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The House of Commons

This is a whole new chapter in politics, for the British political system is in a state of deep crisis writes Alastair Stephens

No general election in living memory has been as unpredictable as this one.

This is not because the polls are inconsistent, or their accuracy doubted. In fact they have been fairly consistent. Nor is it because they are too close to call, for in past elections when Labour and the Tories were level-pegging you knew that one of them would win.

The problem is that voters are predicted to deliver a result that the Westminster system was not designed to deal with.

There are two sides to the chamber of the House Commons for a reason. It was built for a two-party system. A third of the voters simply are not meant to vote for other parties.

Unfortunately for our rulers they are about to do just that.

Nor are they supposed to vote for parties that reject the political consensus. And yet an anti-austerity, anti-Union (of England and Scotland) party will hold the balance of power.

Seats win prizes

At one level the constitutional convention is not complicated.

Whichever party leader can win a vote of confidence in the Commons is asked to form a government by the Queen. The number of votes won at the polls doesn’t matter, parliamentary seats do. Seats win prizes.

No party is predicted to reach the magic number of 326 seats in the Commons, nor is there any obvious coalition which can get over this barrier. The result could be deadlock. With the previous election also being indecisive the two-party system, which has dominated politics in this country for so long, could be about to hit the buffers.

The country may plunged into a political crisis of the first order.

We won't know the actual results until after the election, obviously, and polling can, in advance, only tell us so much. In recent elections polls have been reasonably accurate in terms of the share of the vote won nationally, but how this will turn into seats this time is much less predictable. Only constituency by constituency polling can predict this with any accuracy.

Given the uncertainty it is difficult to see how the next government will be formed, but it is clear that forming one will be difficult.

Outdated conventions

A number of scenarios, such as the SNP propping up the Tories, or a Labour coalition with the SNP, have already been specifically ruled out.

There are “rules" (a slippery concept when there is no written constitution) set out in the Cabinet Manual on how this should happen. They were drawn up by the Cabinet Office under Gordon Brown, and amended under Cameron, but are somewhat vague. On the subject of the formation of a minority government its advice is somewhat nebulous: “Where a range of different administrations could potentially be formed, political parties may wish to hold discussions to establish who is best able to command the confidence of the House of Commons and should form the next government.”

Yeah, thanks for that. Really useful.

It must be remembered that in general elections voters elect a local MP. Creating a government is a different process.

The Queen invites someone (who sits in the Commons, it is more than a century since a PM has sat in the Lords) to form a government who can command a majority in the Commons in a vote of confidence. According to the rules the sitting Prime Minister gets first dibs (after the dissolution he remains Prime Minister, for he and the rest of the cabinet are ministers of the Crown). Before the Queen can ask someone else to form a government, he (or she, but it is a ‘he’ at the moment) either has to resign or be forced out by losing a vote of confidence (as happened to the sitting Tory Prime Minister, Ted Heath, in October 1974).

It is not the case that the leader of the largest party gets to try to form a government first.

Government formation

Everybody is expecting the process of ‘government formation’ (as they call it in Europe) to take longer this time than 2010 when the Civil Service, media and most of the establishment united to rush the Lib Dems into a shotgun marriage with the Tories, making apocalyptic warnings about how ‘the markets’ would react if there was a delay. This was ridiculous. Britain is the oldest, and has been probably the most stable (bourgeois) democracy in the world. The idea that everything would go pear-shaped in a few days was completely ludicrous.

Elsewhere in Europe government formation takes time. Germany (a model of stability since the War) took five weeks after its last national election. Belgium managed to go a record 18 months without a government after a particularly indecisive election in 2010.

The problem facing both sides will be that the sitting Prime Minister will not have the votes to survive a vote of confidence if parties already pledged to vote against him (Labour, SNP, Plaid Cymru, SDLP, Greens) do so.

Milliband however will not be able to say that he can command a majority in the Commons either. As he has already ruled out a coalition with the SNP he can only claim that he could survive a vote of confidence.

There will be a balance of powerlessness.

