Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday 25 April 2015

If the LibDems hold the balance

I’ve been relieved that my earlier analysis of the various post poll options seems to accord within a seat or two with what the experts are now saying. Remember nothing should be taken for granted: (the group the legendary Nate Silver has teamed up with) still thinks there is around a 5% chance that the Conservatives win outright. But if we ignore that possibility, the key numbers will be near these:

Zone M: Lab + SNP > 315 = Miliband is PM. (If SNP=50, critical Labour seat total is >265)

If it is close, do not discount some sort of deal with the LibDems too (under new leadership). In addition, if Labour does well, do not rule out a coalition with the LibDems to exclude the SNP.

Zone C: Lab + SNP < 290 = Cameron is PM. (Assumes the LibDem seat total is around 24)

If the seat count is close to 290, Cameron continues only with the support of a few UKIP MPs and the DUP. (In my view, we should be much more worried about a government dependent on the DUP than a government dependent on the SNP.)

Zone B: In between M and C, where Lab+SNP get between 290 and 315 seats, where it is all down to the Liberal Democrats.

This analysis by Harry Lambert is excellent in detail, but I think the overall gloss that Miliband is now the favourite is misleading if you read the text. Labour needs all the seats in which it is currently favoured, plus a few surprises. Electionforecast currently have the most likely outcome as Lab+SNP=315, which means we are just in Zone B.

My instinct was always that Clegg wanted to go with Cameron, and as each day passes this becomes much clearer. But that does not mean he will get his wish, if Labour plays its cards right and LibDem members have any influence on their party. The reason is that in terms of policy, and party members, the LibDems are nearer Labour than the Conservatives. Clegg would talk to the Conservatives first, and just as last time he will play it such that this coalition appears to be the only option. He can use the following three arguments:

1)    The Conservatives have more seats than Labour (which assumes the SNP do as well as predicted). If Con>Lab+SNP this will carry some weight; if not less so.

2)    Not working in a government dependent on a party that wants to break up the UK. I think this is a highly undemocratic argument, one that can ironically only hasten the break-up of the UK, and it becomes particularly odd if the alternative is a government dependent on the DUP. Incidentally it is also a stance that does the LibDems no favours in trying to keep (or ever win back) their Scottish seats.

3)    Labour are not offering such a good deal.

What Labour can do is try and pre-empt this last argument by (if necessary) making the deal they are prepared to do public, so that the party sees what is on offer. Which means they need to think this through before 7th May.

In the end the LibDems got nothing from their current coalition on voting reform, and Labour could offer them something for sure. Not having to worry about a European referendum would also be attractive to the LibDems, particularly as Cameron could well advocate leaving. Labour could also be flexible about the type of arrangement: it could be a formal coalition, or it could be simply an understanding (that Miliband should be PM), but otherwise the LibDems vote on issues as their manifesto dictates. If they lose a lot of seats, that last option may appear attractive, particularly if the party is strongly divided over continuing with the Conservatives. There is also a strong argument that continuing in coalition with the Conservatives will bring about their eventual demise.

However, despite all this, to go with Labour would involve rejecting their current leadership’s advice (and maybe therefore their current leadership), and I suspect that will be too much for them in the end. Having helped them win a seat in the past, I hope I’m wrong.


  1. In your original post (option 5) you give as an option the SNP entering into a formal coalition with Labour.

    The SNP have forcefully ruled that out. They say they'll vote against a Tory Queen's speech, and put Labour in government, but everything else will be on a case by case basis.

    That isn't the world we have been in for the last 5 years. The last time we had anything similar, where the government had no natural Commons majority, was the last days of Major (and before that the last days of Callaghan after the collapse of the Lib-Lab pact). To say the least, these were not easy periods to be in government.

    I would quite like a period of quiescence during which governments can pass no legislation, but I can see that politicians in government won't. Governing is not very easy in those circumstances in the UK.

    Which was Clegg's point. I don't think, on this occasion, he was just telling lies because of his pro-Tory bias, as you seem to think.

    You also cannot underestimate the loathing that there is between Labour, SNP, and Lib Dems. The hostility is not just on Clegg's side.

    All that said, I have money on Miliband being PM. If the Tories are below 287, I think they are out.

  2. As I've posted elsewhere, the Lib Dems will only back Labour over Clegg and Alexander's dead bodies (and it might well come to that). Today's news, where Clegg effectively backs Cameron's views on Labour's "illegitimacy" if it has less seats that the Tories, only backs that up. So what happens if the Lib Dems hold the balance depends to a large extent on internal party machinations.

