Well in the UK, we are now into the last 72 hours of an election that will determine either the next five years of these islands or the next four months, before we do it all again. There’s been a lull in the last 24 hours — aside from Ed Miliband’s bizarre monument to bad political ideas — before what is likely one last sting, one last policy punch or giveaway. I’m not sure what it can be from either side: so much has been promised to swinging voters that short of promising to come round and babysit for couples on date night, I’m not sure what remains. Indeed, the Tories may well promise something on childcare — an earlier refusal to rule out cuts to child tax credit may have been a double-bluff.

Labor, mehhhh, they win by convincing people they won’t max out the credit card again, and that would have involved an argument as to how austerity slowed recovery, and how a state economy doesn’t work like a family one does. Last-minute giveaways can be counter-productive in such a predicament. Labour will be hoping that its ground-game — 4 million conversations — will have pulled it ahead or even with the Tories’ greater spending, on a two-to-one ratio.

Victory in politics is as “nourishing as a jelly bean”, Don Watson once wrote, and there must be more than one exhausted canvasser and frazzled wonk wondering if they couldn’t just call a truce in these matters and have a 10-day election period with no campaigning whatsoever. With three days to go, the polling for the major parties is exactly where it was, exactly, some months ago: with Labour at 33% and the Conservatives at 34%. That result has been so consistent and across polls, one will be surprised if it does not eventuate. What we don’t know however, is how that aggregate will fall in a series of four-corner contests involving seven parties in a variety of combinations. So let’s look at the table and see how the chips may fall:

The State of Play 

There are 650 seats in the House of Commons 632 of them in England, Wales and Scotland, which are contested by the four clearly left parties: Labour, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens; and two right ones: Conservatives and UK Independence Party; and the Lib-Dems ostensibly in the centre. Respect, represented by George Galloway, is a de facto left independent.

The 18 Northern Irish seats contested by a different set of party alignments — the Democratic Unionist Party (Tory-aligned to a point), Social Democratic and Labour Party (Labour-aligned ditto) Sinn Fein (abstentionist), one Alliance (centrist), and one independent (centrist, leaning-Labour).

That nominally means 326 are required for a majority. However, the speaker does not caucus with her/his party (and runs unchallenged by major parties in her/his seat), and Sinn Fein in NI do not take their seats — five at the moment, possibly to change.

That leaves a de facto house of 644, and 323 votes required for a majority. Currently there are:

  • Conservative: 302 (306 at 2010 election)
  • Lib-Dems: 56 (57)
  • UKIP: 2 (0)
  • DUP: 8

Total for the right: 368

  • Labour: 256 (258)
  • SNP: 6
  • Plaid Cymru: 3
  • Greens: 1
  • Respect: 1
  • SDLP: 3

Total for the left: 270

Other/Northern Ireland:

  • Alliance: 1
  • Independent (Unionist): 1
  • Sinn Fein: 5

This results in a working majority of 88 on the Conservative agenda, and 98, if the DUP and UKIP are included.

Current forecasts for voting are: Conservatives 34%, Labour 33% Lib-Dem 7%, UKIP 13%, Greens 5%. In Scotland however, the predictions are: SNP 55%, Labour 20%, Conservative 17%, Lib-Dem 5%.

By a combined model, that gives the following seats:

  • Conservative: 280-285
  • UKIP: 0-3
  • DUP: 8-10

Range for the right: 288-298

  • Lib-Dems: 22 -32
  • NI centrists: 2
  • Labour: 260-265
  • SNP: 50 –59
  • Plaid Cymru: 3-5
  • Greens:1-3
  • Respect: 0-1
  • SDLP: 3

Range for the left: 317-336

The figures thus arrayed show what’s really going on: the UK has swung to the left, and Labour’s deficit is occurring because Scots have passed through it on the way to the SNP. Many will not think of themselves as programmatically “left” — they would see an anti-austerity program as being part of a nationalist stance against the centre — but leftwards they go. Indeed, it’s a bonus for the left — the SNP look likely to capture 10 of the 11 Lib-Dem Scots seats, which would otherwise be available to the Tories.

