Punditry

What’s going to happen in the election next week? My hunch right now is that the Tories are going to win fewer than 300 seats, and that they’ll go on to form a minority government. And then things are going to get interesting.

The prediction of 280-300 seems to be more or less conventional wisdom these days. UNS forecasts based on current polling figures give the Tories slightly fewer than that, but people who’ve thought a bit more about what the polls are telling us and have constructed more sophisticated voting models reckon that they’ll do a bit better, though not much better, than this. Yesterday’s Politicshome forecast of yesterday has 289; the fivethirtyeight.com model  has 299.

And that seems about right to me. It’s hard to see the Tories doing much better, unless the polls are screwy on the scale of 1992, since no one seems to think they’ve got much chance of winning significant numbers of seats from the Lib Dems (which is what the original Tory game-plan required); and while I’d be very pleased if they did a lot worse, and it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility, it feels like wishful thinking right now seriously to contemplate that kind of result.

If that’s what happens, then a Tory minority government seems by far the most likely outcome. A coalition – either Lib/Lab or Lib/Con – seems implausible, and I wonder why the press is talking about it quite so much. Actually, I don’t see why any of the parties would pursue one. Partly, it’s that both Labour and the Tories hate the Lib Dems, and I think that matters in these kinds of circumstances.  But there are a couple of more specific points that I haven’t seen discussed much, which would seem to me to make coalition-formation really quite hard to pull off.

One is that the Lib Dems are a pretty contradictory formation, with the activists to the left of the MPs, and the MPs to the left of the bulk of the Lib Dem voters. That’s a pretty impressionistic view, to be sure, but there seems to be quite a lot to say for it. This on its own is going to paralyse the party in the event of a hung parliament, and make it basically unable to head either Right or Left in any coherent fashion. But there’s a further reason why the larger parties aren’t going to be terribly keen to deal with the Lib Dems, which is that party rules seem to require any deal to be ratified by a substantial vote of both the Lib Dems’ parliamentary party (fair enough) but also some extra-parliamentary party council or other (I forget what that’s called), and I find it hard to envisage either Brown or Cameron being willing to put the future of their own party in government into the hands of a non-parliamentary body like that.

More generally, if there’s a hung parliament, all the party bosses will be acting in a risk-averse kind of a way. They’ll all be nervous about a second general election, and none of them will be wanting to gamble much, especially not by making the kinds of gambles that will make them vulnerable to the machinations of their rivals. So: no coalition. Instead, Cameron forms a minority government, and relies on the fact that the Commons will probably be unwilling to defeat a non-crazy programme in a vote on the Queen’s Speech, on the grounds that MPs will be terrified of being punished by the electorate for playing silly buggers in an immediately-ensuing second election. (The obvious scenario is that Labour votes against and the Lib Dems abstain, and the government gets a majority — allowing everyone to save face.)

But if that’s right, then what will Cameron be doing in government? One of the few dividing lines between the parties on economic strategy has been that Labour has been talking about a severe programme of public spending cuts starting next year, and the Tories talk about moving to reduce the deficit immediately. But if there’s a Conservative minority government, it’ll be less likely to want to hit public spending immediately, as it’ll be looking to gain credibility simply by holding office, and it’ll want to hold a second general election before wielding the spending axe in a big way, and thereby becoming really unpopular. So my guess is that a Tory chancellor will stick more closely to the kind of programme Brown has been setting out, an emergency budget will be held, but it will be not especially drastic, and we’ll head into a fairly quiet period in which the Tories will try to win over a slice of centrist public opinion as a prelude to a second election, either in the Autumn or early next year – basically, as soon as they think they can win it.

And this, of course, creates problems for both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. Obviously if Mr Brown leads Labour to their heaviest defeat since 1983, he ought to resign immediately. But Labour probably doesn’t want to have a very public post mortem and leadership battle if there’s a very fragile Tory government, however much it also doesn’t want to go into a second election campaign with Gordon Brown as its leader. On the Tory side, I’m also guessing that big chunks of the Party will be furious with Cameron: they tolerated his centrism on the condition that he won a big majority in the election, and since that’s not going to happen, there ought to be some kind of backlash – though that will be held in check by the desire not to rock the boat as the Party pursues the goal of an overall majority in the event of a second election, and enjoys at least some of the pleasures of being back in Government.

Well: obviously it won’t turn out like this. My predictions never hold. (I even thought Kerry would beat Bush.) But I do think it’s a shame that election commentary turns so much on obviously fantasy-politics considerations (will the parties do a deal on PR? will Clegg become Prime Minister? will there be a ‘progressive alliance’? and so on), rather than on thinking at all seriously about what the political dynamics and constraints of the post-election situation are in fact likely to be.

17 thoughts on “Punditry”

  1. This all sounds highly plausible, i must say. What do you think the chances of, say, a bill introducing electoral reform are in the next parliament, given that the Tories won’t have an overall majority?

