Ed could be PM even if Labour finishes second and his coalition partners, the Lib Dems, finish fourth

by Michael Collins

In the last week or so the polling website May2015 has convincingly put forward the thesis that even if the Tories win the most seats and votes on May 7, Ed Miliband is the likelier Prime Minister. This has significant implications for the stability of Britain’s democracy over the coming weeks.

In fact, the situation may be even more precarious than it seems, with neither Labour nor the Conservatives able to establish a majority, even via coalition. To see why this will be so difficult, we must look not only at the numbers but also the differing ideological leanings of the parties. Europe is the key issue.

Those, such as Dan Hodges at the Telegraph, who are still betting on a Tory-led government, believe that the Tories’ aggressively insisting the SNP will pull the strings if Labour come to power will have a significant pro-Tory impact on English marginals as polling day approaches. This may well happen, though it is still to show up in the polls.

With the Tories coming out as the biggest party in terms of votes and seats, the assumption from those backing Mr Cameron to stay in Number 10 is that “if the seats are there,” the Liberal Democrats will do another deal with Cameron and we’ll have coalition 2.0.

Taking out the anticipated 5 Sinn Fein seats (their elected MPs do not sit in the House of Commons), plus the Speaker, the magic figure for the slimmest of working majorities is 325 seats.

Let’s imagine for sake of argument the Tories reached 302 seats, which is well beyond the highest predictions of any of the main polling indicators, with the Liberal Democrats on a more realistic 23. This would give the two coalition parties 325 seats.

On that basis, can the Liberal Democrats really carry on propping up the Conservative Party? The coalition vote share would have fallen, with both parties losing seats. Looking ahead, the Tories promise much deeper (albeit unspecified) cuts. And most importantly, they have proposed a referendum on Europe. This situation will be very unappealing to the Liberal Democrat membership.

We should also think not only about divisions between but also within parties. A sizable rump of Tory rebels has consistently voted against the coalition throughout this parliament. They mostly detest the Liberal Democrats, and they have turned themselves into a single issue cabal with their fundamentalism over the EU.

The Liberal Democrats’ forming a coalition with this crowd in 2010 could be seen as a noble sacrifice for national stability; to do it again in 2015 would be reckless in the extreme, and probably very short-lived.

More realistically, let’s suppose the Tories are back on something like 290 seats. In this scenario, they will need the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as well as the Liberal Democrats. The Tories have a history of drawing on Ulster Unionist support. John Major’s government relied on them for confidence votes from 1993 to 1997.

But the DUP – who also call for an EU referendum – feature heavily in the Liberal Democrats “right-wing alliance” deck of cards. For example, the DUP Northern Ireland assembly member Jonathan Bell is quoted as saying that abortion has “destroyed more viable human life” than Adolf Hitler. It would be extremely difficult for an ideologically liberal political party to be dependent on politicians who articulate such extreme conservative values, including outspoken homophobic and anti-European sentiment.

If we throw in one or two UKIP MPs to what the Liberal Democrats themselves have called a dangerous “BluKIP” coalition, the low probability of the Liberal Democrats taking part can be seen more clearly still.

In other words, a total of 325 seats is not enough for stable government on the Right of the political spectrum.

This is why it’s important to think about electoral outcomes in terms of blocs on the Left or the Right.

At first glance, a Left coalition looks more viable. Even with Labour on 270 and the SNP on 45, the magic number is achieved. But this simply isn’t going to happen.

Firstly, both parties have ruled out formal coalition. Secondly, and more importantly, it would be electoral suicide for Labour to enter into any kind of agreement with the SNP. It would prove to Scottish voters that the SNP were right all along. Vote SNP and get a Labour government with a strong Scottish accent.

And in England, Labour’s credibility would be destroyed. If the Tories fail to win the election with their SNP fear-mongering, they have surely done enough to undermine any Labour-SNP arrangement in English voters’ eyes.

However, Labour’s position is not as hopeless as it seems. Far from it.