The numbers tell you some interesting things. The percentages are 34%-33% to the Tories, but the Labour-SNP/Labour aggregate (ie the 40 SNP seats that would otherwise be Labour) outpaces the Tories around 300 seats to 280, because of the 3% advantage that the Labour/the left gains from constituencies being shaped around traditional boundaries.

The second is that the left’s overall vote is clearly in excess of the right. The left even on its lowest count is within half a dozen seats of a majority, and on its best count, has no need of the Lib-Dems whatsoever. The right, on their best vote, cannot get there without the Lib-Dems, who are not, by their own account, a party of the right — and on their worst vote cannot get there at all, even with the Lib-Dems polling at their maximum forecast.

A bit more on the ramifications of that at the end. For the moment, let’s consider some alternative polling scenarios. There are too many mathematical variations on how the seats will fall — which is why everyone’s freaking out a bit — so it’s worth grouping things into a couple of dominant scenarios.

Outright majority

We can utterly rule that out on Labour’s side. Presuming they kept, say, 15 seats in Scotland, they would need to pick up 70+ seats in England and Wales, which would mean 10%-15% swings, deep-blue home counties running blood red. Not a chance. The Tories have a small chance of it, with a double-whammy — Lynton Crosby’s much-vaunted late blue-rinse surge, plus a drift back to the centre from UKIP. One or two polls have predicted them in the 37-39% zone, which might be enough to gain 20 seats, depending how it falls. But they’ve never polled into the big 4-0, which is where you’d need to be for it to happen. If the Tories do achieve that, polling is seriously stuffed.

Uniform rightward drift

In this scenario, different factors coalesce to give a uniform rightward drift. The Tories’ promise of an in-out EU referendum draws traditional Labour voters who do not want to admit it to pollsters; ditto with immigration and support for UKIP. The performance of Scottish conservative leader Ruth Davidson (a forthright speaker, first out non-hetero leader of a UK political party) and the five-way split in Scottish seats gives the Tories three seats in Scotland, instead of their current sole seat — Macavity Cat, Neeps and Tatties — while some Labour-to-SNP drifters are scared back to the fold. Plaid make no gains in seats like Yves Mon — that’s the whole name of the seat, I’m not being all Welsh about a seat named Yves — and Gorgeous George gets no Respect in Bradford. The Tories cannibalise a few Lib-Dem seats, but Labour doesn’t from the other side. In NI, the Alliance lose to the DUP, and the United Unionists take one seat from the Nationalists.

As a thumbnail that’s:

  • Conservatives: 293-298
  • UKIP: 5
  • DUP: 10
  • Lib-Dems: 26-28
  • Labour: 262-267
  • SNP: 40
  • PC: 3
  • SDLP: 3

The crucial margin number there would be Tory+DUP+Lib-Dems — the Tories would count it as a huge victory if they could cut UKIP out of any deal, and the Lib-Dem leadership would immediately announce that the Tories had legitimacy, etc. The result would leave the SNP powerless and defeated, and open to raids from Labour.

Uniform leftward drift

Two factors might be involved in this: underestimation of likely voters, higher first-time voter turnout, an erroneous allowance for conservative drift by pollsters (i.e. an imposed gap between voting intention when polled and likely vote), etc, causes a leftward shift both to Labour and from it. That leaves you with two sub-scenarios.

Crossover

  • Conservatives: 273-276
  • UKIP: 0
  • Lib-Dems: 22-25
  • Labour:  277-280
  • SNP: 59
  • Plaid: 5
  • Greens: 3
  • Respect: 1
  • SDLP: 3

This is almost impossible, and I put it here only to show how difficult it is for Labour to get largest party status. They would have lost about 35 seats to the nationalists and Greens, thus needing a pick up of 50 or so in England, and from the non-Plaid parties in Wales. Far more likely is …

Confusion

  • Conservatives: 277-283
  • UKIP: 0
  • DUP: 8
  • Lib-Dems: 25
  • Labour: 267-273
  • SNP: 59
  • Plaid: 5
  • Greens: 3
  • Respect: 1
  • SDLP: 3

This is the result that wonks are hoping for, and the entire British establishment is dreading. It would give the Tories no prospect of pulling together a majority, but also leave no clear mechanism for Labour to claim that it has the right to have a go at forming government. Why? Because Labour has ruled out any direct talking with the SNP that does not occur in the House of Commons itself. Though everyone knows that they will talk — possibly through a drop-box letter arrangement in a traveller’s hotel in Amsterdam — it cannot be acknowledged. So the Tories could persist in the fiction that there is no other party capable of forming government. More of that in a moment.

