David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband walk through the Members' Lobby before the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament on June 4, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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As another hung parliament looms, the Tories and Labour are contemplating minority rule

Both of the main parties see political advantage in going it alone if they win in 2015. 

Not since 1910 have British voters returned two successive hung parliaments. After the events of recent months, few in Westminster expect this to remain case after the next general election. At no moment since 2010 have the Conservatives and Labour appeared less capable of achieving a Commons majority. The opposition’s poll lead has withered to a few points; some surveys suggest it has eroded entirely. But the Tories show no sign of the momentum required to win the victory that eluded them in 2010. Labour’s average vote share declined by 9 per cent between October 2012 and October 2014 but the Conservatives’ rose by just 1 per cent. Rather than defecting to the incumbent party, voters have scattered in multiple directions: to Ukip, to the SNP, to the Greens, to the “don’t knows”.

Labour aides maintain that they, unlike the Tories, can still hope to win a majority. On this, most agree with them. For all the derision directed at Ed Miliband’s alleged “35 per cent strategy”, few recall that Tony Blair achieved a majority of 66 seats in 2005 on an equivalent share of the vote. As one MP observed to me: “We could win on even less”. That the party continues to outperform its national poll ratings in the marginal constituencies it needs to secure for victory is a consistent source of optimism. But because of the narrowness of its present advantage, the threat posed to its 40 Scottish seats by the nationalist insurgency and the possibility of a swing back to the Tories from Ukip most MPs would settle for supplanting the Conservatives as the single largest party. Others fear a far worse fate. “We’re going over the cliff with him,” one former minister lamented in reference to the coup that never was against Miliband.

It is the Liberal Democrats who aspire to be the main beneficiaries of another hung parliament by re-entering government, even as a much depleted force. For the leadership, if not the activists, this would ideally take the form of a renewal of vows with the Conservatives. But such is the fragmentation of the electorate and the enfeebled state of the party that some question whether a partnership with the Lib Dems would offer a route to the 326 seats required for a Commons majority. In these circumstances, the possibility of a post-2015 minority government now inspires greater discussion than that of another coalition.

One senior Conservative backbencher told me that having promised Tory MPs a vote on a second deal with the Lib Dems, David Cameron would “struggle” to win their approval. The Prime Minister, he argued, should run a minority administration (an option many believe he should have pursued in 2010) and seek parliamentary support for populist measures such as an EU referendum on an individual basis. This would culminate in a snap election aimed at securing a majority.

Labour is even less amenable to the prospect of coalition than the Conservatives. Four years on from the election, most MPs maintain an undiminished tribal loathing of the Lib Dems. One shadow cabinet minister told me: “Clegg or no Clegg, I wouldn’t enter government with them.” The party membership and the trade unions are still more hostile. Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, the country’s biggest union and Labour’s largest donor, has publicly warned of a cut in funding and even of disaffiliation if the party forms a coalition with the Lib Dems. His threats are unlikely to be casually dismissed. “Len’s not bluffing,” one left-winger told me.

Like the Tories, many in Labour see political advantage in a minority administration that could introduce the most popular items of its policy programme - an energy price freeze, a higher minimum wage, a cap on rent increases - and invite voters to provide it with a mandate for more at a second election. As one shadow minister noted: “We’ve done it before”. The example of Harold Wilson, who held two snap elections - in 1966 and October 1974 - and won a majority on both occasions is increasingly cited by MPs.

The common rejoinder is that this executive manoeuvre is no longer possible after the introduction of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which requires a two-thirds majority for a dissolution. But this overlooks a crucial caveat: that an election will be held if no alternative government is formed 14 days after a vote of no confidence. This creates the potential for a minority administration to assemble a simple parliamentary majority for a second contest. Were opposition parties to resist this move or to seek to take power in the intervening two weeks, they would stand accused of defying the electorate.

Others in Labour, however, spooked by the cost of a second election and the Tories’ greater financial muscle, draw inspiration from the SNP, which governed for a full term as a minority administration before achieving outright victory in 2011.

The Lib Dems have long threatened to bring down any party that has the “arrogance” (in the words of one strategist) to try and rule without a majority. But some can see the advantage of a period outside of government that allows their war-weary party to convalesce. Significantly, Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president and the most likely successor to Clegg as leader, told me that his party "should not rule out” the option of tolerating a minority administration. He added, in reference to the surge in support for the SNP, that any coalition may need to be composed of “three parties, rather than two”.

The hung parliament of 2010 was one that few foresaw until the final stages of the election. Most went on to predict that the resultant coalition would collapse long before the five-year term had elapsed. Having failed to anticipate the constitutional innovations of the past, it would be careless to dismiss those that may lie in the future.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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