The SNP’s great weakness is that, just like Parnell and the Irish Nationalists in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, it has tied its horse to the cart of one party (it was the Liberals for Parnell, Labour for Sturgeon). Labour can refuse any agreement with the SNP and forge a minority coalition with the Liberal Democrats, knowing the SNP has nowhere else to go.

Using the mean averages of the six different seat predictions on May2015, and then lining our groupings up according to Left and Right blocs, we might then have a picture looking approximately like this:

LEFT: Labour 270, Liberal Democrat 25 = 295

RIGHT: Conservative 277, DUP 8 = 285

The balance is incredibly delicate, but not implausible on current projections. The Left coalition gives us ten more seats than the Right coalition. Let’s throw an unlikely 4 UKIP seats on the Right, and the Labour-led bloc is still the biggest.

To be defeated, all of the “other” MPs below would need to vote against a Lib-Lab coalition in a no confidence motion. Note that the vast majority of these “others” are SNP, and the rest, leaving aside the speaker, are left-leaning.

OTHERS: SNP 51, Plaid Cymru 3, Green 1, Respect 1

As is now being recognised, Labour, contrary to received wisdom, could hold the upper hand in this scenario. The SNP would be very foolish to turn to the Conservative Party. The SNP would not be formally included in the Left bloc, and would only need to abstain in a no confidence motion. But why would they do that?

The SNP would be faced with the choice of leaving a Labour-led coalition in power or voting it down and putting the Tories in government (as they did with Margaret Thatcher in 1979 when they brought the Callaghan government down). If they took this option, the SNP would surely be heavily exposed to criticism, and then lose seats to Labour in Scotland at a subsequent general election.

So how might things unfold?

On May 8 the Liberal Democrats have said they will “speak to biggest party first”. Let’s assume it’ll be the Tories. They talk, but decide there is no way a Lib-Con coalition can continue: it has lost legitimacy, and it would be completely split over the issue of Europe. In addition, the Liberals could not plausibly be in a coalition dependent on the DUP and UKIP.

So they turn to Labour. They could theoretically form a minority coalition government, which could only be brought down if the SNP voted against it on a no confidence motion. They have votes and seats across the UK. Neither party is in cahoots with the separatist SNP committed to destroying our merry Union.

Yes, such a coalition requires the SNP not to bring it down, but it doesn’t require their active support. In a straight vote against the Conservatives, DUP and UKIP on the Right, the Left coalition of Labour and Liberal Democrat wins.

The incentive for Labour is that they form a government having not fallen prey to the Conservatives’ “de-legitimisation” strategy over the SNP. If they call the SNP’s bluff on this, make a reasonable fist of governing with the Liberals in a centre-left fashion and, crucially, adopt a reformist agenda in Scotland, they have a more-than-reasonable chance of clawing back support there, reducing SNP seats by the general election of 2020 and stymying a second independence referendum.

The Liberal Democrats would regain some credibility through playing a positive role in a centre-left coalition, proving they truly are the responsible party of the centre, not Tory stooges.

Such a coalition on the Left would paradoxically have fewer seats but potentially have greater stability and legitimacy. Many would complain that a coalition of the second and fourth largest parties would be “undemocratic,” but in our representative system it is the grouping that can win a confidence vote in the House of Commons that forms the government. That principle will undoubtedly come under severe strain, but it may still carry the day for Ed Miliband.

So, when trying to think through possible election outcomes, it’s not just the numbers that matter but how the parties line up ideologically. Interestingly, as has been the case for most of the twentieth century, the majority of the UK electorate votes centre-left. The difference today is that the electoral arithmetic has shifted against the Tories because the Right has split over Europe.

Dr Michael Collins is a Lecturer in British History in the Department of History, and Director for Institutional Change and Democracy at the Global Governance Institute (GGI) University College London (UCL).

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17 Responses to “Ed could be PM even if Labour finishes second and his coalition partners, the Lib Dems, finish fourth”

  1. swatantra says:

    Yes he could be PM. But would he have the legitimacy in terms of a popular vote? Or a combined vote of Labour and Lib Dems and maybe the Greens.
    I’d personally feel extremely unhappy if he didn’t, in the same way that I always felt uncomfortable in the Blair years, huge majorities but only 2/5 of the electorate had actually voted Labour, less than in 1983 the nadir of Labour’s misfortunes..
    We need PR as a priority in the first year of the next Govt.
    I’ve excluded the SNP and Plaid and Irish Parties from the calculations because they are only Regional self interested Parties and not National Parties.

