Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Perpetual Hung Parliament?

After spending the early part of the week moving from Plymouth to Hove I've only just caught up on my RSS feeds. A post on Political Betting caught my eye as Mike Smithson comments on the difficulty Labour will have winning a majority without holding the bulk of their seats in Scotland. An IPSOS Mori poll on Scotland prompted this discussion as it found the Scottish Nationalists appear to be transferring their surge in support from the Holyrood election in May to Westminster voting intentions.



Vote %


Vote %











Liberal Democrat




























* Seats calculated on uniform swing using UK-Elect

The poll isn't altogether unsurprising; the main problem the Scottish Nationalists have had in making a breakthrough in General Elections has been the Labour argument that they can't win a majority so a vote for them will just help the Conservatives. This line appeared to be breaking down as in the recent Inverclyde by-election the SNP increased their vote share by 15.5%. Although could have dismissed as one off, with the result not affecting balance of power in Parliament, this poll is further evidence that Labour should fear the rise of the SNP in all elections. It certainly should not be ignored as IPSOS Mori's final poll before this year's Holyrood election was quite accurate.

For giggles, I ran the poll through UK-Elect to see how the 15% Lab>SNP swing would translate into seats on a uniform swing. It doesn't make good reading for either Labour or Liberal Democrat supporters as the former would lose half their seats whilst the latter stand to hang on to just three. From the current 11 Lib Dem MPs only Charles Kennedy, Alistair Carmichael and Michael Moore would return to Westminster as the SNP would sweep up their Scottish seats in this hypothetical scenario. The big problem for Labour is that such a result in Scotland would leave them 88 seats short of a majority if the rest of the country voted the same as the last General Election.

It's probably best not to get too carried away over one poll, especially as the next election is almost four years away and will probably be fought on new boundaries, but the SNP gaining some seats at Labour's expense is a likely occurrence in the next General Election. This is far more to do with the fact Labour over performed in Scotland in 2010, and the SNP have such a low starting point, than the current popularity of the two parties. The key issue here is an underlying, and often overlooked, aspect of British politics; the rise of third parties.

At the 2010 General Election 86 seats were won by parties other than Labour or the Conservatives. The result of that is whichever of Britain's two major political parties comes out on top they need to beat the other by 88 seats just to get a majority of 2. Anyone who can remember the Major years would vouch a majority slightly larger than two is advisable. Furthermore, third party representation in the House of Commons had been steadily increasing before the 2010 election, which saw a slight drop from 2005.

This increase in third party representation in Parliament, primarily as a result of the Liberal Democrats winning more seats, was hidden by the massive majorities Labour won with Tony Blair as their leader. The Conservatives' 48 seat advantage over Labour last year would have given them a majority in all post-war elections up until 1997. Instead, David Cameron ended up 20 seats shy, and more like 40 short of a workable majority.

The worrying conclusion from all this is that Britain could be heading toward a state of perpetual Hung Parliament. A In Canada three elections in a row resulted in no overall majority until Stephen Harper finally won a majority earlier this year following the implosion of the main opposition; the Liberal Party. The presence of a very strong regional party (Bloc Québec) and a reasonably strong third party (the New Democrats) were key factors in the failure of the two main parties to win a majority.

With the neither Labour nor the Conservatives stretching out a lead in the polls the a collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote seems the most likely way our deadlock will be broken. However, incumbent Lib Dem MPs are notoriously hard to shift and recent
polling has suggested they are recovering from their low point earlier in the year.

However the next four years pan out it seems likely that the major parties will have to stretch out a margin of around 60 seats to get anything resembling a workable majority. With the SNP seemingly ready to make a Westminster breakthrough in Scotland and 18 constituencies tied up in Northern Ireland the Lib Dems would need to lose two thirds of their seats to bring that figure any lower.

Beyond the next election it's not hard to imagine a reinvigorated Liberal Democrat Party (or if things go really bad, a new centrist party) enjoying relative success and with other minor parties, such as the Greens, getting to grips with the realities of winning constituencies under First-Past-The-Post it could be a while before we see another stable one-party Government.

Tom Harris


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