Voices: It is never too early to start planning for a hung parliament

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The Tories will be ready to launch an Ed Miliband-style attack on a Labour coalition, but Starmer would be foolish to let them do so unopposed  (Getty)
The Tories will be ready to launch an Ed Miliband-style attack on a Labour coalition, but Starmer would be foolish to let them do so unopposed (Getty)

Sorry about that. I caused consternation yesterday by suggesting that the local election results put Keir Starmer on course for No 10. Partisans of left and right didn’t like it, obviously, and mainstream Labour supporters didn’t want to jinx their hopes.

I stand by my analysis and plead that it doesn’t actually differ from the verdict of Professor Sir John Curtice, who is of course the Ultimate Authority on such matters. He said Labour didn’t do very well, and nowhere near well enough to win a majority at the next general election. But my point is that Starmer doesn’t need to win a Commons majority to become prime minister. Labour doesn’t even need to win more votes than the Conservatives to produce a hung parliament – and in any hung parliament, almost regardless of the exact distribution of seats, Starmer is likely to form a government.

The debate about the significance of these local elections, therefore, is more a debate about what people think will happen over the next two years, before a likely general election in 2024. It is quite possible that Boris Johnson will bounce back, or that the Conservatives will recover under another prime minister. That is what usually happens in the run-up to a general election. I still think that living standards will be going up and NHS waiting lists coming down by the next election, but the economic outlook should make any Tory nervous.

Predictions are bound to be wrong, but we are human and it is worth at least knowing the odds that we are up against. Events of the scale of Brexit or the pandemic may be along in a moment, but if you have to have a null hypothesis against which to measure them, it would probably be that the government will recover some support, but not much.

Given that Sir John calculates that, if the whole of Great Britain had been voting on Thursday, Labour’s share of the vote would have been five percentage points ahead of the Tories’, the results suggest a fairly equal contest at the next general election. And given that an equal share of the vote, even on the new constituency boundaries, would result in a hung parliament in which not even the Democratic Unionist Party (if they have any MPs) could prop up a Conservative government (if they wanted to), the mechanics of a minority Labour government ought to be discussed more than they are.

Obviously, Starmer doesn’t want to talk about hung parliaments and the Conservatives do. The Tories regard their attack on Ed Miliband, saying he would form a “coalition of chaos” with the Scottish National Party in 2015, as their most successful strike against a Labour leader until Starmer’s bottle of beer, and they are getting ready to do it again.

It would be foolish of Labour to let them do so unopposed. Miliband was unprepared for the assault last time; Starmer cannot afford to be this time. He didn’t start well. During the Labour leadership campaign he agreed, clearly not having thought about it, with the apparently obvious but actually dangerous and mistaken view that if the SNP won a majority in the Scottish parliament, it would have a “mandate” for a second referendum on independence.

Given that the SNP had a majority together with the pro-independence Scottish Greens, which they retained last year, this created the impression that Starmer would be open to a deal with the SNP, giving them another referendum in return for their support in a hung parliament. Starmer has since retreated from his slip-up, but he needs to harden his line. The leader of the opposition needs to say that now is not the time for another Scottish referendum, and that the time won’t be until there is clear and overwhelming evidence that it is what the Scottish people want. A wafer-thin majority in the Edinburgh parliament when 50 per cent of votes were cast for pro-UK parties is not that.

A minority Labour government does not have to give the SNP anything. Nicola Sturgeon’s representatives in the Commons cannot do anything that would allow a Conservative government, even though that is the one thing above all else that drives support for independence in Scotland.

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The Liberal Democrats are in a similar position. Their activists, their rhetoric and above all the scars of their ministerial office in the coalition would make it unthinkable that they should prop up a Tory government. Ed Davey, their leader, has even been unwise enough to say so (he was asked by the Financial Times last year if the Lib Dems would facilitate a Conservative government at the next election and replied, “No”).

The same applies to Plaid Cymru, the SDLP and Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, and Caroline Lucas, the Green MP. With the possible exception of the DUP (or other Northern Irish unionists if that is what happens), the Conservatives are uncoalitionable.

That means Starmer doesn’t need to offer other parties ministerial posts, or any kind of deals, to be able to govern. They will not prevent a Labour government being formed. They will probably vote for many of the policies Starmer proposes, and they will be wary of forcing another election too soon.

Because the 2010 election produced a surprisingly stable coalition, we are not used to this kind of politics, last seen in the last two years of the Callaghan government. It is possible that Starmer would be good at it, but he needs to persuade people of that before it happens. It is obvious from the reaction to the local election results that most people do not realise how likely a hung parliament is. As the general election approaches, it will become clearer that winning a majority is hopelessly unrealistic for Labour, requiring as it does a greater swing than that achieved by Tony Blair in 1997.

Starmer needs to convince the voters that he can still form a government on his own terms, even if he falls a long way short of that ambition.

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