  2. Michaelworcs says:

    It would be a weak government led by a weak leader, with a barely credible mandate with a partner in the SNP who will outsmart Ed at every turn. It wouldn’t Last till Xmas then the Labour vote in England would collapse, the Labour party will implode and maybe split. Loosing to a weak conservative party might be preferable

  3. John P Reid says:

    Swatantea, if there was q massive outrage at Blair in,y getting 2/5th of the electorate they’d have voted different or Libdem voters if they disliked Blair would have tactically voted Tory

    Remember when Wilson won in Oct 1974 he got 38% of the vote in a 72% turnout, along with 1983 and 1997 the lowest turnouts of the 20th century,

    And introduced trade union laws completely rejected by Mrs T, who apart from 83 was getting 44-42% of the vote on 78% turnouts.

  4. Tafia says:

    Swatantra but only 2/5 of the electorate had actually voted Labour

    Wrong Swat. 2/5ths of the people who voted you mean. In terms of the entore electorate (ie every registered to vote) It was barely a quarter.

  5. Tafia says:

    And haven’t the LibDems already said they won’t go into partnership with Labour if Balls is Chancellor? Remember 2010 when in the failed Balls-led negotiations with the LibDems they wouldn’t go into partnership them unless Brown and Balls stood down.

    They’ve also said they won’t do C&S – Coalition only, so which Cabinet posts would Labour be willing to surrender? Harmann’s DPM post goes out the window straight away.

  6. It doesn't add up... says:

    This is a good analysis. It’s obviously toxic to kow-tow to the SNP (it would be for the Tories too, were Sturgeon to entertain the idea). But the presumption that the Lib Dems would stick with Labour for five years is perhaps a little optimistic. It’s also easy to see a coalition across a range of parties (including Labour rebels) who would vote down excessively pro-Scottish measures. I doubt the arrangement would last any longer than in 1974, with a failure to pass a confidence vote in any alternative government leading to another election.

  7. stuart says:

    this is a nutcase election,first past the post should mean first past the post even though i dread cameron and co getting back into power,this has to be the most lame and boring election campaign even,just a tedious borefest.

  8. Ardepy says:

    A couple of (admittedly trivial) maths points:

    “Taking out the anticipated 5 Sinn Fein seats (their elected MPs do not sit in the House of Commons), the magic figure for the slimmest of majorities is 325 seats.” This isn’t correct – only 323 would be required (650 seats minus 5 = 625, divided by 2).

    “Let’s imagine for sake of argument the Tories reached 302 seats … with the Liberal Democrats on a more realistic 22. This would give the two coalition parties 325 seats.” Would give them 324.

  9. Robert says:

    A sensible article. Swatantra, the votes of “regional” parties are as valid as the votes of “national” parties. As it happens, any result is legitimate becasue voters decided to retain first past the post in 2011.

  10. Tafia says:

    Ardepy – you’re forgetting Speaker and Deputy Speakers.

  11. ardepy says:

    @Tafia. No – I’m not. 323 Tories would include Bercow and Liang. 323 Labour includes Hoyle and Primarolo. (Or whoever takes over from them). A party would need 321 votes to be sure of winning but as their 2 speakers/deputies couldn’t vote they need 323 members for that majority.

  12. Michael says:

    @ardepy Thanks for correction on 22+302! As for majority, I think 325 a reasonable figure for what I refer to as a “working majority” as opposed to just 1 MP. Still it’s not the central issue in my view, neither party can be confident of getting anywhere near 323 or 325. What I have tried to highlight is how possible coalitions match up, and we’re looking at the mid 290s – anything in addition to that will only be on a vote by vote basis. It would be tricky, and require abstentions rather than active support. Trident will be very difficult for Labour to deal with. If it’s not mentioned in the Queen’s Speech (even though they intend to renew it with Tory backing later in the parliament) it could lead to a possible crisis of legitimacy at the very outset, with Labour seen to be doing exactly what the Tories said they’d do: put the nation’s security at risk because of the SNP.

