Where to start? For fellow election junkies, this has been a particularly frustrating campaign.
The General Election is the one time every five years when political discourse becomes, temporarily at least, public discourse. Its an opportunity like no other to engage the electorate with the serious. substantive issues of the day and to illuminate unseen parliamentary processes. If you want to wake the body politic from a collective slumber, here’s your opportunity.
So why the frustration? Because rather than using the media glare to enlighten voters, it has instead been used to blind them. We’ve been left groggily stumbling through a murky stream of misinformation. The key narratives of the campaign have been based on little short of fantasy yet they they’ve abounded airwaves and saturated soundbites. The political discourse has been woeful.
So consider this my contribution. My small effort to insert some facts amidst the fatuous. Some sense into the spin. I’ve not tried to cover all the myths (who has the time?) but hopefully the below at least sheds some light on the key claims and counter claims about what awaits us in the days and weeks to come. Enjoy and happy voting.
1. The party with the most votes is the winner?
Nope. In British politics, the aim of the game is getting a majority in Parliament . That means 323 seats (Sinn Fein don’t take up their 3 seats).
This is what is referred to as a ‘Majority Government‘. This matters because you need enough votes to be able to pass legislation, to govern. Ultimately, the test of your right to form a government is whether you can survive a vote of confidence in parliament. Do you have the support of enough MPs? Whether they belong to your party or not does not enter the equation.
In 2010, no one party won enough seats to govern alone and so we ended up with the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. They chose to enter a formal coalition but they could just have reasonably agreed a confidence and supply agreement with a Minority Tory Government. Together they had the numbers, alone they didn’t. Constitutionally this is the ONLY measure of a Government’s legitimacy.
5 years ago Gordon Brown was unable to get the numbers and so resigned as the constitution demands (Cabinet Manual, Paragraph 2.12). Come the 8th of May, The Prime Minister will be required to do the maths once again. If he cannot realistically find a majority he must go, whether he has most seats or not.
2. Deal or No Deal? Ed Miliband and the SNP
The Tories have got Labour between a rock and a hard place and Ed Miliband knows how damaging suggestions that he’ll be held to ransom by the SNP are in England, whether they are true or not.
He also wants to undercut Nicola Sturgeon’s message in Scotland that a vote for the SNP is a vote for a more progressive Labour government. Hence why he’s ended up being ever more definitive in his refusal to ‘deal’ with the SNP than he perhaps would have liked at the start of the campaign.
Labour won’t be getting a majority (neither it seems will the Tories) so will need the support of MPs outside their party. On current polling that would mean SNP MPs. So what constitutes a deal? Well it seems fair to assume both the most formal Confidence and Supply agreement and a Coalition fall into that category but what about informal conversations and reassurances in the halls of Westminster? Labour are essentially calling the SNP’s bluff. Having promised to ‘lock out’ the Tories, would the nationalists dare vote down a Labour minority government?
Even without a formal deal, provided Ed Millband can be sure he will not lose a vote of confidence, he can govern as the leader of a minority government. This would then leave him needing to secure support for legislation on a vote by vote basis. To be successful he’ll no doubt have to make some concessions and offer incentives along the way with the SNP as well as others but lets be clear about something. This is how the parliamentary system operates already. Even Majority Governments have to curry favour with friends and foes across the chamber at times. Add to this the fact that, whisper it quietly, the SNP spending plans and many of their manifesto commitments are very similar to those already made by Labour and this could lead to a reasonably productive parliamentary term.
But what if Labour can’t get SNP support? Can the nationalists block trident? Well, if all the above sounds complicated, this shouldn’t. Labour & The Conservatives both support Trident. As long as the Conservatives vote in favour of it, SNP MPs can do nothing. The same applies to any attempts to secure Full Fiscal Autonomy for Scotland. So yes, Ed Miliband will talk to the SNP and may even make some concessions on a vote by vote basis. Whether that counts as a deal is up to you.
3.There’ll be another election before Christmas
We’ve had plenty of scaremongering this election but we’re really through the looking glass when politicians start threatening us with an election. So when Nick Clegg says “the last thing Britain needs is a second election before Christmas”, what is he really getting at?
Simply put, Clegg’s argument is that a Minority Government (be it Conservative or Labour) would be too unstable and bound to collapse, thus triggering a second election before Christmas. What he’s getting at is that in a Hung Parliament the only stable solution is a Coalition, with as it happens, the Lib Dems at its heart. Had he been talking in May 2010, he could well have had a point (a failure to pass a Queen’s Speech or budget could have prompted one) but he wasn’t and that matters because whilst Deputy Prime Minister he helped pass the Fixed Term Parliament Act (2011) . This set a fixed term of 5 years for each parliament and removed the power of the Prime Minister to choose the timing of the election. In order to call an election earlier than this, two thirds of MPs (including Sinn Fein) need to vote in favour of parliament’s dissolution. Importantly it also made clear that only a specific vote of no confidence could trigger an election. Even in this situation, it still allows the political parties 14 days to form an alternative government. A new vote of confidence would then be held and were that to fail the clock would reset and we’d have up to another 14 days (a few goes of this and you might be wanting an election). Minority governments have survived reasonably well in the past and the FTPA makes that even easier. This is a point made by Professor Colin Talbot in his excellent blog on the issue.
So will we have a second election before Christmas? Maybe but its a lot less likely than it used to be, ironically in large part thanks to Clegg himself.