There is still a long way to go, but we are getting to the point where it looks possible to predict the most likely result of the General Election and considering this opens up a few interesting possibilities.
It seems likely that Labour will win the election but be short of a majority (I’ll explain my working below*) and if they are the less than dominant victors when the smoke clears, the party will have a few big choices to make.
1. Go ahead as a minority government
If Labour fall short of the 325 seats they need for a majority, but are within spitting distance of it they may choose to go it alone and try to push legislation through as a minority government.
This would surely be their preference but would require them to fall only a few seats short of a majority (if you discount the 5 seats of Sinn Fein, who do not attend parliament, Labour would only need 323 seats for an effective majority) as to rely on other parties to put through their legislation is a risky business.
They may think it a worthwhile option to go alone if they are as much as a few dozen seats short, but would need to solicit support from other parties (Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrats, DUP and SDLP would all be potential allies on an issue by issue basis) in order to pass legislation and that would take a lot of compromise and horse trading to make it work.
2. Enter a coalition with the Liberal Democrats
The Liberal Democrats are a toxic option at this point and as they look likely to return less than 20 MPs their influence is not likely to be great in a coalition.
However, they have shown a willingness to work with Labour in the past, especially in the first two Scottish parliaments and have also shown themselves almost keen to prostrate themselves in the name of token ministerial roles.
As such, they might welcome a chance to seem relevant despite losing 2/3 of their seats and be content to facilitate a Labour-led government perhaps as much to spite their former Tory colleagues as anything else.
The Liberals toxicity and possible unwillingness to be such compliant doormats a second time in succession might put Labour off but a Liberal coalition could offer a more stable platform to govern, should such an arrangement offer the possibility of a majority.
3. Enter a coalition with the SNP
With the SNP set to gain more than 40 seats in May, they could well start the new parliament as the third biggest party. However, having taken most of those seats from Labour and likely hanging the caveat of a second independence referendum on any coalition agreement they would hardly be Labour’s choice of bedfellows even before other policy differences came into play.
That said if Labour fall 30-40 seats short of a majority, the SNP could be their only option if they are to avoid a hopeless minority which would surely lead to a second election within the year.
4. Enter a coalition with UKIP
Fortunately, UKIP are unlikely to win more than a handful of MPs despite a significant vote share in a rare (indeed, singular) case of the First Past The Post system actually working to protect the people of the UK from themselves.
As they are unlikely to win more seats than the Liberal Democrats, it’s likely that Labour would prefer the devil they know as coalition partners.
Even Labour are surely unwilling to get into bed with a bunch of self-identified Thatcherite racists… right?
Basically, if Labour are close to a majority I think they’ll go it alone or ally with the Liberal Democrats, but if they fall further short then they may have to team with the SNP at the cost of a second Scottish independence referendum, which could prove an unpopular move.
Another wrinkle could be the potential leadership upheaval in major parties. While Nicola Sturgeon, Nigel Farage and Natalie Bennett all seem pretty secure at the helm of the SNP, UKIP and Greens, the three traditionally biggest parties could all find themselves in flux with Ed Milliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg all in unsteady positions should the election pan out as it looks likely to.
Almost amazingly, Milliband could well be in the position of facing a rebellion despite winning the election if Labour fail to secure a majority, or a minority Labour government is forced from power in short order.
The horse trading between potential party leaders and their prospective coalition partners could definitely throw up some surprises, as well as muddying the pot of whether the party lines which emerge reflected those which were campaigned before the election.
My prediction at this time is Labour falling short by a good 30-40 seats and attempting to form a minority government rather than treat with the SNP which would probably result in a second election later in the year in similar circumstances to 1974.
Save a date in September, because I think we’ll be voting twice next year…
* This result is based on trends in several major polls, best illustrated at www.electoralcalculus.co.uk and http://www.ukelect.co.uk/HTML/forecasts.html but essentially being based around the idea that dissatisfaction with austerity will cost the Conservatives seats to Labour across England, while Labour and the Conservatives will hoover up the majority of the Liberal Democrats seats as their role in the coalition bears bitter fruit.
Labour’s triumph will be cut off by significant losses to the SNP in Scotland, possibly robbing them of a majority.
Lastly, I’m assuming that UKIP do pretty well but with 20-25% of the vote (down from their average in recent by-elections to adjust for protest vote and increased turnout) scattered around England they probably won’t win too many seats, less than 20 at most and more likely barely holding on to the two they already have. Indeed, it’s possible that UKIP splitting the Conservative (and maybe even Labour) vote might actually save the Liberal Democrats from a near complete wipeout in their heartlands.