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Election 2017: what happens if there's a hung parliament?

The election could return a Parliament in which no party has a majority. Here's what that would look like.

That’s it, the election is over, and the winner is not Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn, but nobody. Parliament is “hung”: that is to say, no party is able to command a working majority in the House of Commons. A “working majority” means having more seats than the other parties added together, plus one. Think of that as the magic number. 

What that magic number is varies slightly. The absolute most it could be is 325, as the Speaker of the House has a seat but does not vote. But as Sinn Féin do not take their seats in Parliament, any seat they win in Northern Ireland reduces the magic number still further.

On an absolutely magnificent night for Sinn Féin, the best result they could hope to win out of Northern Ireland’s 18 parliamentary constituencies is seven – meaning that the “magic number” for a majority would actually only be 318.

Although when we think of a hung parliament, that suggests an arrangement in which any party could govern, in actual fact, the words “hung parliament” mean three different things.

The first is what you might call a “hung parliament – Conservative minority government”. The Conservative minority zone is much smaller than its equivalent Labour zone.

Why? Because what matters if you don’t have a majority is how many of the other parties you can persuade to work with you. In practice, there are only two parties that are natural allies for the Conservative Party – the two Unionist parties,  the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) – which means that in order to be able to pass laws the Conservatives can’t really afford to fall more than 11 seats short of a majority, as that is the absolute most that those two parties could win of the 18 seats up for grabs in Northern Ireland.

But of course – this is where the question of how Sinn Féin do comes into play. Don’t forget that every seat they gain reduces the threshold that any party needs to win a majority. The absolute best result for the Conservatives out of Northern Ireland would be for the two Unionist parties to take 11 seats, and for Sinn Féin to take four of the remaining seven. Those missing four seats bring the threshold down to 321 seats, which when you add those 11 Unionist seats means that the Conservatives aren’t in danger of falling out of power provided they hold onto 311 seats.

Then on mainland Britain, there is really only one other party that might pal up with the Conservatives, but they’d be very reluctant to do so: the Liberal Democrats. They’ll only work with the Tories as a last resort, so while the Conservatives might in a pinch be able to stay in office if they need the Liberal Democrats, you wouldn’t want to bet on it were you Theresa May.

So in this scenario: the Conservatives would have lost up to 20 seats, but either would be able to govern with the support of the Unionist parties, or the numbers for an alternate arrangement featuring Labour and the Liberal Democrats wouldn’t be there.

In that situation, there would be a Conservative Prime Minister, but it wouldn’t be Theresa May. She would have pissed away a small but workable Conservative majority on an election she didn’t have to call. The most likely beneficiary would be David Davis, as he is acceptable to the Brexiteers, and, equally importantly, is getting on in years. The Conservatives’ younger stars would fall behind him quite quickly in that scenario.

But that’s quite unlikely, because the most plausible hung parliament scenario is this: “hung parliament – Labour minority government”. The number of seats Labour needs to form a government is much, much smaller than the Conservatives. They only need to win enough seats to be able to reach the magic number with the support of the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SDLP, the centre-left Irish nationalist party.

The absolute most all those parties could win at the same time is 78. (That includes some overlaps: Plaid Cymru could win Ceredigion, for example, from the Liberal Democrats, but I have only counted it as an “anti-Conservative” seat the once.)

That would mean that Labour would only need to make 15 direct gains from the Conservatives to form a minority government, though for those numbers to work they would need the SNP to hold off the Scottish Conservative advance, and for the Liberal Democrats to make gains in South West London and St Albans.

(Their best case scenario out of Northern Ireland is one where the SDLP hold all three of their seats and Sinn Féin take six – bringing their “magic number” down to 316, and decreasing the number of seats they would need to take from the Conservatives to just 11.)

But essentially, for every seat Labour gains that takes them above 247, the better their chances of forming the next government, albeit one reliant on the kindness of strangers. A hung parliament is a much less difficult scenario for Labour than for the Conservatives.  But of course, for every seat Labour wins itself, the more it can get done without cutting deals.

The biggest consequence of a Labour minority administration would be that Britain would almost certainly remain in the single market and have a vote on the deal, as those two items are non-negotiables as far as the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats are concerned.

That government might be quite stable, albeit less left-wing than a Corbyn-led government in possession of a majority, and it would very quickly start to fray on the edges over PR, an issue which around half of Labour MPs vehemently oppose.

But there’s another scenario, what you might call the genuine hung Parliament: one where neither Labour nor the Conservatives can cobble together enough allies to form a government.

In that case, what would likely happen is a repeat of 1974: the largest party staggering on for a few months until another election, when it would hope to get a majority of its own. Couldn’t happen? I offer only this small historical echo. In 1974, Labour members forced a radical manifesto on Labour MPs, and the party emerged as the largest in a hung parliament after the sitting Conservative PM decided to go for an early election to “strengthen their hand” (in this case, against the trade unions not the European Union).

The slim possibility of re-run shouldn’t be discounted.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.