Wednesday, 15 October 2014

General Election 2015: a constitutional car-crash in the making?


No-one seems to like professional politicians any more. Actually, they haven't for some while, and the personal ratings of Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major at their nadirs made pretty horrendous reading - not quite as bad as Ed Miliband's and Nick Clegg's numbers, to be sure, but bad, bad, bad, all the same.

Still, the disintegration of past class allegiances, regional identities, ideological narratives and past voting loyalties do all seem to be accelerating. About half of all voters will probably make up their minds on General Election 2015 right up close to the day itself - as they did in 2010. Younger voters (though, to be honest, many of them aren't registered, let alone likely to actually cast a ballot) are the most likely to change their views.

Which opens up an opportunity - for the United Kingdom Independence Party, of course, which now looks likely to take maybe between four and ten seats in May. But also for the Greens, who could perhaps seize one more (in Norwich South, perhaps?) on the basis of their increasingly impressive polling and on-the-ground efforts. And lastly for the Scottish National Party, which might make it to twelve to eighteen seats on the back of sympathetic Labour-leaning 'yes' voters and the Liberal Democrat collapse which helped them so much in the Holyrood election of 2011.

All of which will leave us with a pretty confusing House of Commons, that's for sure. All of our most powerful statistical models now have a Hung Parliament, with no party in overall control, nailed on as a certainty. It would take a pretty unlikely electoral upheaval to put David Cameron or Ed Miliband in total control of the lower chamber (above).

Take a look at the numbers. Let's assume 5 UKIP members, 18 SNP members, 30 Liberal Democrats and 2 Green MPs. Not so far from potential reality given the numbers we have right now. Now let's say that there are 3 Plaid Cymru MPs, and the 13 Northern Ireland Members who (unlike Sinn Fein) will take up their seats at Westminster. that gives us 73 MPs who do not owe allegiance to the 'big two',

Now let's have a think about where Labour and the Conservatives might get to. Perhaps the Conservatives will make it to 290 seats, and Labour to 283. At the moment, our glide path towards early May is taking us to somewhere around that.

No stable coalition will be possible. You need to get to around 322 seats to control the House of Commons with a majority of one, given the neutral speaker, and the non-attending Sinn Fein members. The Conservatives plus the Liberal Democrats would nearly get there, with 320 MPs, If you throw in an alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party, you might see an overall working majority of 12. But it seems unlikely, given the still-radioactive nature of Northern Ireland politics, that the Conservatives would want to go into formal coalition with the DUP. On the other hand Labour, plus the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the three SDLP members and the one Alliance MP from Northern Ireland (and two Greens) would equal 322. A working majority of one, while holding all those parties together? No chance.

In days gone by, there would have been two elections in 2015 to try to sort this out. Or perhaps another contest in the spring of 2016. But there's less chance of that now, for the absurd and dangerously muddled Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2011 (opens as PDF) mandates that only a two-thirds majority of MPs can dissolve Parliament. So the minority can hold a gun to the head of the sitting government, saying 'go on then, keep governing, keep getting more unpopular, keep on muddling through and putting sick MPs through the lobbies. You're just where we want you'. So we could potentially see a struggling government labour (or, indeed, Labour) on, mortally wounded, for year after year.

Now it's true that the Act also stipulates that a dissolution has to take place if a government can't be formed after fourteen days, so (for instance) a battered Cameron or Theresa May-led government might choose to take to the life rafts and force Labour to take up the reins of power. For who would want to say 'no, we can't do it' and trigger an immediate appointment with an impatient electorate?  Would a broke Labour Party, under an unpopular leader, really risk another contest against a cash-rich Conservative grouping under new leadership? Nope. The Opposition would have to get into those ministries and try to make it work, as a minority if necessary. But it wouldn't take long for that new minority Labour or 'rainbow' government to run into trouble as well. And we'd be right back to square one.

So we'd be stuck, potentially for some time, with a malfunctioning Parliament. That's why there's been some early speculation about a Grand Coalition between the Conservatives and Labour, or perhaps a Labour and Liberal Democrat deal with the SNP to provide confidence and supply - basically, a promise not to bring the Government down.

But there's no doubt about it. The General Election of 2015 is threatening to produce only deadlock - and a great deal of constitutional pain.

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