No winners

Opinion polls are differing on some things, but they are currently agreed about one thing – no party is heading for an outright win in next May’s General Election.

A century of electoral studies tells us that, under the UK’s first past the post voting system, an overall majority win for one party does not begin to happen until it can command above 37% of the electorate with a lead over the second party of seven points or more.

Neither the Conservatives nor Labour has been able to hold that position over the last year. Indeed, the most recent polls are pointing to the combined vote share of the two major parties not being much more than 60% of the vote, which hasn’t happened since the UK has had a full franchise.

The dominance of the main two parties continues to fade. Prior to 2010, the combined low point was 68.6% in 1923. 2010 saw a new depth, at 65.1%. If this General Election sets a record low for the combined Labour/Conservative vote, there is an opportunity for ‘third’ parties to hold as many as 100 seats between them.

If an election was held today, current polling indicates that these 100 seats would be (roughly) spread across several parties:

SNP: 40

Lib Dem: 30

Ulster parties: 17

UKIP: 15

Others: 2

The distribution between the ‘third parties’ could be quite different of course – but the combined total looks like a realistic assumption now. That leaves around 525 seats to be distributed between Conservative and Labour. If they are polling closely, each will receive around 260 seats – well short of the 316 required for an overall majority.

A significant factor of these results is the fact that no combination of two parties (other than a ‘grand coalition’ between Conservative and Labour) can reach the magic 316 figure. Even in the scenario where the Liberal Democrats and one of the main parties were open to forming a coalition, the maths would not deliver a majority.

Therefore, it must be asked if three parties could form a coalition. Numerically, it is possible but politically it’s hard to see a grouping that could all deal with each other. As a result, we could be looking instead at a minority government.

Reprise McDonald and Wilson

For many in politics, a minority government would be new territory, so it’s useful to look at historical precedents in UK politics since the advent of full franchise:

  • Ramsay McDonald’s first Labour administration of 1924. It lasted just 10 months before being defeated by a ‘no confidence’ motion. McDonald’s position was however extraordinarily precarious as Labour held only 191 seats in the Parliament.
  • Ramsay McDonald’s second administration of 1929-31. It lasted 28 months until the Prime Minister resigned from office, causing a Labour split, and the creation of a National Government.
  • Harold Wilson’s third administration of 1974. It lasted 6 months, until Wilson dissolved Parliament and secured a small, overall majority in a second election.

Other recent technically minority governments have prolonged their lives by either informal or formal coalition, such as the Callaghan ‘pact’ with the Liberals from 1977-8, and Cameron’s current formal coalition.

The lesson seems to be that unless minority governments find some arrangement with others to sustain themselves, they don’t last long. However, a sustaining arrangement may be impossible to find after next May, leading to the first period of genuinely minority government in over 40 years.

The old conventions would say, govern as well as you can for as long as you can and then dissolve when you reckon you may have a chance to secure a majority, but legislative changes in 2011 have made that not so easy now.

In a fix

Enter the 2011 Fixed Term Parliament Act.

As it now stands, the law states that the next general election, after that of next May, is to be on May 7, 2020. The implication is that whatever the electorate shall determine to be the composition of the next House of Commons, the politicians must make it work – somehow. But, as we have seen, they simply might not be able to do that.

The chances of the largest party running the government, single handed, for a full 5 years, while way short of a majority, have to be rated as exceedingly low. In these circumstances, the next Parliament has some options:

  1. Repeal the 2011 Act: That would open the way to reverting to type, and surviving short term until another poll can be triggered. Whether this is realistic or not is hard to say; a Conservative minority government might find it too difficult to promote the repeal of an Act it had introduced only a few years earlier and a Labour minority government may try, but there is a strong likelihood that the other parties may vote the proposal down, in order to deny Labour the opportunity of forcing another election at a time of its own potentially advantageous timing. Everybody may be trying to make everybody else’s life as sticky as possible.
  1. Invoke the power within the 2011 Act to bring about an early dissolution via a two-third majority of MPs: The Act states that if two thirds of MPs (420) support it, Parliament can be resolved. However, nobody would actively bring about a dissolution if they thought that their electoral chances in the subsequent vote were poor, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario where 420 MPs and their parties would all simultaneously rate their electoral chances as bright. 
  1. Invoke the power within the 2011 Act to bring about a dissolution by defeating the government on a motion of ‘no confidence’ (A form of Ramsay McDonald’s fate – and Jim Callaghan’s in 1979). This is another possibility as the 2011 Act includes a provision that allows the formation of an alternative government, from within the existing Commons, provided it can be achieved within 14 days.

However, under the current scenario, it is impossible to see an alternative that would be any more or less stable than the one being overturned. So, this power is only likely to be provoked if two or more parties – including the official opposition – have decided amongst themselves that the time has come to turf out the minority government. They would only do so when all parties involved in the plot felt they had sufficiently bright electoral prospects. This is difficult to imagine because if the opposition has pulled well ahead in the polls and would welcome an election, the chances are that the ‘third’ parties will be losing support. Garnering anti-government votes is a zero-sum game so just when either Labour or the Conservatives see their chance and push for dissolution, they may find themselves suddenly short of Parliamentary allies and the ‘no confidence’ majority becomes only a dream, not a reality.

Out of the jaws of defeat….

Looking at the polling, the high command in both the major parties are frantically trying to work out the campaign strategy that will spring them free of the looming impasse and yield that seemingly elusive majority – while planning for what to do if it fails.

Labour has had experience of minority government, and it doesn’t make for happy reading. The Conservatives are quite possibly ruing the day they drafted the 2011 Act in the honeymoon days of the Coalition.

Looking ahead, all the signs are that voters are not inclined to offer their decisive support to either of the main parties. The combination of the first-past-the post electoral system and the 2011 Act could translate their preferences into an almost unworkable Parliament.

The politicians would of course love a majority and the voters would earnestly wish for stable for effective government, but mistrust and cynicism may deny both their wishes. Therefore, the way the 2015 Parliament deals with itself would then determine whether the cynicism becomes even more deeply ingrained or, possible, enough politicians seize the opportunity of statesmanship and begin rebuilding trust.

By making no clear choice, the voters may be about to force the biggest choice yet.