Election 2015: What happens next?

Akash Paun is a Fellow of the Institute for Government, and author of the recent report Westminster in an age of minorities http://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/ publications/westminster-age-minorities-0

With British voters unlikely to give any party a majority in the General Election, constitutional expert Akash Paun of the Institute of Government examines the possible outcomes

The UK general election remains on a knife edge. The polls predict a parliament with the two large parties short of a majority, and a large bloc of Scottish nationalists potentially holding the balance of power. The Liberal Democrats – currently the junior party of the coalition – are likely to be severely diminished, but may nonetheless be in a position to determine the composition of government.

For Westminster this would be an unusual outcome. Since 1945 there have been only two elections (in 1974 and last time round, in 2010) when neither the Conservatives nor Labour won an overall majority of seats. As a result, government formation has usually been swift – the victorious leader safely behind their desk in Downing Street the day after the election, appointing ministers and getting acquainted (or re-acquainted) with the levers of power.

Quirks of ‘first past the post’

The election of May 2010, which led to the formation of the first peacetime coalition in 80 years, came as a shock to the Westminster system. Yet the main reason why we have not seen hung parliaments more frequently is simply the increasingly disproportional outcomes of the “first past the post” electoral system. Labour and the Conservatives have continued to win more than 85% of the seats between them, even as their combined vote share has fallen to 65% (from a peak of 97% in 1951).

Smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and UKIP tend to ‘waste’ their votes, which are spread thinly across the country rather than piling up in particular areas to ensure the election of their candidates.

The system has recently worked particularly in favour of the Labour Party, which won an overall majority (55%) of seats in 2005 on the back of just over a third (35%) of all votes cast. The pro-Labour effects of the system reflect a number of factors, including an outdated electoral map that has not kept up with demographic change (such as movement of people from Labour-supporting cities to Conservative-supporting suburbs).

Labour also benefits from a more ‘efficient’ distribution of their votes, differential turnout – fewer people show up to vote in poorer, Labour areas – and tactical voting, as supporters of smaller parties (most of which sit to the left of the political centre) are more likely to switch their votes to Labour to keep out the Conservatives than the other way around. The general point is that Labour ‘wastes’ fewer votes.

Northerly winds of change

In 2015, however, the nationalist surge in Scotland may wipe out much of Labour’s advantage. Current forecasts suggest – incredibly – that the SNP may win virtually all of Scotland’s 59 seats (Labour currently holds 41 of them), even if Labour holds on to a quarter of the vote or so. This would more or less guarantee that Labour cannot form a majority government.

But nor – barring a dramatic late rally or an embarrassing failure for the opinion polling industry – will the Conservatives. The party of Prime Minister David Cameron is forecast to gain some English seats from the Liberal Democrats, but to lose others to Labour.

What if Britain can’t decide?
If we do have an uncertain election result, what happens next? One key principle is that the country must always have a government. So David Cameron and his ministers will remain in office while the dust settles. Last time, outgoing PM Gordon Brown resigned five days after the election, when it had become clear both that he had lost his majority and that the Conservative leader would be able to form a stable government with the support of the Liberal Democrats.

This time, the process may take longer, although there is likely to be media and political pressure on all parties to resolve the uncertainty in time for the Queen’s Speech on 27 May.

The Queen’s Speech

The Queen’s Speech is both an important symbolic occasion – marking the State Opening of the new session of Parliament – and a crucial political test for any new government. The Speech is written for the Sovereign by the government of the day, and sets out the government’s main legislative plans for the coming year.

Following a few days of debate, there are votes on the Speech that are taken as tests of “confidence” – that is, measures of whether the government has sufficient support in parliament to remain in office.

One possible scenario in 2015 is that David Cameron would remain as Prime Minister up until the Queen’s Speech to present his programme without being certain of victory. Defeat would then trigger his resignation and the Leader of the Opposition would get a chance to form a government.

If Labour was also unable to win the confidence of the House, another election might be the only solution. But this seems unlikely, since the parties responsible for bringing about such a crisis would surely be punished at the polls by an election-fatigued public.

It’s also important to note that a government need not secure the active support of a majority of all MPs in a confidence vote; it must only ensure that more MPs vote for than against it. This means that other parties can abstain to signal their non-support for the government without triggering a collapse.

So what form of government might we see present a Queen’s Speech to the House in three weeks? Another formal coalition is a possibility: the Liberal Democrats have signalled a willingness to work with either of the large parties. But if dozens of Scottish nationalists are elected (along with another 20 or so minor party representatives) then the parliamentary arithmetic may not work.

The SNP would oppose the formation of another Conservative-led government, but nor is a Labour-nationalist coalition a realistic option: Labour have ruled out any deal. This means that we may end up with a minority government led by one of the large parties, perhaps with some sort of semi-formalised cooperation agreement with other parties.

Can it last?

Would such a government last? Previous minority Prime Ministers have sought to call an early election at a politically auspicious moment, in search of a clearer mandate (as in 1974). However, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011 rules out this tactic – although an early election could still occur if the government is defeated on a confidence vote and no other government is viable.

For any leader of a minority administration, this means that they will face the prospect of needing to build alliances on an issue-by-issue basis over a full five-year period. That would be challenging, but not impossible.

The British people seem set to deliver a verdict that no single party deserves full control of the country, and therefore that effective government will require cross-party cooperation of some form. If that is indeed the result, it will then be for the politicians to demonstrate that they can rise to this task.