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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.