Britain is about to go to polls in three days with the most difficult election to forecast. The two main parties are tied in the polls at around 34% each and have been in this position for four weeks. Smaller parties are in the news. Many of the seats face four or five corner contests. The Scottish National Party is sweeping the polls in Scotland and may deprive Labour of up to 35 of its 41 seats. UKIP, a fringe party of the Right will not get many seats but it will poll enough votes away from the Conservatives to swing seats. Then there are the Greens, the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru, the Northern Ireland Parties of the Right and Left. The best one can hope is that the two main parties will each win around 275 to 295 seats. The Conservatives are tipped to be the largest single party but their lead above Labour will be no more than 10 or 15.
This means that neither party has a majority and has to form coalitions. The number required for a majority is 325, as of now Labour plus SNP looks like they could make it but they are bitter rivals in Scotland, though both are Left parties. SNP in power in Scotland is redder than red, disowns fiscal responsibility and wants independence from the UK eventually. The Tories have to get back into bed with the Liberal Democrats who are expected to get no more than 25 seats down from their 59 in the last Parliament. If we then add the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland with around ten seats at most, the Conservatives may also bid for power.
As of now no one expects a government to be formed for two or three weeks at least. It is puzzling that one of the most stable democracies in Europe is looking fractured as we go to the polls. The frequently quoted statistic tells all: That, in 1945, the two parties commanded 97% of the votes cast and now, they would be lucky to make 65%.
The Centre cannot hold, as Yeats wrote all those years ago.
India has been through this experience though there ever was only one dominant party. For twenty five years India had coalitions. But for the UK, this is a new world. Last time around, it took five days of negotiations between the three parties across two possibilities and then the Conservatives and LibDems formed the government. No one expected a repeat of this situation. Stable two-party system in the UK is dead.
Who killed Cock Robin? Each of the two main parties has gone through a parallel process of getting rid of its most successful leader and disowning their philosophy. The Tories cast aside Margaret Thatcher by not re- electing her in 1990. The wounds of that matricide reverberated through the next twenty years. The Party faithful harassed John Major despite him winning an election. Then after losing in 1997, they wantonly elected and threw away leader after leader—Hague, Howard, Duncan Smith. When they elected David Cameron it was only because Tony Blair had set the new template of an election winning leader. Cameron was Blair for the Blues.
Meanwhile in the Labour Party, winning is a habit deeply resented. Blair won the election three times as no one before him in the Labour Party had ever done. His reward has been to be treated with contempt and embarrassment by the new leadership. Rejecting New Labour is the only thing on which the Shadow Cabinet agrees. Anyone but Blair is what got Ed Miliband elected. The Conservative Party has a rabid anti-European right wing which wants to leave the EU. Cameron has promised a referendum on the issue in 2017. But if he comes top but without a majority, he may be replaced by another leader, Boris Johnson most likely. Business does not want an exit from EU. Johnson may be their man as well.
In the Labour Party, rejection of New Labour means not so much renewal as going back to the comforts of the Kinnock days. The party can reject capitalism, feel virtuous and go back to its fond past when the NHS was its one proud achievement. The SNP can have a stranglehold on Labour if they join a coalition. The markets may have something to say about that eventuality.
Thus, neither of the two main parties, in some fractured coalition, will guarantee sound policies. The sad truth is that on most issues which matter—NHS, the budget, defence and even Europe—the two parties are not that far apart. In each, there is a centre which agrees with the other. The fringes are wild but impotent. It would be a dream outcome if the two parties come together in a Grand Coalition. Can we hope UK to be that European?
The author is a prominent economist and Labour peer