The dangers of the split electorate

Recent opinion polling has shown just how much the British electorate has fragmented – and perhaps the biggest shock of all is the extent to which the SNP is potentially poised to breakthrough in Scotland, and deprive Labour of several seats it had presumed to be safe. Based on latest polling averages which I entered into Electoral Calculus, I got the following projection of what the composition of the House of Commons might look like:

Hung Parliament

Projected seats based on opinion poll averages.

Having observed in my earlier post that a government needs 326 seats to win a majority you will notice the evident problem – not only do Labour and the Conservatives fall far, far short of a majority, it is mathematically impossible for two parties (apart from an unlikely grand coalition of Labour and Conservatives!) to collectively form a voting bloc of 326 seats. This is genuinely new territory in British politics.

It isn’t my intention to use this post to comment on the polls or on how votes convert to seats – those are two different stories! Instead I would make the following observations:

1: It will be almost impossible to form a stable coalition. The government would be formed by whichever one of the two largest parties could pull together a deal with enough MPs to support the government. The most simple would be with the SNP and Lib Dems – but that presumes that both parties are willing, not only to join a coalition, but moreover to sign to a coalition agreement with concessions made to every party, and the policy platform largely dictated by the largest party. That is highly unlikely given their diverse platforms.
2: A confidence and supply agreement is likely. This simply means that a party agrees to support (or in the very least, not vote against) major government items of business, such as the Budget or votes of no-confidence. The Lib Dems have been stung by a coalition government, and are unlikely to want to be a human shield again for either Labour or the Tories. The SNP meanwhile are entirely motivated by achieving maximum benefit for Scotland, and they know full well they are most likely to get that by winning concessions case-by-case.
3: Such a Parliament would be highly unstable. Our best comparison is the 1974-79 Parliament, where Labour had a minority government. When they lost the support of the Liberal Party, they had to broker deals with the smaller parties (Ulster Unionists, Scottish/Welsh Nationalists) to get their business through – and it was exhausting and unstable. It would be next to impossible to plan a coherent programme of government without having the security of a cohesive majority
4: There would be a huge risk of side-deals. To scrape together the necessary 326 for a given vote, the government may well just have to buy off as many MPs as required. With UKIP, the Green Party, and the various Northern Irish parties involved, that could quickly become complicated and or expensive – again, you would not have a coherent, cohesive or wise programme for goverment.

In view of this, I predict that if the result was as outlined above, the government would be forced to hold a fresh election very soon after the first election, to ensure some form of stable government. I’m still inclined to think however that the dangers set out above will concentrate the minds of the electorate – and however angry voters may be, they do not want to wake up with either Ed Milband or David Cameron being held hostage to fortune by the smaller parties.

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