The likelihood of a hung parliament as a result of the 2015 UK election is causing a lot of uncertainty but worse than that the balance of forces is for once very unpredictable, and this in a country that “does not love coalitions”. The related forces of the rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in Scotland and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in England, as shown in opinion polls, and the revolt against the traditional “major” parties, mean that instead of the old two-horse race between Conservative and Labour, there are now likely to be a third force of the SNP sweeping up almost all seats in Scotland and, along with a plethora of small parties, able to control the balance of power. There’s no one obvious political grouping; there may be a governing coalition or a minority government.
An unpredictable result
A look at psephologists’ predictions shows a complex picture. In this example (click here), Labour and Conservatives both stand to gain around 270-odd seats, well short of the numerical majority needed of 326 seats. Under the constitutional convention in these matters, the Queen would ask the leader of the largest party to try to form a government. For the Conservatives, who at present are slightly in the lead, to hold on to power they would face a difficult challenge of winning support from a number of smaller parties, most of whom would be unlikely bedfellows. The obvious candidates, their current partners the Liberal Democrats joined by the anti-EU UKIP, would not be nearly enough, and another possible ally, the DUP, also insufficient.
This makes it more likely that the batton would pass to Labour as the next largest party. They could ally with the SNP, as Nicola Sturgeon has suggested, but would still need more allies. The Liberal Democrats, if they get enough seats despite the wipe-out that looks like their reward for being in the coalition, could oblige and this would probably do the job.
That is, if things work out as they seem at present. There’s an old saying in politics, “a week is a long time in politics” and one event could suddenly change all of the above!
As many on the European mainland will know, the result of an election in a multi-party situation, especially one conducted under Proportional Representation, will be followed by a period of discussions between the leader charged by the head of state with the task of constructing a government and those parties whom he/she hope will be partners in a coalition. Usually parties have planned for this before the election and have their policies, negotiating positions and red lines clearly decided.
The UK is not used to these things, and negotiating strategies may well be imperfect. As was written above, “England does not love coalitions” as Disraeli said in 1852 (making by the way the classic error of so many in the English upper classes in describing the UK as England!). People with a knowledge of history will recall that, in the 20th Century, the Liberals fared badly in alliance with the Conservatives in two World War coalitions, and Labour in the National Government in 1931 – and as the Liberal Democrats are finding once again right now.
The smaller partner can be tainted by the policies of the dominant party, and can struggle to have a distinctive identity and set of policies. Can you clearly identify what the Lib Dems have achieved this time, or do you think of what has happened as due to the work of the Coalition, or simply as Tory policy? It gets confused.
So not surprisingly parties will think about their exit point and how to engineer an election to turn the tables. Except that they can no longer do that because of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of 2011 fixing the Parliamentary term at 5 years. It would need the government to lose a motion of No Confidence or agree to ask for Parliament to vote for a dissolution and two-thirds of MPs to support it or there be no division.
Time for more fundamental solutions?
So this is a difficult time, and in a moderate country not used to coalitions and accustomed to viewing them as unstable or as leading to instability.
It will therefore be likely to spur politicians to seek to resolve the underlying problems that have created the current situation, of which the most pressing are arguably the divisions over devolution, Scottish independence, British membership of the EU, and public disengagement from Westminster. There is a trend towards disintegration, which in turn may well produce countervailing unifying forces, albeit possibly with different configurations to what we have now.
If history is any guide, a new political dispensation will emerge.
For the student of politics these will be fascinating times.