The smaller parties should be careful what they wish for. It always ends badly for the kingmaker

by Atul Hatwal

We are approaching peak minnow for the campaign. Yesterday the Lib Dems and Ukip launched their manifestos and this evening there is the five-way debate featuring the smaller parties minus Nick Clegg but inexplicably with Ed Miliband guest starring at the front of the coconut shy as the designated representative of Westminster’s failed big party duopoly.

But as much fun as the SNP, the Greens, Plaid and Ukip will have beating up on Ed Miliband the smaller parties should be careful what they wish for.

They might be eyeing eventual roles as kingmakers or junior partners in government, but history has a harsh lesson: it always ends badly.

In peacetime, every time there has been a coalition, confidence and supply agreement or any type of deal for support in the last 100 years, it has been electoral poison for the minor party.

On three occasions there have been coalitions in the last century and one period of less formal support to sustain a government.

All involved the Liberals, with the SNP and Plaid Cymru also becoming mired in the mess of the 1970s Callaghan government.

The results speak for themselves.

Minor party fall

In 1918, 1931 and 2010 various flavours of the Liberal party joined the Conservatives in coalition government.

In the 1974-79 parliament, from 1977 through to 1978 they sustained Labour with formal confidence and supply and vote by vote support 1978-9.

In parallel, from 1976, the SNP and Plaid Cymru agreed to support the Labour government in return for a devolution bill.

If the Lib Dems suffer the average percentage fall in seats that occurred on the previous occasions that they were in a formal coalition, in 2015 they can expect to lose 27 seats, falling from 57 to 30, in line with many pundits predictions (though a little harsh in my view).

At the October 1974 general election, the SNP polled 30% in Scotland and secured 11 Westminster seats – almost double their representation in the 2010-15 parliament.

In some polls in the run-up to the October 1974 election the SNP were even in the mid to high thirties, similar levels of support to today.

Then in 1976 they threw their lot in with the Labour government.

At the 1979 election, having voted against Labour in the vote of confidence and helped bring the government down (“turkeys voting for Christmas” was Callaghan’s prophetic jibe), the SNP’s support fell to 17% in Scotland and they slumped from 11 to 2 seats.

For Plaid, the fall was less precipitous but still painful. Their support dropped from 11% to 8% in Wales and they lost 1 of their 3 MPs.

The common thread running through each of these setbacks – exemplified in the difficulties facing the Liberal Democrats in this campaign – is the manner in which the public perceive the smaller partner following a stint supporting one of the big parties: they bear the sins of the government but exhibit few of the virtues.

They are too similar to the major party to be a rival, but not similar enough to be worth a vote in their own right for most supporters of the government. Yet they are not sufficiently distinct for those opposed the government.

So, the small parties get squeezed.

This squeeze is amplified by the electoral system. First past the post drives a binary choice in each constituency, burning the middle ground on which the main party’s supporting partner might stand.

The best that can be hoped for is a retreat to the Liberal Democrats current strategy – to be the government party in seats where the main party is absent and to be the reasoned opposition where the actual opposition is not strong.

Yet even then, this just postpones the day of reckoning.

Imagine Nick Clegg’s 2015 strategy is successful. The Liberal Democrats are not wiped out, they hold the balance of power and enter a new, stable coalition. What then at the 2020 general election?

If the Lib Dems prop up the Tories again, then after a decade together in government, it will be virtually impossible for them to pose as any form of alternative to the Conservatives.

The 2020 contest would be a wholly polarised choice between Conservative government and Labour opposition with even less political space for the Lib Dems.

Alternately, if they go into coalition with Labour, they will leech support from their right flank to the Conservatives, just as they have lost 3-5% over this parliament to Labour.

Given the senior partner in government under this scenario will be Labour, it will be difficult for the Lib Dems to rebuild their depleted left flank, leaving them in a situation where they will have spent 10 years losing support, first to the left and then the right.

There’s only so much squeezing a small party can take before it goes pop.

Once again, the 2020 contest would be an entirely polarised choice, just this time between Labour government and Conservative opposition. The Lib Dems would be returned to their post-war square one with likely less than 10% national support and barely a handful of seats.

Then there is the human dimension to factor in, regardless of whether the Lib Dems work with Labour or the Tories.

If Lib Dem MPs have been ministers for a decade, it is probable a good number will not want a return to parliamentary anonymity. In this situation, the prospect of defections opens up.

Significant numbers of Liberal MPs have switched to the Conservatives in the aftermath of each of their previous coalitions, stretching back into the nineteenth century.

The paradox for Nick Clegg’s Lib Dem’s is that moderate success 2015 could represent an existential threat for 2020.

Nicola Sturgeon faces a similar dilemna. She might confidently proclaim that she will support Ed Miliband and extract concessions but some conversation with veterans from the 1970s might not go amiss.

Falling back from today’s giddy heights of over 40% in the Scottish polls to the twenties or even teens would represent a generational defeat for the nationalists.

The flip side of this coin is that based on historical experience, the best way for Ed Miliband and Labour to destroy the SNP and retake Scotland in 2020 might actually be a post-election deal with Sturgeon.

Funny old business politics.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut

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3 Responses to “The smaller parties should be careful what they wish for. It always ends badly for the kingmaker”

  1. swatantra says:

    Its a paradox and a conundrum: How do you get the experience, unless your’re actually in Govt? On the whole Clegg did the best thing and the right thing, to give his MP’s and Party experience of actually taking responsibility and decisions. No doubt the Lib Dems will learn from those 5 years. And so should Labour, about how and how not to do Coalition. Its a template for all future coalitions. Of course a junior partner may well get hammered, because the electorate won’t appreciate the sacrifices made.
    Labour ill have to show a more magnanimous side and less of the arrogant side when it comes to Coalitions, which are often marriages of convenience.

  2. Tafia says:

    And what happened to the main party in the following election? For instance in 1979 Labour were crucified worse in percentage terms than their allies – losing 50 seats from am already precarious position. And that was nothing to do with them having had to rely on a lose coalition and in the election after that :abour went on to lose a further 60 seats.

  3. Madasafish says:

    I would not want to be part of any Coalition Government from 2015-2020.

    If it’s one which makes cuts – as conventional economics suggest it must – any coalition partner will feel the wrath of that part of the electorate which believes that money grows on trees and tax revenues are always infinite.

    And if it’s one which makes no cuts – as the Greens , SNP and part of the Labour Party suggests (the unions for a start) – then at some time when interest rates rise (which is inevitable) the bond markets will revolts and the then Government will face a financial crisis of the type faced by Jim Callaghan when he was in coalition with the SNP…

    The resulting spending cuts will make current “austerity” seem like a summer’s picnic (which it is – it’s certainly NOT austerity) and destroy the Coalition partners for at least a decade.

    I still expect Labour to have the most seats..

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