The most recent BBC Poll of Polls puts both Conservative and Labour on 34 per cent with UKIP on 14 per cent, the Liberal Democrats on 8 per cent and the Greens on 5 per cent. The narrowness or non-existence of a Labour lead before the campaign proper gets under way is confirmed across all of the major polls with a lead not exceeding 3 per cent. Generally it is expected that, where a government is unpopular the opposition has a good lead as it goes into the campaign and that, as the incumbent party often improves its position during the campaign, it is often a case of the opposition trying to hang on to its lead up to Election Day. In the more volatile, less two party oriented nature of British politics today, there seems to be less interest in the election itself than on the possible variations of what all the pundits believe will be a hung parliament and on the ‘honest’ but politically inept admission by the Prime Minister that he will only serve for one more term should he be elected spawning a feeding frenzy in the ‘Westminster village’ about his successor. This is going to be an intensely negative campaign by the coalition parties and Labour. The basic premise appears to be…we’ve had the pain of five years of austerity and, for the Conservatives, its a plea to ‘let us finish the job’ while from Labour ‘there are more cuts to come but we’d do it more slowly’. So little innovative political thinking here.
If the assumption of a hung parliament is correct, and it’s far from clear whether this will be the case, the question is what form government will take beyond May. Did the coalition represent the natural 'next step' in party dealignment and the evolution of multi-party politics? Was coalition in practice a historic innovation in itself, or did the essential principles of Britain's uncodified constitution remain untroubled? The horse-trading has already begun. Let’s assume that Labour is the biggest party but without an overall majority—likely given its parlous position in Scotland if the polls are right—it’s already ruled out a coalition with the SNP but a week is a long time in politics and the realities of its position after May may change things. The problem with the SNP is that its agenda is clear—independence—and Mr Salmond has already said that he could bring down the government if Labour joined in, with David Cameron ‘locked out’. The Conservatives accused him of ‘trying to sabotage the democratic will of the British people’ though in reality this means the ‘English people’. It is part of their continuing attempt to portray Mr Miliband as a weak leader whose strings are being pulled by Mr Salmond but it could well precipitate further moves towards Scottish independence. The question is whether English voters—a demographic majority of the UK--would be prepared to accept Scottish voters and SNP MPs gaining benefits for Scotland at the expense of England, a case of the historical boot being on the other foot.
The problem for the Conservatives if they form the largest party is equally fraught. Perhaps the easiest option would be a continuation of the coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Although it is likely that there will be fewer Lib Dem MPs—they will take the brunt of voter dissatisfaction with the coalition—the existing coalition has probably worked better than many people initially thought and the need for their support may well have blunted some of the more ideological policies of the Conservatives—well at least that’s the Lib Dem narrative. It is also likely that the Conservative would have the support of UKIP, the only way it will get the referendum it craves, and also support from the more conservative Northern Ireland parties. Although in the past, Irish MPs have determined whether a minority government could govern effectively, today the question is not whether this is possible—there’s no constitutional obstacle—but whether it would be acceptable to the electorate. The issue is that without a federal constitutional structure that could legitimate this type of coalition, it appears simply as a pragmatic and somewhat crude way of achieving power. But then this is a consequence of a multi-party state where small parties can punch above their numerical weight.