The Lib Dems promise to back the 'largest' party - but do they mean votes or seats?

It’s entirely possible that Labour could end up with the most seats but a smaller share of the vote than the Tories.

So then, how do we, under the crazy first-past-the-post electoral system that we’re lumbered with, define the word 'largest'.

I only ask, because, as Labour’s opinion poll ratings start to shrink and suddenly they start thinking that perhaps, this time, it would be best to do a bit of planning for how a coalition agreement might be hammered out, rather than trying to sort it on the fly (prompted by the publication of Andrew Adonis’s new book on the chaos that occurred last time), it suddenly seems a very relevant question.

In 2010, we in the Lib Dems were very clear that in any potential coalition negotiations, we would talk to the largest party first; and by largest we meant 'most seats'. Andrew Stunnell (part of the Lib Dem negotiation team last time round) has now come out and said the same will hold true next time, should the same come to pass.

But is 'most seats' actually the right answer? Given the bias in the system, it’s entirely possible that Labour could end up with the most seats but a smaller share of the vote than the Tories. Under that scenario, how best to decide who gets first bite of the cherry – especially in a party like ours that believes passionately in a proportional voting system?

And suppose the combined UKIP-Tory vote suddenly gives them a perceived mandate; Monday’s ICM poll gave them 46 per cent of the vote, compared to a 'progressive' share of 45 per cent. Who has the largest mandate under that scenario? It's a point the Tories can’t really make, as the opposite was true in 2010, but the Lib Dems could and should.

Given that Monday’s ICM poll results would leave Labour with a massive 68 seat majority despite only getting 34 per cent of the vote, it’s a moot point – how the Tories must regret the loss of the boundary changes now. But UKIP getting 18 per cent of the popular vote and 0 seats would surely call the legitimacy of any mandate into question?

Of course, you’ll say, this all presumes that the Lib Dems have any seats left to form a coalition with. But even the ICM score of 11 per cent, our lowest share with them since 1997, would still give us 35 seats on a uniform swing. If the UKIP vote starts to bleed back to the Tories, suddenly that share looks very important.

There’ll be a lot of chatter, speculation and positioning between now and the 2015 election. But come the morning of 8 May, how the leader of the Lib Dems interprets the word 'largest' is likely to have a profound impact on who forms the next government.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.