Seventy days to go, and no party is opening up a significant or sustainable lead. An overall majority government of one complexion is looking increasingly unlikely.
It looks like we are on course for another hung Parliament. Already, the speculation is growing that such an outcome would lead to another election, close on the heels of the vote in May.
But how real is that possibility?
In the scenario of a hung Parliament, where one of the major parties lacks a potential partner of sufficient size to create a combined majority, or where more complex coalition or ‘pact’ discussions are getting stuck, the prospect of an electoral re-match could quickly intensify.
Will party leaders be tempted? That might depend on how close one of them is to that elusive majority. If just short, the temptation may be greater than if 30-40 seats short. But even so, there are some warnings from history. Second elections may not change very much!
There were three short (under one year) Parliaments in the twentieth century.
The first ran for 10 months in 1910. That year’s second election produced an almost identical result to the first: the Liberals – in government – put on less than 1 percentage point in the vote and lost three seats; the Conservative opposition lost half of one percentage point of the vote and lost one seat. The Irish Nationalists – the third force – gained two seats.
The second ran for 7 months in 1974. That year’s second election again produced a very similar result to the first. Labour, in government, added two percentage points to its vote share but only gained 18 seats. The Conservative opposition lost two percentage points of the vote share and shed 20 seats. The Liberals – the third force – lost one percentage share of the vote and one seat.
Only the third short Parliament of the last century tells a different story. The 1923 Parliament lasted 10 months. The Conservatives saw their vote share in the second election (in 1924) rise by 10 percentage points and their seat tally rise from 258 to 419. The minority Labour government also enjoyed a small increase in vote share but saw its seat tally drop from 191 to 151. The big losers were the Liberals whose seat tally dropped from 159 to 40 on the back of a 12 percentage point drop in vote share.
Current leaders may be salivating at the thought of repeating the Conservative’s 1924 surge. But it would only be a fantasy. The 1924 election was about re-polarisation, after Labour having governed alone for the first time in history.
We are not in re-polarisation any more. We are in de-polarisation.
The warning from history to those contemplating a quick second election comes from the first two cases, not from the third.
So the first grounds for caution come from the fact that another election, so soon, may not produce any change anyway.
But there are other reasons to hold back. Modern elections are very expensive for cash-strapped parties. For most, a second run would result in huge debts. And if all that worry is in order to confirm the result of the first election, why take it on?
Then there is the question of the impact of policy. What could a minority government do in just a few months to substantially change the political landscape? It’s hard to see what a Conservative government could do, given that its election pitch is all about ‘staying on course’. Could Labour, from a minority position, change enough on the ground – given the heavy financial constraints – to change the political music?
Then there is the Five Year Parliament Act. It isn’t the absolute final word. If it can muster a majority across parties, Parliament could repeal it for one thing. If it remains in force, it encourages the parties to find alternative government arrangements before going for a dissolution.
Both the main parties may feel, after the May vote, that they have been hurt by the advance of minor parties – UKIP will have bitten chunks out of Conservative support, possibly costing them a clutch of potential gains. The SNP may well have bitten chunks out of Labour. Would either main party have sufficient grounds for thinking that their base erosion could be reversed at a second poll? The risk of the erosion spreading further the next time around may be greater.
Considerations of political interest are likely, in the end, to weigh against a quick second election.
Then, finally, there is the mood of the voters. What was their May verdict? If it is as the polls currently indicate, the verdict is one of a lack of trust and confidence in ‘the political class.’ If the political class turns back and says, in effect, you got that result wrong, please try again, the invitation to revolt may get even more tempting!
However inconclusive the result, the political leaders may have to conclude that the voters have given their verdict and they had better get on with it as best they can.