Here's how a Lab-Lib coalition could fail to muster a majority. Photo: Getty.
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Could there be two elections next year for the first time in 40 years?

Miliband may have to offer the SNP another referendum, or the Lib Dems work with Ukip, for any coalition to manage a majority next year.

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After hearing some of May2015’s back-of-the-napkin maths, Ladbrokes has opened a market on there being two elections next year.

How might this happen? It’s conceivable that no two parties could form a majority coalition.

A minority, single-party government would have little legitimacy, given Labour and the Tories are set to win less of the vote next year than “other parties” (Lib Dems, Ukip, others, nationalists, the Northern Irish parties) for the first time.

If a two-party coalition also fails to make a majority, Cameron or Miliband could return to the polls.

Here’s the maths.

In 2010 the Tories won 307 seats, Labour 258 and the Lib Dems 57. The Greens won 1, the SNP 6, Plaid Cymru 3 and Northern Irish parties 18. Since then three seats have changed hands: Labour lost Bradford West to George Galloway, but won Corby from the Tories, and the Conservatives have now also lost Clacton.

That puts the three parties on 305, 258 and 57.

Using Ashcroft’s polls, the best if limited source on how the parties are faring in individual seats, allows us to estimate how this may change.

First, there is the swing from the Conservatives to Labour. There are 59 seats where the Tories have a majority of less than 10 per cent and a 5 per cent swing to Labour would hand Ed Miliband’s party the seat, from Warwickshire North (majority 0.1 per cent) to Great Yarmouth (majority 9.9 per cent).

Ashcroft has polled 30 of these seats in four batches, in May (the first twelve with the smallest Tory majorities), July (the same group again), August (the next eight, the 13th to 20th marginal seats), and October (the next ten, the 21st to 30th).

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Labour are ahead by at least seven points in 19 of them. In the other 11 they hold slender leads in nine of them, are tied in one and trail in one. If we exclude Thurrock, where Ukip threaten, we are left with ten. If we crudely estimate that Labour and the Tories will each win half of these toss-ups, we have handed Labour 24 Tory seats.

We have little idea how the next batch of 29 Tory-held Labour targets will play out. If we make a pessimistic forecast for Labour, and assume the improving economy and gradual tightening of the polls will help the Tories hold onto far more of these seats than in the first batch of 30, we could say that Labour will win another five.

That gives Labour 29 Tory seats, and puts them on 287 seats and the Conservatives on 276.

The chart below shows the Labour lead in these seats according to Ashcroft's polls. The light red line shows how the average lead has changed with each batch.

The Tories can make up some of these losses by taking Lib Dem seats. On the surface, they seem more likely to gain from the likely Lib Dem collapse than Labour. Of the 27 seats where the Lib Dems have a majority of less than 10 per cent, the Tories came second in 2010 in 19 of them.

But the Lib Dem collapse is far greater in seats where Labour offer an alternative than ones where the Conservatives do.

Nevertheless, there are five seats where the Tories lead the Lib Dems by at least six points (Ashcroft has polled 15 of the 19 Tory-second Lib Dem seats). If we give all these to them, and split the six where Ashcroft shows a toss-up, the Tories take eight Lib Dem seats (three of the other four look set to stay Lib Dem, one may go to Ukip).

It's possible to see Ukip winning ten seats.

Ashcroft has polled nine Lib Dem seats where Labour threaten. In seven of them Labour lead by at least 12 points: in four of the eight where they were within 10 per cent of the Lib Dems in 2010, and three others where they are threatening Lib Dem majorities of 12 per cent.

We don’t have data for the other four seats where the Lib Dems have a majority of less than 10 per cent over Labour. Two are in Scotland and should be considered separately, but we can expect two (Burnley and Birmingham Yardley) to swing to Labour, given they lead in these other English seats with 12 per cent Lib Dem majorities.

Labour are also challenging Clegg's party in Cambridge and Bermondsey, where the Lib Dems have even larger majorities. If we give Miliband’s party one of these seats, and add them to the nine above, Labour pick up 10 from the Lib Dems.

