With the 2015 General Election currently looking too close to call, many are already running scenarios of various outcomes and how possible coalition or ‘supply and confidence’ (an informal agreement to support a minority government on key votes) agreements could develop.
A popular scenario, which is lengthening the odds on David Cameron’s return to Downing Street, is that Labour win the most seats but fall short of a majority. Ed Miliband then appeals to the Liberal Democrats on their common ground around the policy areas of Europe and welfare, and proposes a Coalition of Fairness. Alternatively, the Liberal Democrats are so reduced in the election that Labour reaches out to an SNP whose ranks have swelled with former Labour Scottish seats.
Mathematically, these calculations are sound: It is likely that if Labour fall short of a majority, the Lib Dems or the SNP will probably have enough seats to cross the majority line in some form of agreement. (The calculations are dependent on the fact that if Labour don’t win seats which they needed for a majority, they’re more likely to have been gone to SNP or, to a lesser extent, the Lib Dems.)
However, the error in these equations is the presumption that either the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish Nationalists will want to support a Miliband government, formally or informally.
At an event at the Liberal Democrat Party’s conference in 2014, Minister Norman Lamb said that “The idea of us being latched into a Labour government with a low percentage of the vote, led by Miliband … it could be enormously damaging for our party”.
The Lib Dems are a party who have already paid a price for going into an unpopular coalition, and a poll of Lib Dem supporters showed that only a third of them supported the idea of going into a coalition with Labour (14%, incidentally, fancied another round with the Conservatives). There is also a scenario where Labour win fewer seats than the Conservatives and the SNP wins more seats than the Lib Dems. In this scenario, the UK would be led by a coalition of parties that came 2nd and 4th in the General Election, hardly a testament to democratic representation.
In a recent poll, only one in three Lib Dem supporters wanted to enter a coalition with Labour. If the Lib Dems lose as many seats as current polling indicates, their Party Leader will have an internal battle on his hands: there will be a strong internal movement arguing that the party needs some time to rally around their principles and re-establish itself as a defined party. The next government, regardless of party, will have to make difficult decisions and the Lib Dems may not be keen on having their fingerprints on another round of unpopular cuts.
From Labour’s perspective, some would argue that there are strong arguments for steering clear from a pact with the Liberal Democrats. Firstly, the yellow party would be bringing unpopular legacy issues into the new government, which will ostensibly be trying to turn over a new leaf. Secondly, Miliband has a strong vision of the direction he wants to take the UK in, and the Labour Party will be nervous that a coalition would potentially mean having to compromise that programme unnecessarily.
There are also a number of obstacles to any agreement between Labour and the SNP. First of all, between now and election day, the SNP will be carrying out a campaign to take Labour seats. If the dedication and determination of the pro-independence campaign was any indication, it’s going to be a real battle between the SNP and Scottish Labour which is unlikely to make either party amenable to jumping into bed with each other just a few days after the end of such acrimonious campaigning.
Additionally, Miliband will be wary of inflaming English voter sentiment if he is seen to be shifting to a platform which looks to disproportionately favour Scotland. Likewise, Sturgeon will be wary that any unpopular compromises will be remembered by Scottish voters in the Scottish Parliamentary elections in May 2016.
Of course, this is conjecture and it is possible that the SNP would consider supporting Miliband into Downing Street if certain terms are met. We already have a fairly strong idea of what the SNP requirements would be for any deal: scrap Trident, devolve far more tax powers to Edinburgh, and potentially lay the groundwork for another independence referendum.
The Labour Party would simply not stomach these terms. The SNP would set a far higher bar than the Liberal Democrats did in 2010 because they do not need to compromise. If a Labour-SNP deal is the only way that the UK can have a stable government, the worst case scenario for Sturgeon is that a deal is not reached, the UK enters a period of instability, and the argument that Scotland would be stronger and safer outside of the UK would strengthen. It would be a win-win scenario for the SNP.
In November and December, Miliband’s campaign team and strategists held sessions where they discussed how a minority government would work. It’s often forgotten that Labour actually oversaw four minority governments in the 20th century (twice under MacDonald, once under Wilson, and again under Callaghan). Perhaps another is due…
Photo credit: Paul Bednall