19 Mar

What will the next British government look like?

Working as a political consultant, I’m often asked what my prediction for the general election result is. Given how close the polls are, I try not to give a definitive answer; after all, what looks like a dead cert right now might turn out to be a rash guess in a couple of weeks’ time.

Senior Conservative and Labour politicians are also trying not to answer the question. With polls still neck and neck, the British media regularly ask them which smaller parties they would be willing to work with in order to form a government. Unable to rule out cooperation, but reluctant to look like they’re conceding defeat, they are reduced to saying they are still ‘running to win’. But they have dropped some fairly heavy hints, from which we can make some educated guesses as to the likely shape and colour of the next government.

In a normal British election, it’s only the views of senior Conservative and Labour politicians that genuinely matter, with the Liberal Democrats thrown in as an occasional foil to both. But this year, there are seven parties attracting enough popular support to count. The leaders of these parties have been more than happy to express who they might work with if the electoral mathematics adds up in their favour. This all gives us some interesting if intricate clues about Labour’s and the Conservatives’ options in May.

The most straightforward is the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Nigel Farage, its magnetic, pint-drinking, cigar-smoking leader, has announced that he’ll support more or less anyone who will give him a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, and quickly. However, he has ruled out entering formal coalition with either main party as he doesn’t want to be seen as ‘selling out to the establishment’. Instead, UKIP would work on a vote-by-vote basis, known as ‘confidence and supply’, to support the Government in return for his cherished plebiscite. He will have stringent demands about the precise timing and wording of the referendum question, but is unlikely to make significant further demands on the government as a price for his support.

The left-leaning nationalist Scottish National Party (SNP) is also a fairly straightforward case. Its new leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has ruled out working with the Conservatives at all. The SNP will work with Labour, but Labour won’t invite the SNP to join a coalition because it can’t be seen to be forming a government with a party that wants to break up the UK. So again, a vote-by-vote arrangement is likely, although the price Labour will pay for this demand for greater powers for Scotland.

The Liberal Democrats, currently in coalition with the Conservatives, are grappling with a record drop in popularity and internal debates about the party’s future. As the nearest thing the UK has to a centrist party, it may work with either party after the election. However, grassroots members are dismayed that the party is paying the electoral price for unpopular decisions taken in government, and many are wary of ruling again. Most average Lib Dems are more left-wing than its leadership, resulting in potential tensions if the Conservatives win the most seats. If it does scrape through with enough seats to be electorally relevant, it may support the Conservatives or Labour on a vote-by-vote basis.

The Greens experienced a popularity surge at the end of 2014, catapulting its Australian-born leader, Natalie Bennett, on to the national stage. However, its stock has recently fallen again following several disastrous media interviews. The Greens have firmly ruled out working with the Conservatives, and are unlikely to attract enough votes to be able to make significant demands on Labour in return for their support. It would, however, work with the SNP and Plaid Cymru to form a left-wing voting block to advance its goals.

Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, is likely to attract slightly more support than the Greens, and also sits on the left of the political spectrum. The party is open to an alliance with the SNP and the Greens to prop up a Labour-led government, though like the others it is very unlikely to form any sort of coalition.

Of course, the demands of each party for concessions as a price for support entirely depend on how many seats they win in May. The British electoral system does not reward popular support with a guarantee of electoral success – indeed, it actively favours larger parties with concentrated ground operations in target seats. For that reason, my personal view is that talk of huge gains for UKIP, and huge losses for the Liberal Democrats, is probably overblown. It’s likely that Labour will lose many seats in Scotland to the SNP, and it’s possible that the SNP will become the third party of British politics for the next Parliament.

For that reason, if I had to make a prediction, it would be this: I think the Conservatives will win the most seats, but not enough for an overall majority. That will force them either to try and work as a minority government, or into support negotiations with UKIP or the Liberal Democrats (it’s also possible that they will work with the Democratic Unionists, a Northern Irish party.)

But I don’t believe that either UKIP or the Liberal Democrats will win enough seats to successfully prop up a stable Conservative government. So for that reason, after several days of uncertainty, I believe that an formal grouping of leftist parties will forge an agreement, putting Ed Miliband into 10 Downing Street. How long this will last is a wide open question. And please ask me what my view is this time next week – it may have changed.

Mark Detre is a government relations and communications manager currently based in London.

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