Friday, 21 November 2014

The death of the swingometer

At the last election, no one party had a majority. At the next one, we may go one further: no two parties will have a majority.

It is very likely that no two plausible partners would have enough seats. The only pairings that could combine to make the 326 seats needed are the impossible Tory ones: with Labour, and with the SNP. A majority coalition government would require at least three parties.

The Tories may remain the biggest party, but they will not be able to form a government. Even if the Lib Dems wanted another coalition with them, they won’t have the numbers. The two coalition parties need to lose 34 seats between them to lose their majority. The Lib Dems could easily do that on their own. And if they don’t, Tory losses to UKIP will make up the difference.

There is no one else the Tories could do a deal with. The elephant wearing a barbour jacket and insisting on smoking in the room is, of course, UKIP. But because every UKIP gain is likely to be a Tory loss, they won’t give themselves more MPs by allying with UKIP: you don’t make a cake larger by cutting more slices.

And the Tories would be very reluctant to give UKIP the validation of power. Teaming up with the Tories may have been electoral hemlock for the Lib Dems, but it may be viagra for UKIP. And the major parties will be united in making sure they don’t get any.

Anyway, a Tory coalition with UKIP would need the Lib Dems too to make the maths work. Surely the Lib Dems would bail out of a coalition if UKIP joined it. The Lib Dems may do anything for power but, even for Nick Clegg, the offer of sharing a cabinet table with Farage would be his Meatloaf moment: ’I won’t do that’.

UKIP will only achieve a moderate breakthrough, and get less than ten seats. This will be terribly unfair, as they will have got about a tenth of the votes. However, they will be unable to complain about it, as the only solution would be proportional representation, which smells foreign.

The ‘swing’ that has traditionally defined British elections may scarcely happen at all. In all elections up to this one, there has been a swing from Conservatives to Labour or vice versa. But there is no sign of it this time. Very few people who voted for one of the major parties last time will now change their mind and vote for the other one.

Some Tory seats will go UKIP. And some Labour seats will go SNP, and slightly more Lib Dem seats will go to Labour. And this is all that will happen. It will be like a round of musical chairs where the two favourites are allowed to stay in their seats playing Yahtzee.

Before the last couple of general elections, the period of the campaign has made no net difference to the parties’ standings. The opinion polls fluctuate wildly - in 2010 this was mainly because you never knew if the electorate would wake up thinking Nick Clegg was Churchill or Dr Crippen. But the opinion polls would end up exactly where they started, and the election result would agree. This shows that every single campaign dollar has been wasted, and the parties would have been wiser spending the money on filling a swimming pool with tinned peaches.

This time the feeling of futility is similar, but amplified. This time, it is not three weeks of campaigning that has failed to inspire any voters to change their minds, but five years of government. The Conservatives have not won anyone over as they put their plans into practice. More depressingly, Labour have not landed enough convincing punches on the government, let alone set out an inspiring alternative. Neither party has attracted a significant number of supporters from any source, other than the sinking Lib Dem ship.

In replacing Gordon Brown with Ed Miliband, Labour have simply replaced one kind of electoral liability with another. And David Cameron having power has had very little effect on people’s opinion of him. Before he became prime minister, large parts of his natural supporter base had serious reservations about him. And five years on, they still have.

A very large number of voters are planning on voting for a different party in 2015 from their 2010 choice. But this is a feature of UKIP coming from nowhere, and the Lib Dems travelling in the opposite direction. In terms of the two major parties, very little has changed. Those who vote for the two major parties in 2015 will do so with little enthusiasm, and without changing their minds from 2010.

If the result is a coalition of ‘everyone against the Tories and UKIP’, this may not be the worst thing for Labour. The current coalition has seen Tory plans (very occasionally) diluted by Lib Dem priorities. In a coalition you expect compromise. But if Labour forms a government with nationalists and Greens, then the junior partners will be pressuring Labour into more truly Labour policies. Labour may end up as the most right-wing party in their coalition.

Even the Lib Dems are likely to choose a more left-wing leader after the 2015 election, to draw a line under the Tory coalition years. This would also make them comfier partners in a left-wing coalition. Labour could be falling in with a very improving crowd.

So the BBC may have to retire the swingometer, and stick it in a storage cupboard with Posh Paws and Jan Leeming. But there is a more meaningful change in British politics. No major party has ever written a manifesto expecting a coalition. Labour and Tory manifestos have always been a plan for government, and the Lib Dem one has always been piece of fantasy fiction.

But this time, all manifestos will be written more like a menu, with negotiable options. People will know that, whatever happens, they’re not going to get everything the manifesto promises. Of course, that’s always the case - but previously it’s been the fault of incompetence and duplicity. This time it’ll be for the healthier reason that democracy is complicated.

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