  2. Low.

    Had Blair done less well in 1997, the conditions for serious electoral reform would have been in place. But this kind of constitutional reform would have to be initiated from government, not from opposition, and, as I say, I can’t see a Lib-Lab deal holding. In any case, Labour doesn’t want STV, and the Lib Dems don’t want AV or AV+, or whatever it’s called.

  3. “Low.”

    Absolutely.

    If the Tories can possibly avoid voting reform, they will. And indeed, so will Labour.

    And frankly, good. Because the Lib Dems are shit. And more importantly: I stopped working for them a year ago and I’ll be damned if they bump Labour down into the third party now that I’ve jumped ship.

    It’s important to stay focused on the important things in politics, after all.

  4. Chris

    What is your view of the opinion that the Labour Party will embrace PR if it believes that the next election (after this one) will be a 97 like landslide in favour of the Tories?

    Monty

  5. It’s the Lib Dem Federal Executive (roughly equivalent to Labour’s NEC) that has to approve any deal – but then that also has to be approved by a special Party Conference. It was brought in by a party conference in 1998 (IIRC) in order to stop Ashdown selling the party down the river for a Cabinet seat.

  6. I’m puzzled as to why you should think that the Lib Dem activists are generally to the left of the MPs and the Lib Dem voters generally to their right: my (highly impressionistic) view would probably put them in the opposite order.

    I think though that you’re right in expecting no deal, and then a second election, although having said that, the Lib Dems might well deal if they think they will do substantially worse in a second election, as they probably would. But I think the Tories would win a second election because the electorate would give them a chance to carry out their programme: they at least have one.

    Indeed, I suspect we will see rightwing governments across Europe, for the same reason: they have a plan, and the Left does not. (That’s not code for “but I know what they should do, comrades”, because I surely don’t.)

    As it goes, I won’t be at all surprised if the Tories win a majority next week.

  7. I think you’re about right here Chris. Minority Tory govt looks like about the most likely option based on current polls. However I think Cameron/Osborne will try to hit the ground running: there will be huge pressure from Conservative MPs (who, based on the limited polling evidence available, are mostly right-wing nutters) and indeed from global investors (ditto – right wing ideologues) to go for big-time cuts in the “50-day budget” and pull a Reagan/Thatcher style “blame the previous govt” for the ensuing economic collapse. If there is another election in a few months’ time it’s very much unknown territory. The only previous evidence we have on a similar situation is 1974 where there was a small shift to the government (Labour) between February and October.

    Based on what Clegg has said so far I expect a deal between Clegg and Cameron to be too difficult for a coalition to emerge because Cameron hates PR with a vengeance. Clegg might of course capitulate to some sort of arrangement without securing any major concessions (like David Steel did in the 1977 Lib-Lab pact) in which case he’d be an imbecile and not long for this world electorally.

    To the extent that Labour’s poor polling is a result of the fact that Brown has spent 4 weeks looking like he’s in the waiting room for root canal surgery at the dentist (and this is an open question), if they can change leader quickly the Tories may find it tough to win a second election. Counterbalancing that is the financial factor: Labour have been pretty skint this time round. If there’s another election in (say) October or May next year, they’re gonna be REALLY skint.

    You were RIGHT to think Kerry would beat Bush – there’s substantial evidence of ballot-rigging in the 2004 election in the US as well as in 2000. Your mistake – if one can call it that – was to believe that the US still had some elements of a fine upstanding democracy rather than being a banana republic with bigger guns. Of course there may well be (e.g.) postal ballot rigging in our election too, so we might want to prepare for Labour getting rather more seats than we imagined possible :-0

  8. Monty asked: What is your view of the opinion that the Labour Party will embrace PR if it believes that the next election (after this one) will be a 97 like landslide in favour of the Tories?

    Ever since the Autumn of 2007, until a couple of weeks ago, it looked as if the election would be a big Tory win, and the Labour Party did nothing about PR, beyond making noises about how if they won the election which everyone was assuming they would lose, they would hold a referendum on AV (which is more or less the promise they made in 1997 when they did win the election, and which they broke). So if they weren’t interesting in legislating for PR when they could, I don’t see why they’d suddenly become interested in it when they couldn’t.

  9. Nick: It’s the Lib Dem Federal Executive…

    Thanks for that, and for the history. I vaguely remembered it had some Sci-Fi name or other, but couldn’t remember just what it was.

    ejh: I’m puzzled as to why you should think that the Lib Dem activists are generally to the left of the MPs and the Lib Dem voters generally to their right: my (highly impressionistic) view would probably put them in the opposite order.

    Maybe this is an Oxford-centric view. Lib Dem enthusiasts I run into generally spin the “we’re to the left of Labour” line, and suggest that real progressives should vote Lib Dem, etc. But when you look at what Lib Dem councillors and MPs do, it’s pretty obviously a centrist formation, and the long-term drift of the party has been to the right (just set the various Liberal and Lib Dem manifestos side by side to see the drift in action). But that drift seems to make electoral sense: the Lib Dems are fighting a lot of fairly prosperous marginal seats against the Conservatives, and they’re trying (by and large) to win the votes of people who would otherwise vote Conservative. So that’s more or less why I think that I see what I see — I’d be curious as to why you think it’s the other way around.

