Monday, 3 May 2010

UK Election - Unlikely, difficult, improbable, impossible?

I've been looking at various possible outcomes for the UK election, and my conclusions are that they are all unlikely.

It's a bizarre statement to make in any situation, but it reflects how little anyone can predict about what will happen on the 6th of May - less than 4 days away. While the polls have just changed the last few days to put the Conservatives out on top (thanks probably to the irrelevant event of bigotgate), it's nowhere near enough to be confident of an outright victory. Even outcomes considered impossible at previous elections (such as the Liberal Democracts coming 2nd) are now as likely - or rather, unlikely - as any other.

I've written a brief definition of terms at the bottom of this post.
Let's see what's on the cards!

Labour win majority - Very unlikely
Nobody wins elections - governments lose them. And after 13 years the mud has stuck. While we've seen a remarkable Labour fightback, it's no way enough to hand them a majority.

Conservatives win majority - Unlikely
After 13 years of Labour, it's amazing a naturally conservative country like Britain isn't automatically switching to the Conservative Party. For a Con majority the current polls would have to be drastically wrong.

Liberal Democrats come 2nd in votes - Unlikely
For Labour to drop to 3rd place in the national vote would be a vast change of scene for the country - too much to comfortably predict. Despite the recent LibDem bounce, many will switch back to Labour or Conservatives on polling day.

Liberal Democrats come 2nd in seats - Very unlikely
Even if the LibDems were to come 2nd in the national vote, to become the main opposition with the 2nd-most number of seats would be near impossible. Their surge in support this election is down to disillusionment with both main parties and the system itself, and the first-past-the-post electoral system discriminates strongly against support that is spread across the entire country.

Conservatives biggest party - Possible/probable
Going out on a limb here with "probable", but people want a change and it's mainly from Labour. While getting an actual majority is highly difficult for the Tories, getting the most number of seats is fairly straightforward. However this leads to an interesting situation... (see below)

Labour biggest party - Possible
Likewise, with the resurgent Labour Party doing much better than anyone would have predicted last year, it's still possible (if not very likely) that Labour will get the most seats in Parliament (just).

Labour-Lib Dem coalition - Possible
This is the most likely coalition in British politics - both parties claim to be left of centre and both parties have been talking of electoral reform (despite Labour doing nothing in the last 13 years, and it being the Lib Dems' principal demand). While Nick Clegg has been talking of Brown being an obstacle to electoral reform, if Labour won the most votes, neither party would be in a position to say no to a LibLab coalition government.

Conservative-Lib Dem coalition - Unlikely
Most Conservatives don't like the Liberal Democrats. They're furious this election that the LibDems have been doing so well when they should naturally be winning the election by a mile. They don't like the LibDems left-of-centre policies and, despite talking about civil liberties, Conservatives from the voters to David Cameron are more naturally suited to strong authoritarian government focused on middle-class property rights and working-class crime than on protecting civil liberties for all. Most of all though, Conservatives dislike the LibDems' demands for electoral reform and proportional representation - and they're fighting hard to do everything they can to avoid forming a LibCon coalition. They're even considering ruling as a minority government!

Any coalition with minor parties - Very unlikely?
I had this pegged as "very very unlikely", on the grounds that all of the minor parties below the Lib Dems have too few MPs and too different interests to make an impact. However, the financial times is reporting the Conservatives are talking with Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party about doing a deal in the event of a hung parliament, in order to avoid having to negotiate with the Lib Dems over electoral reform.

Personally I would have thought that national parties of Scotland and Wales, which are traditional Labour heartlands - neither of them elected any Conservative MPs in the 1997 election - would be strongly opposed to a party which has opposed devolution and which they often antagonise. But with 10 MPs between them at the moment, and probably more coming due to dissatisfaction with Labour, if the Conservatives get a big enough win it could make all the difference. Provided they can agree on anything!

So, what IS likely?
I had thought that at electoral reform was almost certain, with the Lib Dems doing extremely well and polls putting them 2nd - if it's a dead heat between Labour and Conservatives, Lib Dems will call the shots and get the reform they want (and arguably, Britain needs). However, as we draw close to election day, it's looking more likely that the Conservatives will either be able to pull off a coalition without the Lib Dems, rule as a minority government, or even possibly get a majority themselves - all of which would mean an end to the hopes of electoral reform.

