The latest YouGov poll has Labour on an 11 point lead. Don’t get too excited, for the past couple of weeks this daily poll has had Labour around six to seven points up, so it’s likely an outlier. However, it’s still not the best news for the coalition. The government continues to suggest policies that don’t exactly excite the electorate, against a backdrop of an economic rebound that isn’t. In response to the “it’s not about saving money, it’s about fairness” reform of public sector pensions, there’s a decent chance of a strike action of up to a million public sector employees will happen in June (including my union, balloting is currently underway).
Electorally, it wasn’t a surprise that Labour held Barnsley Central in the by-election last week. The media were excited about the Lib Dems falling to sixth place, and UKIP finishing a strong second, but that’s not analytically interesting. As the LSE blog correctly suggests, the real news is the cratering of the coalition partners’ joint share of the vote; it collapsed from 35% in the May general election to just 12.5% last week. This calls the sustainability of the coalition into question.
If this were a normal single-party government with a healthy majority, this wouldn’t be an issue: it would ride out the storm and hope for better news in two or three years. However, this is a different scenario. There are two possible bordering on plausible ways that the government can fall.
First, this is an awkward coalition with deep internal divisions within the junior partner. There is a possibility that over some issue, the Lib Dems leave the coalition, or more likely given Nick Clegg’s stubborn vanity, they fracture, with backbenchers breaking from supporting the government. Second, as they perceive the Liberal Democrats to be unreliable, fickle coalition partners, there’s a rumour that the Tories will call a snap election in May, coinciding with the Local elections and the AV referendum, in order to achieve their own working majority.
A snap election won’t happen. I agree with my former students over at Britain Votes that there is no rational basis for calling an early election; indeed it would be counter productive for the Conservatives, and the appeal of a snap election only diminished with the result in Barnsley Central. It would also be ill-advised for the LibDems to break from the coalition. They’re averaging around 10% in the polls, down from the 23% they won in the 2010 election. They would be forced to defend policies unpopular with the electorate, and more salient, very unpopular with their own electoral support. The LibDems would hemorrhage seats, and sitting LD MPs shouldn’t be expected to embrace the promise of unemployment that at least half, and more likely 75%, would face.
I suspect that the coalition will stubbornly solider on. While both scenarios above are possible, they’re not rational. It’s marginally more likely that a disgruntled segment of LibDem backbenchers withdrawing support from the government on principle, not electoral calculation, but lacking this, the government has four years to persevere in the hope of a more forgiving electoral and economic context by 2015.