to use the new nomenclature, offers a real chance for electoral reform in the UK: specifically, ditching the SMD / Plurality system in place that offers the country a government with an overwhelming majority of seats that 65% of those voting chose explicitly against, or even after Thursday a Tory minority government drawing on a similarly robust 35% of public support.
This would require several events to occur, none of which are beyond possible:
First, the outcome of the election would have to result in no party with a clear majority of seats. A straight majority is 326, but as my colleagues over at the LSE Elections Experts blog correctly point out, this number should be considered lower for the Tories, who could rely on support from the unionist MPs from Northern Ireland (DUP and UUP, the latter of whom the Conservatives are in an explicit alliance with).
Second, the gap in seats between the Tories and Labour (or the other way around) should be slim. If the Conservatives are only 25 seats shy of an outright majority, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats trailing 100 seats behind, then convention would dictate a hobbled Tory minority government.
Third, and this is the tricky part: Labour and the Lib Dems would have to negotiate successfully for a formal coalition government. I would expect the Lib Dems to have two red-line demands: electoral system reform is the main component of the legislative agenda, and Gordon Brown resigns as Prime Minister.
Following the election on Thursday, there is time for these negotiations to take place. Existing rules allow the sitting Prime Minister a week to form a new government. The Tories are not happy about this, but (quoting the Guardian piece linked) “The Queen does not summon a prime minister to resign; convention dictates that is for the prime minister to tender his or her resignation.” In other words, Gordon Brown is the Prime Minister until he says he isn’t. Or is he?
Considering what is coming out in the press, including Peter Hain’s suggestion that Labour and the Liberal Democrats can sit in a coalition on a fixed four-year term, it’s safe to assume that there has been some high level behind the scenes negotiation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, with or without Gordon Brown’s assent. With Labour “losing” the popular vote, even quite possibly finishing third, I don’t see how Brown could hang on to Number 10 in such a scenario. Nick Clegg would correctly demand he stands aside. If Scenario 4 from this Guardian interactive is to be believed, Labour can oust Brown as Leader in the midst of coalition negotiations, replacing him with an alternative preferable to the Liberal Democrats, and then we may just be in business. This would still require support from within Labour for electoral reform, but surely even the most tribalist of the lot would see the lunacy of an electoral result where they finish third in the popular vote and yet still technically form (part of) a government. Personally and professionally, I see lunacy in a system that manufactures a 158 seat majority out of 35.3% of the popular vote, as Labour benefited from in 2005.
This works for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. If Labour want a progressive government, their only hope is a deal with the Lib Dems. As for the Lib Dems, they know damned well that the Tories will not now, not ever, budge one inch on electoral reform (though see Guy Fawkes for an analysis suggesting a Tory-LibDem coalition is not as far-fetched as conventional wisdom dictates; h/t Fruits and Votes).
What about conditions 1 and 2 above? Projections are all over the place at the moment, which is expected considering the nature of the 2010 election and the competing projection models trying to make sense of it all. The BBC projects C 278, L 261, LD 82, a context where a LibLab coalition might work. UK Polling Report has the Tories with the most seats, short by 43. FiveThirtyEight has the Conservatives on 308, which is enough for them to assume a minority government and dash any hopes of a Lib-Lab coalition outlined above (indeed, their projections do not allow for a combined Labour – LibDems to command a majority of seats). LSE have Labour as the largest party on 276 seats, and the Lib Dems on just short of 100; this is precisely the context where the scenario outlined above could work.
In short, it’s possible. Furthermore, with Gordon Brown belatedly accepting “full responsibility” for an electoral failure by Labour, implying that he would stand aside in the event of a hung balanced Parliament, a deal between Labour without Brown and the Liberal Democrats is not as unlikely as I might have imagined a week or two ago. Ironic that Labour couldn’t get rid of Brown the several times they tried, but the Liberal Democrats very well may.
There is, of course, one rather large stumbling block to all of this. Liberal Conspiracy argues that the Conservatives have a plan for a hung Parliament, and I grimly suspect that this analysis is spot on.
Furthermore, I suspect that it would work.