  3. I think your 2) is wide of the mark. It seems to me that this post, the Talbot blog and the Freedland article are attempts to convince (perhaps the authors themselves!) that there is little or nothing to fear from a Labour-SNP arrangment and so voting Labour gets you Labour. I think that Labour (probably) has the best set of (economic) policies. I suspect Simon would delete the bits in parentheses. But I think one could still argue that Labour + Salmond + Sturgeon + an army of newbie MPs including 20 year old politics students is a different prospect to Labour on its own if we are thinking about the longer term consequences as Simon thinks we should (country before party and all that). The SNP has a single agenda and it will use its enhanced Westminster representation to advance that agenda. The idea that the Tories are putting party before country by trying to defeat this while Labour is not by contemplating an electoral deal with a party that has no interest in the rest of the Union outside Scotland is a curious kind of doublethink.

    1. It is exactly the opposite of what you suggest here. Scottish voters have voted for SNP MPs to advance SNP policies - not independence, which requires a referendum. To say that these MPs should be excluded from government disenfranchises these voters. A surer way of bringing about Scottish independence I cannot imagine!

      In contrast, I have yet to see anyone actually set out how the SNP's support of a Miliband government can seriously damage the union. What they can do in practice is very limited.

    2. Most Scottish voters who vote for the SNP (and around half of Scottish voters don't vote for them) do so to bring about independence through another referendum. What they can do in practice is to negotiate a costly (to the UK) deal in exchange for supporting a Miliband government; perhaps you think that Labour are too noble to do such a thing? Whatever you and Freedland say about the need to hug a Nat to save the union, Labour + SNP is a riskier prospect than Labour and risk averse voters will factor this in.

    3. This is still just scaremongering. What exactly will the SNP force Labour to do? Remember all Labour need is for the SNP to support Miliband rather than Cameron as leader, which they are bound to do as their standing in Scotland would collapse if they ever allowed a Cameron government. Please be specific. I am happy to be convinced, as I am clearly not an SNP supporter.

    4. A Labour+SNP bloc is riskier than a Labour majority. They may force a vote of confidence over further devolution because they have made dishonest claims since the referendum about the "vow". The vow was published and said "extensive new powers". That's it. But since then the SNP have been consistently dishonest for party political reasons. They keep quoting "near federalism", "home rule, "devo max". Those terms don't appear in the vow. Salmond does this, so does Sturgeon (in her Guardian piece of 22 Jan) and Swinney. They're quotes from Gordon Brown -- and as they pointed out at the time, he was not in a position to promise anything, because he is a backbencher now. The only promise was what the 3 party leaders made in the vow. Cybernats never ever know this, and Labour have been hopeless in trying to defend against the charge.

      Then there's Trident. Removing it is pointless as the SNP has voted to join NATO if there's an indy Scotland. That means they'll stay in the crosshairs to have all their cities vaporised by Russian hydrogen bombs, just like nuclear-free Germany. Voters haven't realised that, either.

    5. Oh, and in addition -- the SNP could use a manufactured falling out over new powers as an excuse to call a second referendum if they still have a Holyrood majority to do so. In 1979 their support collapsed but they had no ability to hold a referendum.

  4. Will Clegg hold his seat?

    I remarked about a year ago on this website, not as mischievously as I would have liked, how much this 2015 election would benefit from only allowing graduates to vote, and how all the political parties' messages would change to that altered audience.

    I believe Clegg's seat is dependent to a sizeable degree on university voters. They could do everyone a favour and not re-elect him.

    1. There's not extensive constituency polling on Nick Clegg's seat, but I have seen at least one poll suggesting he's ten points down.

      Another question: Will Nick Clegg be leader after a disastrous election in which the Lib Dem's votes and MP share fall by half?

  5. I am one of only 350 Labour members in Northern Ireland and I hate the DUP. However Owen Jones is wrong about them and you shouldn't rely on him. Read their manifesto -- he hasn't done so. Yes, they're homophobes; they've been unable to persecute them in NI (except verbally). This is due to our compulsory coalition and Assembly legislation may not violate the European Convention. The DUP had to accept civil partnerships.

    Much more importantly, on economic policy, the DUP say they don't want to cut the deficit at the expense of growth. They want to give more help with childcare, to increase health and education budgets in real terms without 'decimating' everything else, and to have more infrastructure investment. All this is more Labour than Tory. And they want to increase the minimum wage above inflation for the next 5 years in a row. They (and our other parties) already excluded NI from the bedroom tax by forking over money from the rest of our revenue.

    I am unhappy that the DUP wants to cut corporation tax here. The rich are the shareholders and have a higher propensity to save, plus it's a race to the bottom. Nobody who voted Yes to Scottish independence noticed that the SNP wanted to cut corporation tax themselves, whereas Labour opposed it. The SNP have only reversed that position AFTER the referendum in other words to protect themselves against looking right-wing in arguments with Labour after May. The same is true of income tax, they didn't want to raise the top rate back to 50% from 45% unlike Labour. They've done a U-turn on this too.

    I am also unhappy that the DUP want to slash or abolish the BBC licence fee.

  6. Excellent post. This article is really very interesting and effective. I think its must be helpful for us.

  7. I doubt Clegg will be reelected as an MP so it is possible the main SNP Lib king makers will not be insiders at Westminster - democracy anyone?

  8. The voting reform we need:


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