No one wins alone

Five political factions vie for the leadership in the United Kingdom. Uncertainty wins the day and even the bookmakers can't call the odds.

The most important thing about the UK’s May 7 general elections happened four years ago when the current conservative government passed the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act that basically requires that all legislatures last their full statutory five-year terms.

At the time the government said such a rule, which strips British prime ministers of their traditional power – used in 60% of post-war votes – of being able to call snap elections at times they perceived to be to their tactical advantage, would provide stability and discourage political ‘short-termism’.

As it turns out, the new rule has meant the current election campaign began months ago. Opinion polls at press time suggest extreme uncertainty about the outcome and point to the inevitability of a coalition, which will not only make governing more volatile but may even have an impact on voters’ behaviour.

The remnants of the UK’s two-party system – starring David Cameron’s Tories and Ed Miliband’s Labour - have been roiled by the emergence of a host of factors: The UK Independence Party (UKIP), often branded as a populist anti-European movement, performed very well in last year’s European parliamentary elections; support is now surging for the Green Party, hitherto just a wisp of the imagination; and the Scottish National Party (SNP), nursing the wounds from its failed independence referendum, is poised to sweep the northern country where Labour has long ruled.

As a result, there is more than a sporting chance that the result of the vote will be weeks of horse-trading to form a government. Certainly Cameron will be acting prime minister at the May 8 celebrations of the end of World War II in Europe.

Coalitions have become a common pattern in Europe: Italy and Sweden rely on them to keep anti-establishment parties out of the game and Spain may soon join the list.

The UK may be heading for something similar since consensus polls grant Labour and the Tories about a third of the vote each. The UKIP is well above 14% and the Liberal Democrats and Greens are splitting a further 13%.

However, the UK has a first-past-the-post system, so local balances of power matter more than the national averages. This means the SNP may win up to 51 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons with fewer than a third of the votes of the UKIP, which is projected to win at most two seats, more or less like the Greens, according to Chris Hanretty, a political scientist at the University of East Anglia.

Hanretty’s median scores would seem to indicate that the quickest way to a one-seat parliamentary majority would be an unwieldy three-way coalition led by the Conservatives with the SNP and Liberal Democrats. Labour would have to engage in more extreme antics to muster the same.

However, so long as Labour doesn’t get wiped out in Scotland, the most likely outcome is Miliband heading a minority government with external support from the SNP, even though the Tories win the most votes, according to Alex White, founder of Politikos, a think tank focusing on political risk. Poisoned chalices may await at No. 10 Downing Street, though, as a minority government won’t “have sufficient political capital to manage any of the major issues with the nuance they require”, White noted.

While coalitions require compromises, for minority governments the process is constant. Indeed, one British Lord wryly noted that, thanks to the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, it’s possible all of the next five years might consist of horse trading.

To judge by their agendas, Cameron’s Tories would push through much harsher austerity measures compared to Miliband’s Labour, according to Slavena Nazarova, an economist with Credit Agricole. But with no clear mandate, fiscal policies are likely to be looser than planned and are unlikely to include the growth-targeting measures that a Keynesian agenda would require.

While all contending parties are promising to boost affordable housing, London’s red-hot real estate market may tip the vote. While Labour blamed its slide in the 1980s on yuppies, sky-high prices are pushing more and more people into the suburbs – leaving the affluent central districts in Tory hands while shifting the balance leftwards in the suburbs.

The vote evidently has a distinctly European flavour. If Cameron prevails, he’ll have to hold his promised “in-out” referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, while if Miliband takes the helm, he’ll have to deal with the UK’s own union.

In a sense, Scotland is now rewriting the British political map much in the way Ireland did – albeit with much blood and gore –100 years ago. But in England – the largest country in the UK – the landscape remains unsettled, as the proliferation of electorally relevant parties shows.

In post-war times, 90% of MPs won an outright majority of votes in their district, meaning that the first-past-the-post system did, in fact, provide a mandate. Those days are gone, and shifting allegiances mean deep institutional change is almost inevitably on the way to assuring legitimate governance.

For example, Cameron has floated a bill that would require labour unions to obtain 40% of their members’ support to call a strike. That’s quite a threshold. As Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at King’s College London and one of the country’s foremost constitutional experts, pointed out, 634 of the 650 current members of Parliament won election with a lower share of the ballots in their home constituencies.

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