With days to go before voters take to the polls in Britain, the parties contesting our election are already looking past May 7, arguing heatedly over the theoretical coalitions they may or may not countenance in the post-election environment. Is this not deeply foolish - akin to a cyclist celebrating before the finishing line, only to see a rival speed past him while he relaxes? You might very well think so; I could not possibly comment.
This is happening because it is very plain that no party will win an overall majority. For a government presiding over the fastest-growing economy in the developed world - an economy that has added 1,000 jobs a day to the workforce right through the government's five years in office - this is naturally deeply disappointing.
But in pure, political campaigning terms, much of what is happening was fully expected.
First, as I have written elsewhere, Labour's ground game (both in terms of party volunteers and union membership) far outstrips that of the Conservatives: Lord Ashcroft's latest poll confirms that more voters have heard from Labour than from the Conservatives in every single red/blue marginal. (One issue to be revisited after the election, by the way, will be the fact that a single peer spends more on political polling than all of the parties put together.) The ground game matters even more in the United Kingdom than it does in the United States, as we lag somewhat behind the U.S. market in digital campaigning.
Secondly, Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour Party, has not had a bad election campaign. Even though Miliband is famous for allegedly looking odd and for more than allegedly seeming awkward, this also is not much of a surprise. Miliband in fact is a seasoned politician - a former minister and special adviser who knows how to campaign - and besides, expectations started so low that they were impossible not to exceed.
A final consideration: Ancient electoral boundaries that are so unfair as to verge on undemocratic, remain in force.
These factors, taken together, are set to deliver another hung parliament, hence the premature horsetrading. To wit, here is a partial roundup of present commitments, assertions and claims being made about the politics of the post-election period by the various parties and players:
- Nigel Farage (leader of UKIP - who may or may not be a Member of Parliament himself after the election): While he does not want his party to enter a formal coalition, Farage could do a deal to secure legislative progress in Parliament with a Conservative / Liberal Democrat pairing that matches the most recent governing coalition. The Conservative Party of course is led by David Cameron, who would continue to be leader in those circumstances. Farage has previously said that he would not work with the Conservative Party while it is led by Cameron, but funny things happen when political office beckons.
- Ed Miliband (leader of the Labour Party): He has ruled out any formal coalition, or even an informal deal, with the Scottish National Party, who seem set to take most of his party's seats north of the border. Miliband told the BBC's Question Time: "If the price of having a Labour government was coalition or a deal with the Scottish National Party, it's not going to happen." Brave stuff, considering that in more than one scenario, the SNP will determine whether Miliband runs the country or is left fighting to run the opposition. The Conservative Party says that taking this position before the election "changes nothing," because circumstances might mean that they do it anyway - a perspective that is interesting when considering the Conservative Party's pledge not to raise any taxes, a pledge easy enough to reverse.
- Nick Clegg (leader of the Liberal Democrats): The Lib Dem leader claims that his party's plan on funding for the NHS is a "red line" issue, and that other parties would have to agree with their generous proposals or else not have the Lib Dems alongside them. That line, however, is not so red that they acted on it in their five years in government. To be fair to Clegg, every party joined in the auction of promises on the NHS; Clegg won with the highest bid, so seeking to make a virtue of it is understandable.
- Nicola Sturgeon (SNP leader) has urged parties to join with her in an anti-Tory coalition. (As I have explained before, the Conservative Party are called Tories in the UK). She's keen for a coalition with Labour. She hasn't found a willing Labour partner...yet.
Make of any of that what you will. It looks like a hung parliament is coming. In those circumstances, what is all the pre-election verbiage worth? Well, consider the example of Vince Cable - a wily minister who in the last Parliament claimed that his party had not broken their promise on university tuition fees: The pledge was in their manifesto, but they had not won the election at which it was offered, had they? How's that for a "get out of jail free" card?