Friday, May 7th, 2010 01:08 pm
Disclaimer: this is a complex subject, in which the outcome depends on a huge number of factors. I know a little about some of those factors, but that's about it, and people's stated positions on this are changing almost hourly. Therefore, what I write here shouldn't be taken with any confidence at all, nor thought of as a prediction. At best, it's a vague mapping out of a few of the potholes on the road ahead. At worst, most of it will turn out to be wrong or irrelevant, and will be contradicted by events, quite possibly before I've even had a chance to hit 'Post'.

Observation one: fifty-something MPs is a very small number from which to demand far-reaching concessions with long-term consequences. So no coalition with the Lib Dems is going to deliver full-blown electoral reform. The very best we can hope for is the promise of a referendum, but with much of the press and both the major parties backing FPTP, while that would be fun, it would also be expensive and pointless. I can see (and would approve of) us doing much sabre-rattling about Proportional Representation while quietly obtaining concessions on civil liberties, banking reform, the £10,000 tax threshold and education. These are all shorter term things that our coalition partners can overturn as soon as they get a majority. Note that 'as soon as they get a majority' pretty much relies on not bringing in a proportional voting system which is why, I say again, I don't think PR will happen. Tory and Labour MPs alike will not support a system that means they're never likely to have a majority again.

Observation two: we may not be talking about a coalition, but a minority government. A minority government has worked well in Scotland for the past three years. Note, though, that there the party in power is the SNP, which has no particular aversion to the idea of a hung or balanced parliament. Whichever of Labour or the Tories forms a minority government in the UK, it will be a party used to having a majority government, and with a vested interest in making a hung parliament look very, very bad indeed.

Expect a couple of years of every last painful decision to be blamed on a hung parliament (the Tories have already laid the groundwork for this in their infamous Hung Parliament Party broadcast). Expect announcements of the form: 'and we'll to shut a third of all hospitals; we were hoping not to have to do this, but the UK's economic recovery has been worse than forecast because of the hung parliament', and 'yes, soldiers are still dying in Afghanistan for a mission that no-one's properly defined yet, it's because of the paralysis caused by the hung parliament'.

After a couple of years of this, expect that party nominally in charge to hold an election and ask the voters to deliver a real mandate to govern by giving them a majority. If they time it really well, they'll be able to get a majority just as the economy is starting to recover as a natural part of the cycle, and be able to point to hung parliaments as a sign of economic disaster for a generation to come. (Actually, that holds just as well for a coalition as for a hung parliament).

Observation three: as that party with both the largest number of votes and the largest number of seats, the momentum is with the Tory party. When Nick Clegg said: "If a party with no majority has the strongest mandate, we accept the principle that that party has the right to govern either on its own or to reach out to others," he didn't spell out what he meant by a mandate. However, I can't see any reading that doesn't currently have the Tories as the single party with the strongest mandate. So by his own reasoning, Nick Clegg should accept the Tories' right to be the first party to try to form a government. That doesn't mean a Tory/Lib coalition is at all inevitable, though, nor does it rule out a Lib/Lab one if the Tories don't turn out to be able or willing to govern on their own. And bear in mind that I still think a minority government rather than a formal coalition is likely.

Observation four: it's a bloody good thing that their historical antipathy makes it almost impossible that the Tories and Labour should form a coalition. In many of their actual policies, they're a lot closer to each other than they are to the Lib Dems, even if the political zeitgeist hasn't quite caught up to this yet and still thinks of the Lib Dems as mid-way between them on everything. Fortunately, I think such a coalition would be literally unthinkable to most people in both parties.

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