So this leaves one thing I'm confident about:

Gordon Brown out, if not this election then within 2 years
If Labour lose this election - and it may be a good election to lose, because who wants to inherit this kind of mess? - there is no way Gordon Brown will stay as leader. However, even if Labour still hold power, he's likely to go anyway. Brown has lived in Downing Street for 13 years now, and it's highly likely he's had enough, and that his main incentive for winning is just to prove he could win an election, rather than for the love of being Prime Minister.

More importantly, it's highly unlikely Labour will continue to govern without a Lib Dem coalition - and Nick Clegg has already expressed his dislike of Gordon Brown. The Lib Dems can't argue for a new prime minister as soon as the election is over - but they can demand, as part of the "change" Britain wants and needs, that Gordon Brown step down soon.
There is very little possibility in any circumstance of Gordon Brown still leading the Labour party, in government or opposition, for more than another 2 years - at most.

Definitions - the boring bit
Majority: One party gets more seats in Parliament than all the rest of the parties combined (ie, at least half of all seats). This guarantees that the party will be an effective government, because it can make laws even if opposed by all the other parties.
Hung parliament: No party has a majority, and therefore can't be guaranteed to pass laws. This is a rare situation in British politics because of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, which the Lib Dems want to change.
Electoral reform: Changing the electoral system. The current FPTP system is a "simple majority" system, meaning each constituency elects the candidate with the most votes. This can be 40% of the votes, or even less, and majority governments almost never get more than 50% of the country's overall vote. It also pushes out the Lib Dems and minor parties who may have support spread across the country, which never translates into actual seats. As such the Lib Dems have constantly campaigned for changing the voting system, and Labour have talked about it for a long time - however it is only on the cards now because Labour are unlikely to win without forming a coalition with the Lib Dems.
Coalition: If no party has a majority, the government can try and form a coalition by joining with other parties. Usually agreements will be made on certain policies which means laws will still be passed. Critics say it leads to weak governments because laws have to be made in agreement and by consensus, creating compromise rather than decisive actions. However many countries, especially in Europe, have been ruled by coalition governments for decades.
Minority government: If no government gets a majority, the largest party can choose to govern without forming a coalition. Instead, agreements are formed with other parties and MPs on each issue as they come up. This is more risky than forming a coalition, as the support needed to pass laws may not be there; however, the Conservatives are apparently considering it an option rather than forming a coalition with the Lib Dems. An example of a minority government today is Canada.


  1. Either a Conservative or Labour minority is expected, I except to see either. Although I won't call which, it's 60/40 in favour of the Conservatives I believe.

    I don't feel you can predict how people's votes will differ from the polls on election day, we could see many people vote for Lib Dems that were not planning on it. I expect them to come in second place if they continue to place 1-2 points above Labour.

    The only way they'll get the second most seats is if Labour drop to 20-21%. Seems unlikely. Although I'd love to see it.

    I can't see a Labour-Lim Dem coalition, Brown has been too hard on the Lib Dems. The only way this could happen is if Clegg is prime minister, or perhaps another labour MP... but then the liberals wouldn't be happy that he/she was unelected by voters (despite the fact we don't vote for party leaders / the prime minister anyway). Thus I see a Conservative-Lim Dem coalition more a bit more likely - hard to see how that would work though. I don't know about them talking about ruling as a minority party, no-one wants to admit to a coalition as that might disencourage voters. I could see the SNP and possibly Plaid Cymru forming a coalition if there are enough MPs from them to push an overall majority.

    I can't see Brown leaving in the next three years if Labour did win an outright majority, simply because things could only get better. We can agree to disagree here. All other circumstances would lead to Brown being out, I agree here.

  2. Thanks for the comment Robin, especially for being thoughtful and considered.
    Fair call on that last point, I should have said "ALMOST any circumstance". If Labour were to get an overall majority, then Brown would probably think of it like a divine sign that people wanted him to stay on. Having said that, Labour getting an overall majority is not only extremely unlikely, but would leave a large section of the country - possibly the majority - very unhappy! :)