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by GK Strategy 20th November, 2014
3 min read

1974 Revisited?

The next general election is now less than six months away. But rather than a Ministerial limousine cruising along Whitehall, it is beginning to resemble a runaway juggernaut that could have seismic implications for politics across the UK.

In 2010 people could content themselves with the hope that the somewhat novel “Coalition” would never last, and would be a momentary blip in a stable, solid succession of one-party majority governments. That hope now looks badly misplaced. If anything, the stability created by the Conservative-Lib Dem axis has acted as an artificial crutch for the two-party system. The smaller party has been hit by its own naivety, but also by the intense pressures created by a legislature and executive designed for single party rule.

With both Labour and the Tories currently some way short of the percentages traditionally required to gain a Parliamentary majority (around 35% for Labour; around 37% for the Tories), and the Lib Dems currently unlikely to win enough seats to retain the balance of power, we are moving into territory where no sustainable coalition can be formed. And in any case, neither of the big parties appears that keen on a formal agreement.

We’re looking instead at something that hasn’t happened in the UK for four decades. Not since February 1974 – when Labour lost the popular vote, but won the most seats, under Harold Wilson – has there been a minority government.

The picture is complicated by the need for clarity on continuing attempts to deal with the UK’s deficit. Whoever is in government is committed to painful reductions of around £50 billion in public spending by 2020. But traditionally, securing the consent of other parties in a minority government has relied heavily on incentives of one kind or another (a trunk road here, a rural broadband fund there…). It’s clear that the party in power will have limited scope for such generosity – which may not sit well, especially with a resurgent Scottish National Party.

So is our money on an early second election? Again, the picture here is far from clear. The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act has taken away the power of governments to call an election at a time of their choosing. In order to secure an election, a sitting government has to convince two-thirds of the Commons to vote with them – something that would almost certainly involve joining forces with the official opposition. This could potentially neutralise any political advantage to be gained from being perceived as putting “country before party”.

More likely is a traditional vote of no confidence, something that seems highly plausible given the unpopular measures any government will need to implement in order to retain a reputation for economic competence. The timing of such a vote will be difficult for opposition strategists to judge – if a vote is triggered over an unimportant issue, voters may punish the challenging parties for destabilising the government.

All in all, it appears improbable that the next government will remain in place until 7th May 2020 – but it would be an overconfident pundit who predicted with confidence the length of its tenure.

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