories back in 2010: its poll ratings are currently under 10% (compared with 23% then). Yet even if these don’t improve, the party may well be able to hold on to twenty or thirty seats because of the proven ability of incumbent LibDem MPs to hold on to their own seats irrespective of the party’s national standing.

That number of LibDem MPs in the next parliament could be just enough to allow the present coalition to carry on. Indeed some people think that this is what Mr Cameron is aiming for and that the public spats between the two parties in recent weeks have been something of an artificial show put on in an attempt to pep up the core vote of each party.

Yet there is reason to believe that even if the arithmetic worked, such a coalition would not be reformed. For one thing, the Tory Party might not let Mr Cameron agree to such a deal. It was one thing for it to acquiesce in coalition government back in 2010 when the country urgently needed a stable government, but things will be a bit different next year and many on the Tory right have no wish to sign up, as they would see it, to being ‘muzzled’ for the next five years while LibDem policies took precedence over their own.  Equally, many LibDems would regard it as electoral suicide to ally themselves with the Conservatives for another five years.

The Tories might look elsewhere for coalition partners but it is hard to see where they would find them. They have been flirting with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, but the DUP won’t have so many seats to offer and in any case many Tories would regard them as unreliable partners. Some eurosceptic Tories would relish an alliance with UKIP, but it’s far from clear that UKIP will end up with enough seats to make a difference and its price might be too high. The SNP has already ruled out doing any deals with the ‘hated’ Tories.

Could Labour form a coalition? It too would look first to the LibDems with whom it had cursory negotiations back in 2010. But for the LibDems the prospect of a coalition with Labour might well be even less attractive than with the Tories. That’s because it would fear ending up casting itself as the hard-hearted party, saying ‘No’ to Labour spending plans. An alliance with the SNP might seem a more viable option, except that the SNP would have won its pivotal role at the expense of Labour and, more fundamentally, the SNP is in business not to help run the government of Britain but to gain independence from it.

One possibility almost never mentioned is the creation of a ‘grand’ coalition of the two main parties. It is far from uncommon in the democratic world: Israel often has such governments and Germany is governed by one at the moment. Britain has had such coalitions too, in wartime and at times of national emergency such as in 1931. So should it be a serious runner next year?

If no coalition can be agreed, then one party will have to govern in minority. That would almost certainly have to be the party with the largest number of seats and it would very probably lead to a second election in the autumn. But that election could be equally indecisive. The last time a minority government had to go to the polls within months (in 1974), the result was only a tiny overall majority for Harold Wilson’s Labour government. This time we might simply get another hung parliament and the same choices as first time round.

In other words, the political future of Britain may well lie in questions that you won’t be asked on the ballot paper next May. This is your chance to give your views. Should there be coalition government and, if so, which parties would you like to see ally? Or would you prefer minority government to try to soldier on?

Let us know your views.

Meanwhile, have a merry Christmas and a happy new year!