All the parties are plotting to somehow either form a government or become part it, and failing that to squeeze as much political advantage out of the situation as possible.

So what are the scenarios?


1 Majority government

If one of the parties wins a majority of seats in the Commons (326) then they get to form a majority government, even if the other party wins more votes. Simples.

Except none of the polls suggest this is going to happen.

2 Neither Labour nor the Tories win a majority and they form Grand Coalition

Highly unlikely.

3Tories win most seats but not a majority

This is a distinct possibility. The polls have had the two parties neck-and-neck for months.  Many of them have had the Tories ahead by votes, if not seats.

One possibility is that Cameron will then just sit in Downing Street and try and form a minority government.  He might be particularly tempted to do so if the Tories get more votes than Labour.

He would then have to be forced out by a vote of confidence.

Using the SNP MPs to force Cameron out could look very bad for Labour, who of course will also be looking to form their minority government. Cameron might be tempted to sit tight for just that reason.

Such a manoeuvre by Cameron would also strengthen the hand of the SNP who could in theory abstain if Labour cold-shoulders them and refuse negotiate. The SNP would know that they could blame Labour for the failure to form an anti-Tory ‘progressive alliance’ whilst also knowing that they could bring down a Tory minority government at any time, this would put the onus on Labour to talk. A continued refusal to do so could well then lead to a final collapse of Labour in Scotland.

This would play terribly in England, and some in the SNP might not care as they don’t stand there, but the leadership seems not to be that daft, which makes this scenario unlikely, although possible.

On the other hand reports suggest that the Tories are all already plotting to form a minority government. Something that Clegg would both politically and personally favour.

On the other hand if Cameron did attempt a minority government, or even a minority coalition with the Lib Dems, there is a possibility that some in the Parliamentary Labour Party might go along with it.

If you cast your mind back you may remember that any possibility of a Labour led coalition was attacked from the Labour benches by the New Labour heavyweights David Blunkett and John Reid who denounced the idea of what was quickly labled by the media as a ‘coalition of losers’. Instead they preached the need for Labour to spend some time in opposition renewing itself after a long period in government.

But the renewal they had in mind was in the form of the other Miliband, not this one. As far as the Blairite ultras (who still dominate the parliamentary party and the party machine) are concerned the remaking of Labour is only half done and Miliband's leadership an interruption to this process. They might be willing to tolerate a Tory government whilst they put their own house in order (as the Tories did in 1923-24).

Finally for the Tories insistence on forming a minority government on the basis of total votes cast rather than seats own would be a break with convention (in a constitutional framework entirely based convention!) going back to the start of party politics. It would thus undermine the very basis of First Past The Post electoral system.

4 Labour most seats, Labour minority government

If Labour is the largest party then a minority government is the most likely prospect, and the one most people are betting on at the moment.

The road to a government though may not be smooth.

Miliband would not, as leader of the largest party, automatically be asked to form a government; he would only get that invitation from the Queen once Cameron had quit, which of course he may not do immediately (as described above).

His problem is that he can’t claim, unless he does a deal with the SNP, that he can command a majority in the Commons. He will just have to wait until he is asked to form a government and then test it in the House of Commons.

His rejection of a coalition is in fact narrower than it seems at first sight. There will be "no SNP ministers in any government I lead" he has stated (which must have caused the SNP a sigh of relief as the prospect of actually being asked to serve in a UK government would be their nightmare scenario).

That does not mean there could not be a lesser deal.

The most minimal deal would be for Confidence and Supply which means that other parties would agree to support a minority administration by voting for it (or abstaining) in any vote of confidence and voting for the government to be able to spend money (‘supply’).

However no government can survive like that for long because it needs to get other laws and measures through the Commons.

Labour would have to do a deal with the SNP on a legislative program to do this.

Such deals have happened before, such as Labour’s deal with the liberals that propped up Jim Callaghan's government in 1977-78 (known as the Lib-Lab Pact), but no one thinks that was a success.

But Labour will not want to do this. It would be like a coalition with the SNP, but one where the SNP did not join the government and avoid responsibility for unpopular measures (this of course is why Cameron was so keen to get the Lib Dems into a coalition in 2010, and look what it did to them).