  13. swatantra says:

    @ Tafia I’d be ok with Balls not being Chancellor. Clegg should get the FO; that should keep him out of the country for most of the time; and no to a Lib Dem DPM.

  14. Tafie says:

    For those of you that can’t get behind the Financial Times firewall I reproduce the below article. Basically, Labour can forget the Lib Dems – they’d rather go back in with the Tories.

    Nick Clegg on Friday dealt a blow to the chances of a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition in a hung parliament as he ruled out any deal that relied on “life support” from the Scottish National party.

    The Lib Dem leader also argued that any coalition with the party that finished second in the election — on most current projections Labour — would lack “legitimacy” with voters, who would question the government’s “birthright”.

    In the clearest sign yet that he is contemplating a renewal of his 2010 coalition with the Conservatives, Mr Clegg told the Financial Times that Labour had been consumed by “frothing bile” towards his party for the past five years.

    Mr Clegg said he would not join a coalition with Labour that required a deal with 40-50 SNP MPs to survive. Current polls suggest Ed Miliband, the Labour party leader, would need SNP support to secure a Commons majority.

    “I totally rule out any arrangements with the SNP — in the same way I rule out any arrangements with Ukip — because there is no meeting point for me with one party that basically wants to pull our country to bits and another party that wants us to pull out of the EU,” Mr Clegg said.

    “I would never recommend to the Liberal Democrats that we help establish a government which is basically on a life support system, where Alex Salmond could pull the plug any time he wants. No, no, no.”

    Mr Clegg’s comments will come as a boost to David Cameron, who may be forced to turn to the Lib Dems to hold on to power in a hung parliament — the widely expected outcome of the election.

    The Lib Dem leader, speaking en route to campaign in his Sheffield Hallam constituency, said he was “confident” of holding his seat and that his party would do “much better” than the 25-30 seats predicted by the polls.

    Mr Clegg had strong criticisms of the Tories for their “socially regressive” plans for spending cuts and their “obsession” with Europe, which he claimed undermined Britain’s influence in the world.

    But Mr Cameron will take comfort from Mr Clegg’s commitment that on May 8 he would begin exclusive coalition talks with the leader of the party with “the biggest mandate” in the Commons, which had “a right to seek a settlement”.

    On most projections Mr Cameron is expected to win more seats than Mr Miliband, although the race is tight.

    Only if those talks failed would Mr Clegg start negotiations with the leader of the smaller party in the Commons, but he fears that any so-called “coalition of the losers” could lack “legitimacy”.

    “You cannot provide stability, you can’t take difficult decisions, if people are constantly questioning the birthright of a government,” he said.

    Labour officials said it was well known that Mr Clegg and allies such as Danny Alexander and David Laws favoured another coalition with the Tories but that “it doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of the Lib Dems”.

    (Copyright: Financial Times/George Parker & Kiran Stacey)

  15. Michael says:


    Nothing can be ruled in or out at this stage. Clegg does not speak for his whole party. He is not even sure of being an MP by May 8. There are many twists and tuns yet. You may also have seen Andrew Adonis’ interview in the NS? Free to read here:


    A second Lib-Con coalition remains very problematic for the reasons I outline above. Europe is the key problem, as Adonis also suggests.

  16. swatantra says:

    Clegg would have to consider which Party he would go into coalition with and would produce a stable majority working for 5 years. Tricky if Cons and Lab only have 2 or 3 seat difference. Ok if the Tories got more seats, then they could try and form a minority Govt, but they could be voted down in a vote of confidence, and a Lab- Lib Dem coalition be formed. In 2010 it was clearly obvious that Labour had lost the GE and the Lib dems had no alternative but to go in with the Cons and get a stable Govt for 5 years.

  17. Tafia says:

    Nobody is going to vote down the new government for a couple of years at leas – not even if it contains UKIP or the SNP. Neither Labour nor the Tories will want another election that quickly so which ever is on Opposition will probably only abstain.

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