British may stick with the coalition habit

Less than three weeks to go until, if not exactly the biggest election of the year (Nigeria will probably take that honor), what looks like being the most significant. The United Kingdom votes on 7 May for all 650 members of a new House of Commons.

Current indications are that neither Labour nor Conservatives have much chance of winning a majority in their own right. Adrian Beaumont did a good job of summarising the numbers a few days ago at the Conversation. He suggests that the most likely outcome will be a coalition between Labour and the Scottish Nationalist Party.

The SNP, which is tipped to pick up maybe about 40 seats, arouses a lot of strong feelings. But if you care about preserving the unity of the UK (which – disclosure – I don’t; it doesn’t worry me either way), there’s never been a better time to bring the SNP into government. That’s because last year’s referendum has ensured that the independence issue is off the table for the immediate future.

The one thing that could bring it back would be if Britain were to leave (or look likely to leave) the European Union: the Scots then would say that that wasn’t what they signed up for and would want to revisit the question of independence. A Labour-led government, however, would ensure continued EU membership.

It’s not clear whether Labour and the SNP will command a majority between them. On current figures they have a good chance (but beware: translating votes into seats in Britain is fiendishly difficult), but there’s a tendency for the late swing during the campaign to favor the Tories.

It’s quite possible that the Liberal Democrats, depleted though they will certainly be, will hold the balance of power between Conservatives and Labour/SNP. And even if they don’t, it’s likely that Labour would prefer to take them into partnership in addition to the SNP if the Lib Dems are willing.

My guess is that although coalition with the Tories has worked reasonably smoothly, the Lib Dems will be happy enough to join with Labour if they’re asked. After all, that’s what would have happened last time if the numbers had been there for it. I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating often: the critical fact about the 2010 election was that Labour and the Lib Dems won a majority of the vote (52%) between them, but the caprice of the electoral system denied them a majority of seats.

Labour has never governed with coalition partners, although it formed a minority government with the support of the Liberals twice in the 1920s and again briefly in 1977-78. A three-way coalition could be an exciting experience, with the SNP making the running on devolution and the Lib Dems on electoral reform.

Of course it’s not certain (although it this stage it looks a good deal more likely than not) that even the Labour/SNP/Lib Dem combination will command a House of Commons majority. If it doesn’t, other options come into play, including the Lib Dems sticking with the Tories in the interests of stability – particularly if the alternative is some sort of Tory deal with the europhobes of UKIP. I’ll have more to say about UKIP next week.

For more election predictions, check out electionforecast.co, a relative of Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com. I think their level of precision is likely to be misleading, but it certainly provides a basis for some fascinating speculation.

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