That puts Labour on 297, the Tories on 284 and Lib Dems on 39.

The Lib Dems losses are expected to be more severe – with most predictions putting the party on 25-30 seats. Much depends on Scotland. There are five seats (Dunbartonshire East, Edinburgh West, Gordon, Caithness Sutherland, and Inverness Nairn) where Labour are within 20 per cent of the Lib Dems, but it’s unclear whether Lib Dems MPs like Danny Alexander will be threatened in Inverness.

His majority is similar to the party’s in Bermondsey, where Ashcroft’s September polls suggested a 36-35 Lib-Lab race, but until Ashcroft polls Scottish seats, which he will be doing in the next couple of months, we have little idea of how Scotland will swing.

However, as we detailed earlier this week, the SNP seem to be far more of a threat in post-referendum Scotland than the bookies suggest.

The SNP seem to be far more of a threat in post-referendum Scotland than the bookies suggest.

In 2010 the SNP won 20 per cent, and Labour 42, in the general election. Those numbers were fairly consistent until a year ago, when YouGov’s sub-polls were putting the SNP on 23 and Labour on 41.

Those numbers have now reversed: the SNP are polling in the low 40s, with Labour on 25, the Tories on 18 (fairly unchanged since 2010), and Lib Dems on 6, down from 19.

The fairly limited models we have – uniform swing and one another – suggest the SNP would win around 40 Scottish seats based on YouGov's sub-polls. Until we have Ashcroft polls these forecasts will remain guesswork, but for now we can imagine the SNP take 5 seats from each of Labour and the Lib Dems.

Finally, it's possible to see Ukip winning ten seats. They have already taken Clacton, lead in Rochester, and are competitive in eight other seats, going by Ashcroft’s numbers (five Tory seats, three Labour and one Lib Dem). And this excludes seats where demographics suggest they could do far better than their 2010 vote implies.

This would leave the parties on: Labour 289, Tories 279, Lib Dems 33, SNP 16 (they won 6 in 2010), Ukip 10, Plaid Cmyru 3, Greens 1 (assuming they hold Brighton Pavillion, where they are in a toss-up with Labour), Galloway 1 and various Northern Irish parties 18.

To form a majority coalition you theoretically need 326 seats, as they are 650 in the House. But five of Northern Ireland’s 18 seats are held by Sinn Fein, who don’t sit, and one Tory MP is the Speaker, John Bercow.

That means you only really need 323 seats. Under our forecast a Lab-Lib coalition get to 322. Another Con-Lib pairing gets to 312. Adding the DUP, who are occasionally mooted as potential Tory partners, would put them on 320.

But neither of these groupings would have a majority. The two main parties may need to convince either the SNP (Labour) or Ukip (Tories) to join a Lab-Lib or Con-Lib-DUP coalition.

It’s inconceivable that the Lib Dems and Ukip would govern together, but a Con-Ukip-DUP coalition would only get to 297 under our estimate.

The price of any SNP coalition may be a second Scottish referendum, which could be too high for Ed Miliband to make a deal. If neither he or Cameron can cobble together a government, they could agree to call a second poll for later in the year.

The Fixed Term Parliament Act slightly complicates this picture. But the possibility seems greater than ten per cent, which is what Ladbrokes’ odds imply.

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Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.

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Senior Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians call for a progressive alliance

As Brexit gets underway, opposition grandees urge their parties – Labour, Lib Dems, the SNP and Greens – to form a pact.

A number of senior Labour and opposition politicians are calling for a cross-party alliance. In a bid to hold the Conservative government to account as Brexit negotiations kick off, party grandees are urging their leaders to put party politics to one side and work together.

The former Labour minister Chris Mullin believes that “the only way forward” is “an eventual pact between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens not to oppose each other in marginal seats”. 

 “Given the loss of Scotland,it will be difficult for any party that is not the Conservative party to form a government on its own in the foreseeable future," Mullin argues, but he admits, “no doubt tribalists on both sides will find this upsetting” and laments that, “it may take three or four election defeats for the penny to drop”.