The Regrouping

Two weeks ago, it might have been possible to say that the SNP level of support was overstated and would collapse back to a situation where Labour and SNP have parity. SNP support must be overstated, because it is currently running at 105%. But alas, Labour will not come back to parity. Still, if it turns out that polling has overemphasised the degree to which people will actually vote for minor parties, we might get this:

  • Conservatives: 284-290
  • UKIP: 0
  • DUP: 8
  • Lib-Dems: 22-28
  • Labour: 272-280
  • SNP: 38-45
  • Plaid Cymru: 3
  • Greens: 1
  • Respect: 0
  • SDLP: 3

This would be absolute line-ball stuff. Weirdly, were the right to fall two to four seats short, Labour would be in a stronger position — needing the Lib-Dems — than if they had the numbers with themselves and the SNP alone. The Lib-Dems they can talk to, from the get-go, and if Labour, the SNP and the Lib-Dems had the numbers combined, there would be tremendous pressure on the Lib-Dem leadership to talk to Labour, though they would most likely prefer to continue with the Tories.

The Scattering

Should it turn out that the polls have underestimated the degree of major party disaffection — because of an inherent bias in question design for example, non-responsiveness of “anti-political” groups to polls, etc –it might look like this:

  • Conservatives: 275-282
  • UKIP: 5-7
  • DUP: 8
  • Lib-Dems: 18-25
  • Labour: 255-265
  • SNP: 55-59*
  • Plaid Cymru: 5
  • Greens: 4
  • Respect: 2
  • SDLP: 2
  • Sinn Fein: 7

*the small-party effect in Scotland would be a rise in Tory seats (as the anti-establishment party), to 3, as Labour and Lib-Dem disappeared.

That’s your Russia, February 1917 situation — one where no one wants power. The most delicious result would be a Lib-Dem collapse, and SNP falling a little short, and either major party needing at least four groupings to get a majority. At that point, and I haven’t seen anyone note this yet, each major party will want the other to stay in power for as long as possible, riven with conflict, and waiting for the inevitable discrediting collapse. The catch here is the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and how it plays hell with the Westminster system, of which more on Thursday.

The crucial thing to consider now is the mind-bendingly complex tactics that come into play if, as most likely, the Tories have the largest number of seats, but the left overall has a clear majority, without or without the Liberal Democrats. On the one hand, David Cameron could stay as PM and try to hope that whoever is leading the party talks its members round to the “largest single party” principle. But that could go on for weeks, with a consequent effect on the city, global confidence, sterling, etc — a most unconservative look.

Labour, in normal times, could simply put together a draft alliance, something less than a coalition, and make it clear that David Cameron was duty bound to advise the Queen to give him the nod. But as soon as it does that with the SNP, it does exactly what it said it wouldn’t do. Once the Tories take power as a minority, the obvious thing would be to vote them down in a no-confidence vote in a matter of weeks. But how does that play with swinging voters, who believe that someone should be allowed to run things? Yet how does not doing it play with the Labour base — who would desert the party in droves, and even split it?

Yet neither major party wants an immediate second election, because there would be no great shift. Indeed, what you have to conclude is that, absent a stonking plurality, both major parties would like the other one to prevail, and have to hobble along with a four-or-five party agreement, which would collapse within a year — at which point the opposition, united and pristine would sweep forward in a new election, and have a chance at a majority, or a two-party pact, once more. Maybe it is beginning to dawn on people that the patches put on patches over the past five years have left them with a system designed to reward failure. A government of liberals has embedded into the system moral hazard. You couldn’t, as the Tory tabloids say, make it up. But grab a scone and a cuppa, you’ll be able to watch the results unfold in real time, from 7am Friday morning to noon.

Peter Fray

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