05 May 2015

Handicapping the UK General Election

I am trained as a political scientist but I am in no way an expert in UK politics. With that out of the way, I thought it might be fun and educational (both for me) to have a go at making sense of the upcoming UK election. So please read on and comment if you'd like.

The UK parliament has 650 seats, which means that a majority is 326 seats. Presently, the UK is governed by a coalition of the Conservative party (holding 302 seats) and Liberal Democrats (holding 56 seats). The upcoming election is particularly interesting because there is a significant chance that the combined loss of Conservative and LibDem seats will total less than that needed to form a government.  The number actually needed to secure a majority is actually less than 326 because the Sinn Fein Party does not take its seats, due to a longstanding boycott of Westminster. A working majority is generally thought to be 323.

So here are the numbers to watch as the election results come in.

1. The total seats won by the current coalition.

The current (May 5) forecast by electionforecast.co.uk suggests that this total will fall in between 272 and 343 seats, with a forecast of 307 seats. If the coalition secures 323 seats or more, then odds would appear to strongly favor a continuation of the current coalition and David Cameron continuing on as Prime Minister. This scenario is the least complicated but also seems fairly unlikely.

Things get more complicated if the current coalition does not win a working parliamentary majority. It is of course also possible that if the Conservative-LibDem coalition gets close enough to a working majority that several smaller parties are added to the coalition to secure a working majority.

But what if such a majority is not possible? Let's break down some additional key numbers.

2. The total seats won by the Conservatives.

The current forecast by electionforecast.co.uk has Conservatives on 281 seats and Labour on 267. Another group of academics, Polling Observatory, has it at 274 Conservative and 272 Labour. May2015 has it at 274 Conservative and 269 Labour. Ladbrokes (betting market) has it 286.5 Conservative and 266.5 Labour.

What these various prediction suggest is an expectation that the Conservatives will win more seats than Labour, but not by much and with substantial uncertainty. So, let's consider each possibility in turn.

2a. Conservatives win more seats than Labour

If this occurs, we can expect David Cameron to quickly assert victory and claim a mandate for a second term. This mandate might be implemented via a Conservative-led minority government or a continuation of the Conservative-LibDem coalition as a minority government.

A big wild card here is what Ed Miliband and the Labour party decide to do. If the combined total of Labour and Scottish National Party seats (perhaps plus some other minority parties) totals 323 or more, then together they will have the votes to pass a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister, which would force Cameron to step down.

Such a vote would almost certainly lead to a constitutional crisis as the UK would be in uncharted territory under the provisions of the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA). Catherine Haddon at the Institute for Government explains that "the Act substantially changes the rules of politics; and that nobody can yet tell exactly how these new rules will change the game." She gets into more detail:
If a motion of no confidence is passed or there is a failed vote of confidence, there is a 14-day period in which to pass an act of confidence in a new government. If no such vote is passed, a new election must be held, probably a mere 17 working days later.

So far, so clear. But from there we start to get into uncharted territory on two fronts. One is that some of the crucial mechanisms are not set out; the other is how the operation of the Act could affect political dynamics and party bargaining.
It is conceivable that the election winds up in the UK courts.

Thus, assuming that the Conservatives win more seats, but parliament is hung, then a first big decision will be Ed Miliband and Labour's decision whether to join with the SNP to pass a vote of no confidence. Of course, under a minority government such a vote of no confidence could occur at any time. Perhaps Miliband waits for the first big screw up by the minority government to force a new election in weeks or months time.

Of course, if Miliband cannot assemble 323+ no confidence votes, then the point is moot and the coalition continues to govern with David Cameron as PM, but with a continuing risk of the government falling.

2b. Labor wins more seats than the Conservatives

If this occurs it has potential to be a game changer. Under this scenario a first big decision shifts to Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. Do they then switch alliances from the Conservatives to Labour? Maybe so if David Cameron keeps as a "red line" and in/out vote on Europe. Clegg could then be known as the man who saved UK's role in Europe and perhaps the fate of the LimDems as a meaningful political party. Of course, if the UK public really values having this vote it could swing things the other way come the next election.

Under this scenario there would be essentially no risk of a constitutional crisis, as no conceivable combination of Conservatives and other parties would have the votes to pass a no confidence vote against a Labour government. A Labour-LibDem coalition may be a minority government, but with the SNP as backstop it might as well be majority. (For those unaware, Labour has ruled out a coalition with the SNP, and the SNP has ruled out supporting any scenario that includes a Conservative government.)

Bottom Line

My sense of the above is that Labour and Ed Miliband are in the drivers seat reagrdless of who is PM next week. While it is possible that the current coalition receives a mandate for another term, that seems unlikely. What seems more likely in order of my qualitative estimation is the following:

1. Cameron hangs on as PM over a minority government. It lasts somewhere between 2 weeks and 6 months before a second election of 2015.

2. Labour and the LibDems form a minority but new, stable coalition government.

3. The UK courts settle a constitutional crisis over the FTPA, as there is not enough votes to form a government or declare no confidence.

For those wanting to dive deeper, here is an analysis of seats to watch as results come in to get a sense of which way things are turning.

Whatever happens, it'll be fun to watch from Boulder, and a wonderful expression of modern democracy in action!

What do you think?