But there are other Labour and Liberal grandees who are envisaging such a future for Britain’s progressive parties.

The Lib Dem peer and former party leader Ming Campbell predicts that “there could be some pressure” after the 2020 election for Labour MPs to look at “SDP Mark II”, and reveals, “a real sense among the left and the centre-left that the only way Conservative hegemony is going to be undermined is for a far higher degree of cooperation”.

The Gang of Four’s David Owen, a former Labour foreign secretary who co-founded the SDP, warns Labour that it must “face up to reality” and “proudly and completely coherently” agree to work with the SNP.

“It is perfectly legitimate for the Labour party to work with them,” he tells me. “We have to live with that reality. You have to be ready to talk to them. You won’t agree with them on separation but you can agree on many other areas, or you certainly should be trying.”

The Labour peer and former home secretary Charles Clarke agrees that Labour must “open up an alliance with the SNP” on fighting for Britain to remain in the single market, calling it “an opportunity that’s just opened”. He criticises his party for having “completely failed to deal with how we relate to the SNP” during the 2015 election campaign, saying, “Ed Miliband completely messed that up”.

“The SNP will still be a big factor after the 2020 general election,” Clarke says. “Therefore we have to find a way to deal with them if we’re interested in being in power after the election.”

Clarke also advises his party to make pacts with the Lib Dems ahead of the election in individual constituencies in the southwest up to London.

“We should help the Lib Dems to win some of those seats, a dozen of those seats back from the Tories,” he argues. “I think a seat-by-seat examination in certain seats which would weaken the Tory position is worth thinking about. There are a few seats where us not running – or being broadly supportive of the Lib Dems – might reduce the number of Tory seats.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown agrees that such cooperation could help reduce the Tory majority. When leader, he worked informally in the Nineties with then opposition leader Tony Blair to coordinate their challenge to the Conservative government.

“We’re quite like we were in 1992 when Tony Blair and I started working together but with bells on,” Ashdown tells me. “We have to do something quite similar to what Blair and I did, we have to create the mood of a sort of space, where people of an intelligent focus can gather – I think this is going to be done much more organically than organisationally.”

Ashdown describes methods of cooperation, including the cross-party Cook-Maclennan Agreement on constitutional reform, uniting on Scottish devolution, a coordinated approach to PMQs, and publishing 50 seats in the Daily Mirror before the 1997 election, outlining seats where Labour and Lib Dem voters should tactically vote for one another to defeat Tory candidates.

“We created the climate of an expectation of cooperation,” Ashdown recalls. Pursuing the spirit of this time, he has set up a movement called More United, which urges cross-party support of candidates and campaigns that subscribe to progressive values.

He reveals that that “Tory Central Office are pretty hostile to the idea, Mr Corbyn is pretty hostile to the idea”, but there are Conservative and Labour MPs who are “talking about participating in the process”.

Indeed, my colleague George reveals in his report for the magazine this week that a close ally of George Osborne has approached the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron about forming a new centrist party called “The Democrats”. It’s an idea that the former chancellor had reportedly already pitched to Labour MPs.

Labour peer and former cabinet minister Tessa Jowell says this is “the moment” to “build a different kind of progressive activism and progressive alliance”, as people are engaging in movements more than parties. But she says politicians should be “wary of reaching out for what is too easily defined as an elite metropolitan solution which can also be seen as simply another power grab”.

She warns against a “We’re going to have a new party, here’s the board, here’s the doorplate, and now you’re invited to join” approach. “Talk of a new party is for the birds without reach and without groundedness – and we have no evidence of that at the moment.”

A senior politician who wished not to be named echoes Jowell’s caution. “The problem is that if you’re surrounded by a group of people who think that greater cooperation is necessary and possible – people who all think the same as you – then there’s a terrible temptation to think that everyone thinks the same as you,” they say.

They warn against looking back at the “halcyon days” of Blair’s cooperation with the Lib Dems. “It’s worth remembering they fell out eventually! Most political marriages end in divorce, don’t they?”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.