Minority governments in Britain don’t have the best of reputations. Think Jim Callaghan, economic decline and the Winter of Discontent. Think John Major, Euro-revolts and dodgy deals with Ulster Unionists.
Nevertheless, with the polls showing a narrowing of the Labour lead – and two even suggesting a slight lead for the Tories – a hung parliament beckons and the public may have to start preparing not for a coalition, but for a Labour minority government.
“Under no circumstances would we want the Liberal Democrats in a formal coalition with us,” an influential member of the shadow cabinet tells me. “It would be incredibly damaging to us.” “It would be difficult to form a coalition with the Lib Dems,” says another shadow minister, pointing to his party’s relentless attacks on Nick “the Un-Credible Shrinking Man” Clegg.
Labour, their thinking goes, could form a government after agreeing to a “confidence-and-supply” deal, in which the Lib Dems support Lab only on votes of confidence and any Budget (or “supply”) measures, leaving them free to consider other legislative issues case by case. “We would give them House of Lords reform or some other constitutional reform in exchange,” says the first shadow minister, dismissively.
To listen to senior Lib Dems, however, a minority government would herald the start of the Apocalypse. Such a government would be “undemocratic”, claimed Clegg in March. It wouldn’t be in “the British national interest”, argued Danny Alexander in April. The Lib Dems are bent on portraying minority governments as inherently weak, indecisive and unstable.
This is “desperation” on their part, counters a senior Labour frontbencher. Power-hungry Lib Dems, he tells me, don’t want to hand over the keys to their ministerial cars and offices. The reality is “we could form a minority government and we could know we’d be in power for five years”.
Complacent? Perhaps. But he has a point, says Professor Robert Hazell, the director of UCL’s Constitution Unit and co-author of a 2009 study of minority governments. “Such governments can govern very successfully so long as they don’t try and govern in a majoritarian way. For every legislative measure, they have to build a separate coalition of support.”
Hazell points to the example of Scotland, where the Scottish National Party governed between 2007 and 2011 though it was 18 seats short of a majority. “Its effectiveness and success was demonstrated in the 2011 elections when the SNP won a majority.”
Then there is the evidence from abroad. In Canada, Stephen Harper came to office as the leader of a Conservative minority government in 2006, was re-elected as leader of a Conservative minority government in 2008 and finally won a majority, at the third attempt, in 2011. New Zealand, where the electoral system has delivered minority governments several times since 1996, ranks higher than the UK in global league tables for good governance. So, too, for that matter, does minority-run Denmark.
So what stops opposition parties from coming together to bring down a minority government? Fear of the consequences, argues Hazell. “During the four years of SNP government in Scotland, none of the opposition parties wished to topple that government because they knew they would do badly if fresh elections were held.”
Could the Lib Dems, pulverised at the polls and reduced to 20 or 30 seats in the Commons, really threaten to bring down a minority government led by the largest single party in parliament and trigger a second election? “Topple us if you dare” could be Labour’s position in 2015, a senior party strategist suggests. “The Lib Dems would be left stamping their tiny feet,” says another.
A Labour minority government, in fact, might benefit the Lib Dems, who would be seeking to rebuild credibility after their (much-anticipated) general election wipeout. “I don’t think you should take it as read there would be a stampede to join a coalition again,” the former Lib Dem defence minister Nick Harvey told the Huffington Post UK in November.
For Labour, too, there are clear advantages: the party would avoid having to work with the tainted and toxic Lib Dems; the spats and deadlocks that plague the current coalition would be neatly sidestepped; the new government wouldn’t include ministers whose reputations depended on them defending the previous government’s record – especially on the economy. “The Lib Dems would negotiate [for ministerial jobs and party policies] much harder with us in 2015 than they did in 2010,” a close adviser to Ed Miliband points out.
Miliband hasn’t yet formed a view on whether or not to go solo come May 2015. Yet a growing number of senior Labour figures are now of the opinion that if (when?) the election produces another hung parliament, their party shouldn’t have to, and – more importantly – doesn’t have to, start wooing the Lib Dems. “Sitting in government for five years with a bunch of bloody timid compromisers is not what we should be about,” says a Labour frontbencher who backed a Lib-Lab coalition in 2010.
For far too long, the talk in Westminster has been only of the possibility of a majority government, against that of a coalition. Minority government is the elephant in the negotiating room. “All options are on the table,” says one of the Labour leader’s closest shadow cabinet allies. “We won’t be bounced into a coalition.”
Mehdi Hasan is political director of the Huffington Post UK and a contributing writer for the New Statesman