January 28, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
It must be lonely being David Cameron these days. As the furore over the TV debates show, we are developing into a multi-party political system. But almost all of those parties look like they will run away from joining with him in government. Having talked rather glibly of a ‘progressive majority’ in 2010 as justification for their rather pathetic attempts to form a coalition after the election, the Labour Party today has good reason to look favourably upon their chances of that progressive majority being in government in a few months’ time.
Let’s look at the published opinions of the political parties first. No party apart from the Liberal Democrats, have said they are prepared to enter a formal coalition with anyone. They are, however, indicating that they would be prepared to enter into a more informal ‘confidence and supply ‘ agreement. This would mean that, after obtaining certain concessions, they would commit to voting with the government on any votes of confidence or on finance bills that involve supplying money for government spending. This is a dangerous situation, as by its very nature, this loose arrangement could involve, for instance, the SNP extracting concessions such as a second independence referendum and then withdrawing from the confidence and supply agreement at their own convenience.
The Lib Dems’ entire election strategy in fact is to point out that if they have enough seats to form a working coalition with anyone they will work to smooth out the areas of the major party’s policies that people don’t like. So they will cut less than the Conservatives and balance the budget more than Labour. But more importantly, they are hoping that the fact that they are committing to a formal coalition in future makes them sound more responsible as a potential government partner than the others, who seem to be after more ‘fly-by-night’ relationships. However, it is probably because the other parties have seen what happens to the Lib Dems’ support over the past five years as they had to deal with the responsibilities of being in government and decided it just isn’t for them.
But more interesting is the indicated direction of the partnerships proposed by the minor parties. Almost all of them are pointing towards putting Ed Miliband into Downing Street.
Consider this. The Greens and SNP have officially ruled out even an arms-length, ‘hold your nose’ relationship with the Conservatives. If Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru were asked, I have little doubt she would too. At first glance’ the increased popularity of these parties may seem good for zip Cameron as they could take seats from Labour. But in this era of multi-party government, what is happening instead is a build up of a left-wing ‘bloc’ of seats that, if it works, could keep the Conservatives out of government for a long time.
Some would argue that the Conservatives surely have a willing partner in UKIP. But they will demand concessions on the EU that Cameron just can’t provide, and it is unlikely that their wish to be seen as the plucky outsiders of politics will be helped by entering into any government soon. UKIP are posing their own problems because their votes are likely to cause Conservatives to lose more seats under our election system as they could deliver Labour victory in marginal battles.
The Lib Dems, although they have pronounced themselves prepared to join a Coalition with either the Conservatives or Labour, possibly contain more members comfortable with Labour, and given the choice, as they will be, may go that way too.
Then there is the DUP. They have 8 seats now. But could have 10 seats in May. Ed Miliband has found both they and the more left-leaning SDLP (who have three seats) particularly receptive in recent visits to his point that the Conservatives’ plan for cuts to spending will affect their constituents a lot more than most. Again, if the two major parties are tied, I suspect both would plump for Labour.
The development of this left-wing block of parties will be particularly interesting if they can agree on a coherent policy programme. I am not sure that they can, given the SNP have already indicated how unrealistic their demands may be. On the other hand, the SNP have said that they will help Labour by voting on English Health issues that affect public spending, as under the Barnett formula it also affects them.
So it is becoming easier to see why smart money is on Ed Miliband to be Prime Minister by the Summer. As to how voters will actually vote once in the sanctuary of the ballot box? Well that’s another story.