Cockroaches, Kingmakers

The LibDems are rightly, though not flatteringly, characterized as the cockroaches of UK politics. Very hard to eradicate. Even when we might think we've got rid of them, they survive. Their overall share of the vote will certainly fall in this election, but I do not think the LibDems will do as badly as the pundits suggest in terms of seats. The average prediction at the moment is in the high 20s, but I think they'll get more than 30.

In Wales, I think Mark Williams will hold on to Ceredigion. The number one reason not to vote for the LibDems has always been tuition fees, but in any fight between the LibDems and Plaid Cymru (and Ceredigion is the only such fight) I don't think people will have forgotten that the Plaid Cymru leadership, against the wishes of the membership, broke exactly the same election promise when they introduced tuition fees in Wales after going into coalition with Labour in 2007. The details are here. I am fairly sure that the LibDems will lose Cardiff Central to Labour, but am less sure about the Tories being able to take Brecon and Radnorshire. However that is a side issue, in this post I want to concentrate on the UK-wide picture.

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The other thing that marks out the LibDems is that they are prepared get into bed with either the Tories or with Labour. Indeed they have made this central to their campaign with their rather self-important idea of acting as the Tories' heart or Labour's brain. This will make them pivotal in determining who forms the next Westminster government. As I hope to show in this post, it is actually quite irrelevant how well other parties perform, because even though the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru might win twice as many seats as the LibDems, these parties have sidelined themselves by refusing to have anything to do with the Tories.

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Who the LibDems get into bed with will depend on the electoral arithmetic. But I think the number of seats the other parties get will work out in such a way that they will have a choice about who they support ... and I think they will choose to do a deal with Labour.

A coalition with the Tories would mean we get a continuation of what we've had for the past five years. But a coalition with Labour would be better for the LibDems in several ways: it would help remove the toxicity of the past five years and might lead to them re-gaining previous left-leaning LibDem supporters; it would show the public at large that they can be in government (and therefore be relevant) in a tight election irrespective of which main party gets the most seats; and, most importantly, it would mean that there won't be a referendum on leaving the EU.

The problem, however, is one of perceived legitimacy. Will they be able to get away with doing a deal with Labour, especially if the Tories get more seats than Labour? This will depend on the arithmetic.

Assuming no abstentions, any potential government would need to get about 322 to survive a vote of confidence, because of the Speaker and Sinn Fein. So if the Tories got 290 and came to a coalition agreement with the LibDems on 35, that 325 would just be sufficient. On these numbers, it would actually be very difficult for the LibDems to avoid this, because they have said that they consider themselves duty-bound to talk to the party that gets the most seats first. But I don't think the Tories (or Tories and LibDems together) will get that many seats.

If the LibDems really wanted to go into coalition with the Tories, their combined total could, at a pinch, go down to 315, bolstered by an agreement (not a coalition) with the DUP (say 8 seats) and the fact that UKIP (say 3 seats) would not vote against it, because a Tory-led government is the only way they would get the referendum on EU membership they want more than anything else. But because the LibDems don't really want another coalition with the Tories, they should be able to shy away from such an arrangement, claiming that it would be unstable.

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In contrast, the electoral arithmetic for a coalition between Labour and the LibDems is quite different. This is because any potential opposition to such a coalition would be divided. It is all but impossible to imagine the Tories, UKIP and the DUP voting in the same way as the so-called "progressive alliance" of the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru. The opposition on the left would always cancel out the opposition on the right. The Tories would, on principle and as we would expect, always vote against a Labour/LibDem coalition government in any vote of confidence; but, more critically, the SNP and Plaid Cymru could not vote against it because the only alternative would be a Tory-led government. The numbers mean they would probably be able to abstain, but I'm sure they would hold their noses and vote for the Labour/LibDem coalition if they had to.

For this reason, a Labour/LibDem coalition would not need to get 322 seats between them. They could govern as a minority with a surprisingly low number of seats. Indeed the more seats the SNP, Greens and Plaid win, the smaller the combined total of Labour and LibDem MPs would need to be. The only problem is one of perceived legitimacy, for it would be very hard to avoid an outcry if the combined total of Labour and LibDem MPs were less than the number of Tory MPs.

I think the Tories will be the largest party in the Commons with between 280 and 285 seats. But if the combined number of Labour and LibDem seats is more than this, they will form the next government. This means that Labour only need to get 255 or so seats on Thursday ... something that I think they'll manage quite comfortably. In fact I think they'll get about 270.

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The hard truth for those who support the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru is that they will, in effect, get no say in who forms the next Westminster government. Labour and the LibDems will be able to ignore them, because the only way they could have any influence would be by siding with the Tories ... and it would be electoral suicide for them to do so.

Perhaps they will be able to exercise some influence on some individual issues over the next five years, but it will be a game of brinkmanship that they will have to play very carefully if they are to avoid accusations from Labour that they are siding with the Tories.

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The big question is what the LibDems are going to demand in return for choosing Labour. As I see it, there's hardly any difference between Labour and the LibDems in terms of austerity, and therefore the only thing that really matters in the long term is changing the electoral system. It is worth remembering that Labour offered changing to the Alternative Vote without a referendum in the negotiations following the 2010 election55. I think the LibDems made a huge mistake by not taking up this offer, for even if that government were to have proved unstable, the following election would be that much fairer.

That offer cannot be made now because AV was overwhelmingly rejected in the 2011 referendum and that decision cannot be ignored. But, paradoxically, that defeat might help. We need to remember that AV is not a proportional system, and an element of proportionality is what we need. My preference will always be for STV, largely because it puts choice of who is elected in the hands of voters rather than parties; but the additional member system is not such a bad second best. What matters is the number of additional members compared with the number of constituency members. If, as in our National Assembly, the number is low (20 additional members and 40 constituency members) there is still a considerable degree of first-past-the-post bias. But if, as in the Scottish Parliament, the number is higher (56 additional members and 73 constituency members) the number of seats more closely reflects the number of votes cast ... although not completely, for in the 2011 election the SNP achieved an absolute majority of seats with only 44% of the vote.

More by luck than judgement the LibDems are now going to be given a second chance to introduce the electoral reform they have always claimed to stand for. It would be unforgivable for them to squander it again.

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