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.

Your MP has less choice than you think

I commented earlier in this blog about the increased fragmentation of the British electorate. This is not a new development, but it is a striking one – in 1951 the two largest parties won 97% of the vote between them; by contrast in 2010 they won 65%! Rather than comment on how this has come about, I’d like to argue that voting for a party other than the big two is less of an alternative choice than you might think.

One of my lesser celebrated modules during my master’s course was called “The Theory of Voting” – but being a political anorak I thoroughly enjoyed it! The core of the course is how you use voting mechanisms to reach decisions – recognising that voting is the fairest way to resolve differences. And one thing that we have to bear in mind is this – when decisions are reached, it ultimately comes down to a binary decision of yes or no – either you support the measure, or you don’t. Let us take the Budget – in practice you cannot accept 60% of the Budget bill. You can vote yes or no on amendments, but when the whole Budget is submitted, it is either accepted or rejected.

Let me briefly illustrate why this is important. There are (usually) 650 MPs sitting in the House of Commons – so you need 326 to have a majority. Advocates for third parties like to argue that they can argue for a moderate position compared to the bigger parties – to use a fictitious example: Party A argues for a 20% base tax rate, and Party B argues for a 40% tax rate. Party C, which is smaller, argues for a 30% tax rate. However, let’s consider what that would look like based on a House of Commons loosely based on the 2005 election results:

Party A has 202 MPs
Party B has 355 MPs
Party C has 62 MPs
And there are 31 ‘Others’ belong to other parties

Even if you put Party A, Party C and all the ‘Others’ together, you can’t come to 326 votes. In short – Party B will always get their way. Now – I recognise the capacity of sections of Party B to rebel against the government and help the opposition to defeat a government motion – but by and large they won’t do this – they represent the party they do because by and large they agree with their party’s platform! It doesn’t matter that there are (at least) three different parties in opposition – their collective opposition cannot defeat the government and doesn’t impact the outcome.

Of course, we currently have a so-called ‘hung Parliament’ in which no party has a majority. I still maintain that despite this, variance in opposition has no real impact. In the first instance – you still have the ‘majority’ problem. The coalition parties (at least on government business) vote as one bloc. That bloc has more than 326 MPs, and so even if you put all the opposition MPs together, they won’t win. Secondly however, if the smaller coalition partner is willing to rebel against the larger party, as the Lib Dems did when they voted with opposition MPs to amend changes to the Spare-Room-Subsidy reform, this makes for extremely unstable government. No government can plan fiscally responsible government if they consistently have to accommodate demands from Parliament. The upshot of this and final complication, is that a coalition government therefore will seek tight and binding agreements when they form a coalition to effectively prevent such rebellions – again bringing back the majority vote problem.

Your MP really has only one choice – to support the government or to oppose it. That is why I have argued, and will go on arguing, that you should choose your MP based on whether they will endorse the government or not. Having a different flavour of opposition MP won’t actually make any difference to the outcome in Parliament.