There was a very good Peter Kellner article in the Sunday Times yesterday entitled, “The new forecast takes account of Labour’s parlous prospects in Scotland – and the Tory failure to make progress in the rest of Britain”. Despite the Lib Dems not featuring in the title however, they loomed over the whole piece like a shadow. For if Peter’s prediction came true, the Lib Dems would, like in 2010, be in a position to ultimately decide who is and who isn’t prime minister. As Peter himself says:
“On this projection, it is unclear who would be Prime Minister when the dust settles. The Tories would be the largest party; but even with the help of around ten unionist MPs from Northern Ireland, would still be well short of 300 seats. If David Cameron were to seek approval for a Queen’s Speech, he could be outvoted if Labour and the SNP, with 310 seats together, joined forces. The 30 Lib Dem MPs would be decisive.”
Let’s look at Peter’s prediction: CON 285 LAB 270 UKIP 3 LD 30 SNP 40 GRN 1 OTH 21. At first glance, perhaps it wouldn’t occur to you that the Lib Dems had such a strong hand; the reason they do mostly comes down to two factors. One, the weak hands in this regard the other parties have played; two, the voting system.
The SNP, for instance, have said they would only work with Labour. UKIP could only possibly prop up the Tories – and maybe not even that. Besides, three seats isn’t enough to throw your weight around with. The Lib Dems are the only of the parties outside the big two who could believably threaten to work with either the Tories and Labour – and in this strange situation British politics finds itself in, that is everything.
Take the Tories on 285. If they can convince the Lib Dems to form another coalition, that’s 315 – not enough. But a loose arrangement with the DUP would probably get them over the line, just. It would be fragile, but Cameron as sitting prime minister would have first crack at putting together a government and a first crack at the Lib Dems too (who said they’d speak to the largest party in a hung parliament first).
Labour are in a slightly stronger position in Peter’s scenario, however, despite having less seats and not being incumbents, because they have more options, and better ones to boot. A deal with the Lib Dems only gets them to 300, but with the SNP having already said they’d prop Labour up in a loose arrangement, that’s a bone fide working majority of about 30-odd, at least in practice.
Again though, Labour would have to work with the Lib Dems in order for this to work. If the Lib Dems don’t like what Labour has to offer, they have choices: they can go with the Tory option or they can wash their hands of it all and let the rest slug it out. How capable Labour are of doing a deal with the Liberal Democrats, the two parties having been in an all out hate fest with one another for the last five years, we may just get to find out about in a few weeks time.
The strangest thing about the whole situation is that the Lib Dems would only be in the situation painted by Peter, kingmakers supreme, because of the First Past the Post voting system they have long campaigned to remove. Peter predicts UKIP will get 11% of the vote, one point more than the Lib Dems, but end up with three seats – a tenth the number the Lib Dems will have if Peter is right. The Greens get 5% – under a PR system that would net them between 35 and 40 seats. Peter’s seat prediction for them? One.
Under a proportional electoral system, the Lib Dems would actually have more seats (around 65), but their rivals for doing deals with the largest two parties would also have a commensurate number of seats. UKIP would have about 70 and be a major player – a Tory-UKIP coalition might be on the cards, if this were the case. Labour could bypass the Lib Dems entirely because the Greens would have enough seats with the SNP to make it viable, if they chose to go that route.
So one of the great ironies of modern political times might be about to play out: the Lib Dems, the party who has tried to change the voting system since its inception, will now very possibly be put back into power via that very same system. It’s the kind of political irony I enjoy savoring.