  10. Hal: You were RIGHT to think Kerry would beat Bush…

    Well, I’m not sure I was – I believed too much of what I was reading on Ruy Texeira’s site. I had a pretty good sense that Kerry’s vote was going to be huge (Clinton 92: 44m; Clinton 96: 47m; Gore 00: 51m; Kerry 04: 59m), but I didn’t really spot where Bush might get an extra 12m votes from. I suppose I thought it was less of a khaki election than it turned out to be.

  11. Ah, the Federal Executive! It’ll be a bit like the Fianna Fail-Green coalition in Ireland, then. Because the Greens have this screwy constitution that means they need to call a party convention before they decide anything, about every six weeks or so the work of the government comes to a halt so John Gormley can try and persuade a couple of hundred vegetarians to vote against what they believe in. (Clue: he succeeds, but it’s an enervating process.)

  12. Chris,
    I am more concerned about the Lib Dems allying closely with the Tories than you, although I think you have a point about forming a coallition. My experience of LibDem activists is that they are actually fairly right-wing, and economically libertarian – but then my experience of LibDem activists includes people like Mark Littlewood (I’m sure you remember him from uni) who was briefly head of press for the LibDems. Of course he’s left them now, and moved even further to the right (do a quick google)…I wonder if experience in every constituency is different – all things to all people.

  13. Well, Mark was obviously heading right-right-right (did you hear him debating with Raj on the Today programme two or three months ago? Mark: free markets will solve all our problems; Raj: no they won’t)…

  14. Chris’s original post: …unless the polls are screwy on the scale of 1992… I wouldn’t be surprised if they are.

    Justin: the Lib Dems might well deal if they think they will do substantially worse in a second election, as they probably would. I think there’ll be a second election. A weak Tory majority would be so vulnerable to infighting (see Peter Hitchens yesterday, James Delingpole’s attack on Philip Blond in the Telegraph, and though I didn’t read him this week (yet) I think Simon Heffer also in the Telegraph will continue with his ‘UKIP are the real Tories’ line) that it’ll be paralysed from the start. Because the Times, Sun, Mail are spinning so hard for the Tories, no is paying attention to the fact that the party they’re backing isn’t Cameron’s so much as fantasy haunted by the best bits (to journalists) of Thatcher. After Friday, win or lose, Cameron will be attacked without mercy. My prediction anyway, no guarantees, and I’m not offering money on it.

  15. If all the parties are going be risk-averse, then isn’t there at least one significant pressure towards a Lab-Lib coalition, that both of them will be buggered if the Tories get in and get control of when the next election is? Neither of them’s going to want to fight an election in the next year with Cameron blaming them for stopping him sorting everything out by voting down some confidence-vote measure, and one obvious way to stop that happening is to gang up on him. If Brown goes, as he surely will, then at least one of the barriers to that will have gone.

  16. But I think it’s a getting-there-from-here problem.

    On Brown going, this is something Stuart White and I have been disagreeing about over at NextLeft. He thinks the obvious sequence is something like this: Brown loses election, tries to make deal with Libs, Libs say piss off, Brown resigns, Queen asks Cameron to form govt, Cameron’s Queen’s Speech voted down by everyone else, Queen asks either Clegg or new Labour leader to form govt, Polly Toynbee dream coalition takes shape.

    What I think is wrong with this is partly that I don’t think the PTDC is a realistic prospect, as the Lib Dems and the Labour party hate each other so much, but also that I don’t think Cameron will agree to try to form a govt without getting a pledge from the Queen that she’ll permit a dissolution of parliament if he asks for one. As I understand it, Harold Wilson asked for this in similar circumstances and got the pledge, and – if Wilson got it – Cameron would be crazy not to make a similar request.

    Stuart thinks at this point the Queen’s advisers would say no, b/c if it fails with you, we can go back to Clegg & the Labour Party. But I’m not sure she will say that at all. But what do I know?

  17. I suspect you’re right about Cameron getting a pledge for dissolution. But that just makes it more clear that the only way to avoid having an election at the Tories’ convenience and thereby getting shafted is to form a coalition. So an alternative order of events would be, Brown loses election, tries to make a deal with the Libs, Libs say piss off unless you get rid of Brown, Brown does decent thing, Harman takes over temporarily until someone else can be found, there is a Lab-Lib coalition which doubtless fails to make even Polly Toynbee totally happy but is at least not the Tories. It’s not even clear to me that Brown’ll try to hang on once Labour have not gained an outright majority (and that if he does, he might be defenestrated), which might make the process even simpler. What might make a difference is how long Queenie takes to ask anyone: quicker’ll probably benefit Cameron, since the mechanics of coalition-building might take a while to sort out. In game theory terms – this might be just about the only time that game theory has ever been useful – whoever gets to move first will obviously win, and so working out who gets to move first matters.

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