The Tories and the media would also go mad condemning such a deal with a party that wants to "break up Britain", "destroy our defences" etc. The image of Milliband as Salmond’s puppet is already being used in the Tory press. We could expect a whole lot more of that and possibly a press campaign against Labour the like of which we have not seen since the so-called Zinoviev Letter affair.

A deal would also give the SNP a possible veto over the government’s program.

This would just be grist to the mill of the opponents of a deal in the Labour such as the Scottish party and the right of the party.

However without a deal how would Labour get its legislation through? They would then be at the mercy of the Tories and the Lib Dems instead.

Miliband could call the SNP's bluff, not do a deal with them and dare them to block his legislative program, and cause another election, which the Tories might well win.

Some in the SNP might actually favour this, seeing a period of revanchist Tory government as the surest road to a second referendum. The SNP though have long memories and would recall the last time that they brought down a Labour government the following one was led by Margaret Thatcher. Such an action would also undoubtedly repel most of their voters who had defected to them from Labour.

Labour and the SNP may be about to enter a high-risk game of bluff.

A solution to these dilemmas, from the ruling classes point of view, might be a coalition between Labour and the Lib Dems.

The Lib Dems might not bridge the gap to a Commons majority, but from the establishment’s point of view they would act as a guarantor for Labour’s good behaviour. They would also be portrayed as giving the government a broader political base.

That Nick Clegg has ruled it out the idea of the Lib Dems joining a coalition government dependent on “life support” from the SNP, is the surest sign that this is actually being discussed.

Nick Clegg does not have a good record when it comes to promises, but he is on the pro-Tory right of the party and his preferred option has always been a deal with the Tories, as was revealed in 2010.

However he may not be leader for long after the election. The polls suggest that he will loose his seat. If this is the case he would have to step down (it would be extraordinary for him to stay on in the circumstances) and the party would be free to elect a new leader.

The frontrunner is Tim Farron, who is on the left of the party, and has stated that if Labour gets more seats than the Tories then the Lib Dems would have to back Labour. The Lib Dems could change their spots as rapidly as they did in 2010 and face left, something they did under previous leader Charles Kennedy. Such a manoeuvre could also win them back some of the voters who couldn’t stomach the previous deal with the Tories.

Any such deal would be easier if some of the other most toxic Lib Dems lose their seats. Danny Alexander already seems utterly doomed, whilst the architect of the Coalition the execrable David Laws (who lost out on his dream job as cutter-in-chief due to being caught out in the parliamentary expenses scandal) could be ousted by the Tories.

The Nationalists might not like a Lib-Lab coalition, especially one specifically designed to undermine their position, but would they dare vote it out of office?

5 Tories most seats but fewer votes

Highly unlikely.

Problems all round

Some of the scenarios here sound fantastical, but five years ago few believed that the coalition would serve a full term. The parties are planning and talking about all of them. And fantastical things have already happened in this election campaign: nothing like the party leaders’ TV debate has ever been seen before in British politics. This is a whole new chapter in politics for the British political system is in a state of deep crisis.

What the main parties stand for is so out of alignment with what people want that the whole party system is starting to break apart. The failure to address this through either parties altering their policies or through fundamental reform of the political system to allow other voices to be represented is accelerating this process of decomposition.

Cameron's efforts to remodel the Tory party’s image into a more liberal, less viciously Thatcherite mould have clearly failed. Miliband has moved Labour to the left, but the party machine remains dominated by Blairites. The Lib Dems wanted to turn themselves into a responsible party of government and succeeded, but destroyed their own electoral base in the process.

All three big parties remain deeply committed to neoliberalism. It is a worldview that has been fundamentally compromised by the Great Recession. The reaction of the neoliberals however has been an attitude of "No Surrender" and to push on, something that has led to the fundamental misalignment between the people and the politicians.

The general election on 7 May, may yet prove to be rather than the beginning of the end of the crisis, the end of the beginning.

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.

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