Richard Heller: An election scenario without precedent

Man about the house, Lord Wilson outside Parliament where he first set foot more than 40 years ago.
Man about the house, Lord Wilson outside Parliament where he first set foot more than 40 years ago.
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IF current polls can be believed, the likeliest General Election outcome will be unprecedented. A party, the SNP, which does not believe in the present United Kingdom, will determine the government of the country.

To grasp the novelty of this scenario, it is worth looking at the last six General Elections which produced a hung Parliament. Those in 1923, 1929 and 2010 left the Liberals or Liberal Democrats as kingmakers.

Their outcome was resolved as soon as they decided who should be king, and on what terms. Twice this produced a minority Labour government, and the third time a Conservative-led coalition.

The two elections of 1910 might seem more of a parallel, each producing a virtual dead-heat between the major parties and a Nationalist party holding the balance of power. But this was the Irish Nationalist party and in reality they were committed to support Asquith’s Liberal government. They had no hope of achieving their demand for Home Rule from the Conservatives, then still called the Unionist party.

February 1974 produced another virtual dead-heat, but gave no minor party enough seats to give Labour or Conservatives a majority. The Liberals scuppered Ted Heath’s chances of clinging to power, but then became spectators as Harold Wilson returned as Prime Minister of a minority government.

Could Wilson’s experience guide Ed Miliband if Labour again squeaked ahead of the Tories in a hung Parliament? Unfortunately not: Wilson took power in very different circumstances.

Wilson did not have to worry about the SNP. They elected only seven MPs in Scotland, compared to 40 Labour, 3 Liberals and (amazingly, to modern eyes) 21 Conservatives. There was no devolution and no “West Lothian” question. The Scots had no budget or Parliament of their own, and no control over any function of national government.

When Wilson took power in 1974, he had been given one immediate task by the voters – to settle the miners’ strike and thereby end the three-day week.

His minority government then had to secure the day-to-day survival of the British economy in deep crisis.

Wilson often manœuvred desperately, but he had three great advantages. No one wanted to replace him as party leader. There was no alternative government. Heath was discredited, but the Tories had yet to discover Margaret Thatcher as a replacement. Having lost a single-issue election, Heath and his restive party could offer no reason why they should be restored to government.

Above all, Wilson – the last Yorkshireman to occupy 10 Downing Street – secured the right to call a second General Election. This meant that he needed only to survive until a favourable moment to call it, and strengthened his command over Parliament and the political agenda.

None of these factors would apply to an Ed Miliband minority government.

Thanks to devolution, Ed Miliband would have to treat with Scottish MPs with almost no role in the UK Parliament except to grab more money and power for Scotland, who can ignore English interests and wishes.

This will be true even if Scottish Labour unexpectedly beats back the SNP. Scottish Labour MPs are likely to demand just as much from him as the SNP – they could not afford to settle for less.

There is no immediate task for him in government (although the financial markets may manufacture a crisis). The Tories might oblige him with a leadership contest, but they have plenty of plausible replacements for David Cameron and they will not lose their will to govern as they did in 1974.

Miliband does not command his party: he needs to be Prime Minister on almost any terms to forestall a leadership challenge. This makes him ill-equipped to resist any demands from the SNP, although if these go too far he could face a backlash from English MPs and, specifically, those returned from Yorkshire if they choose to co-operate in order to advance the interests of this region.

Crucially, unlike 1974, no minority government, whether Miliband’s or anyone else’s, could count on securing a second General Election. We could face a succession of weak minority governments, perhaps under a succession of leaders, all forced to treat with a secessionist party.

In short, there is no British playbook for the likeliest outcome of the current General Election.

However, we might study what happened to Belgium after the electoral success of a secessionist party in 2010. Their political leaders could not agree on their response, and the Belgians ended up with an unelected caretaker government for 20 months – a new record for any democratic state.

Few people noticed any difference to their lives and the government had some notable successes: the economy improved, crises involving prisons, homelessness and migration were tackled, and Belgium had an effective Presidency of the EU.

The Belgians coped for so long because they take many important decisions at a local or regional level. By making it impossible to form a “strong” central government, the SNP might teach us that we do not really need one.

Richard Heller was formerly chief of staff to Denis Healey.