Election 2015: the unpopularity contest

Voters don't like coalitions but are likely to pick one

December 11, 2014
The outcome of the next election is anyone's guess. © UK Parliament
The outcome of the next election is anyone's guess. © UK Parliament

With next May’s polling day fast coming into sight, both Labour and Conservative parties are staggering rather than sprinting to the finishing line. There are six months to go and both parties are struggling to gather support in the polls of much above the low 30 per cents. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats languish in single figures. It seems like a lifetime ago that everyone was “agreeing with Nick” and the Liberal Democrats won their 23 per cent vote at the 2010 election. The Liberal Democrats may eventually creep back into fashion with their story of having restrained the Tories in government. But with this uncertainty, Ukip riding high and the Scottish National Party (SNP) on the march, Britain is heading towards one of the most unpredictable elections in living memory, with some potentially very negative consequences for the government of the country.

A Conservative overall majority seems impossible. Not since 1974 has an incumbent government increased its share of the vote in a general election and the electorate are not exactly clamouring for a re-run of the last five years. But a clear Labour working majority also looks less likely, particularly given the tightening of the polls in the past 18 months.

Governments need 326 seats to secure a majority, or 323 if we count the speaker’s abstention and assume that Sinn Féin continues to refuse to take their seats. Should Labour and the Conservatives fall short, the Liberal Democrats, even if they were willing, may well have too few MPs to secure a majority for either of these parties, necessitating further brokering with other smaller parties, including the Scottish nationalists.

The current political spread betting markets—that is where punters are putting their money—tell us that the Conservatives could come out of the 2015 election with 283 seats, and Labour with 288. The Liberal Democrats would outperform their current polling and elect 30 MPs, while Ukip would storm into the Commons with 10 seats, and the SNP more than triple its 2010 result to return around 20 MPs.

In this scenario, a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition would be 13 seats short of a majority. Given that Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish nationalist leader, knows that a deal with the Conservatives would be deeply unpopular with her party’s supporters, the only way David Cameron could remain Prime Minister would be by winning the support of both Ukip and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. This narrowest of legislative majorities would be in hock to the demands of these hardline parties—with massive implications for Britain’s European Union membership—and be threatened with collapse at the merest sign of backbench rebellion, a very likely possibility in a government relying on support from both Ukip and the Liberal Democrats.

Alternatively, for a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition only eight seats would be needed to make up a majority. Assuming they do not want to govern as a minority administration, such a government would need the support of either all of the smaller Northern Irish parties and the Greens for an effective majority of one, or also include the Scottish and Welsh nationalists for a more stable majority. The SNP has already made clear it would drive a hard bargain on issues such as effective home rule for Scotland and abandoning Trident. Given the scars of the Scottish referendum campaign, it is hard to imagine Labour swallowing such a deal, but not impossible.

A further de-stabilising scenario is that the Conservatives could come ahead in the national share of the vote, but receive fewer seats than Labour as a result of the failure to re-draw the electoral boundaries which currently give Labour an advantage. The Liberal Democrats could also very well receive fewer votes than Ukip, but many more seats. A Lib-Lab coalition between the second and fourth most-voted parties, propped up by the fifth (the SNP) would unavoidably raise serious questions of legitimacy.

So, regardless of who is prime minister and which parties support him or her, it looks likely that any government coming out of the May 2015 election would be comprised of a fragile and modest majority.

The election may well turn out to be more of a staging post than a finishing line. An early second general election, as in 1974, is a clear possibility, although the provisions of the Fixed-Terms Parliaments Act make this much more difficult than in the past. Cameron could not simply call another general election; he would have to lose a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons, and an alternative government fail to be formed, or the Commons would have to pass a motion calling for a General Election by a two-thirds majority before Britons could go to the polls again. But the opposition parties, having spent all their resources in fighting in May, might not be so keen on toppling the government only to fight another election in which they could fare worse.

Benjamin Disraeli observed in 1852 that “England does not love coalitions,” and today’s electorate repeatedly tell the pollsters the same. The problem is they cannot seem to agree on what they want as an alternative. British politics is looking like a protracted unpopularity contest. May 2015 could leave us not only with another coalition, but one that would struggle to pass legislation or to govern the country in a stable and predictable way.  The political risk of the 2015 general election is hard to overstate.