Election experts

Why minority government might actually work for Labour

Solo artist? Andrew Milligan/PA

With the election looking more and more likely to provide a decisive result, two of our columnists look at the likelihood of the Labour Party being able to form a minority government. Here, Wyn Grant says it’s worth a shot. Read Paul Cairney’s less optimistic assessment here.

In a recent article in the Financial Times, Bernard Donoughue suggested that a minority government might be a better option for Labour if it emerged from the election as the largest party. A better option, that is, than a “messy coalition”.

To make his case, he drew on his experience as an adviser at 10 Downing Street during the 1970s. Labour failed to get a majority in the February 1974 election and held a second in October of the same year in the hope of securing a more convincing mandate. It ended up with a small overall majority that was eroded in by-elections.

The Labour government survived until 1979. In its last years, this was largely thanks to a loose pact with the Liberals, but also with some help from others such as Plaid Cymru.

Donoughue argues that this offered the advantage of a coherent government with no minority party members. A minority government “negotiates its majority in the Commons week by week and issue by issue, with the whips identifying compromises that will secure a majority on each bill,” he notes.

Hush Ed, I’m making the rules. Chris Radburn/PA

Ahead of the 2015 campaign, Ed Miliband has ruled out a coalition with the SNP. This came in response to pressure from within his own party, but Nicola Sturgeon was quick to point out that was never really on offer anyway. The SNP has been prepared to contemplate “confidence and supply” – which means that it would support a Labour government on a no confidence motion and help it to legislate on the budget. Alternatively, the SNP could offer support on an issue-by-issue basis. Despite Sturgeon’s recent comments, this might still happen since the one thing the SNP is clear about is that it wants to keep the Conservatives out of government.

Reading the runes

No one knows what the result of the election will be but, for working purposes, I am taking a forecast produced by the Political Studies Association. I contributed to this forecast of seats – which could, of course, be overtaken by events between now and the election.

The forecast puts Labour on 289 seats and the Conservatives on 278. It has to be borne in mind that one MP will be the speaker and the three deputy speakers do not vote in divisions. There are likely to be five Sinn Fein MPs who will not take their seats.

This means that a coalition or informal arrangement could survive with 320 seats. It could potentially even survive on fewer, given how difficult it is to get opposition parties to combine.

On the forecast figures, informal support from the SNP would be enough for Labour to govern. The government would be more secure if Labour could add two or three Plaid Cymru MPs, the surviving Green and the one Alliance MP from Northern Ireland (if the party retains Belfast East).

On these hypothetical figures, support from the Liberal Democrats would not be enough for Labour, but nor would it be for the Conservatives. Labour appears to have more informal support options than the Conservatives. But, naturally, everything depends on the actual election result.

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