Definitely not business as usual: Predictions and preparations for May 2015

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On 12 March 2015 Lord Gus O’Donnell and David Cowling spoke at a Unit seminar entitled ‘Forecasting the 2015 Election result, and preparing for a hung Parliament’. Ruxandra Serban reports on the event.

With just 6 weeks left until polling day, the outcome of the May 2015 general election remains highly unpredictable. With few signs that either of the two main parties will secure an overall majority in the House of Commons, current predictions are predominantly based on the assumption of another hung parliament. On 12 March 2015 the Constitution Unit and the UCL School of Public Policy hosted a seminar with David Cowling (BBC Political Editor) and Gus O’Donnell (Cabinet Secretary between 2005 and 2011) to discuss whether any reliable predictions can be made about the election, given the current shifting political landscape, and whether the 2010 election is a useful guide in the preparation for another hung parliament.

David Cowling framed the discussion around the unique features that the 2010 election brought to the usually predictable two-party race for Westminster: the first televised leaders’ debates, changes to parliamentary boundaries, and the surge of the third party (Liberal Democrats) in the opinion polls. Cowling dubbed 2010 ‘the losers’ election’, as the Conservatives failed to win an outright majority for the fourth election in a row, Labour scored their second worst vote share in 80 years, and even the Lib Dems lost seats.

Although 2010 may be useful as a template in attempting to predict 2015, a series of important changes that have occurred in the interim need to be factored in. Part of the difficulty of making predictions comes from the significant changes in voting intentions, with the general tendency being a drift away from the two major parties. There has been an increase in the intention to vote for smaller parties, which significantly alters the traditional dynamic of UK elections. Cowling noted that this segment of public opinion amounted to just 12% in 2010, but voting intention has drifted further away from the three main parties in the run up to this year’s election, and support for smaller parties now averages around 26%.

The shifts in support are worth noting. David Cowling indicated that former 2010 Lib Dem voters have switched to Labour, and currently account for around 20% of Labour’s support in the opinion polls. Disaffected 2010 Conservative voters have turned to UKIP, and now constitute 45% of UKIP support. With the SNP set to outflank Labour in Scotland and UKIP predicted to win 5-6 seats and a significant vote share, multi-party politics seems to have replaced the previously entrenched tenets of Westminster elections.

These trends are underpinned by the wider changes in public opinion that have dominated the electoral agenda. The economy remains a hot topic, as a majority of voters do not perceive the effects of economic recovery on a personal level. Quoting a recent ComRes poll, David Cowling indicated that 70% of people do not consider either of the two main contender parties capable of controlling immigration. The often cited disaffection with mainstream ‘Westminster’ politics (see for example here and here) and its unpredictable consequences on voting intentions led Cowling to describe 2015 as ‘the angry election’.

Former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell described the process through which the civil service prepares for a general election and for a new government, and the impact of present circumstances on these institutional mechanisms. The first stage, currently under way, consists of policy talks between the civil service and opposition parties. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon asked the cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, to include the SNP in pre-election talks with the civil service, but the Prime Minister, who decides which opposition parties can participate in pre-election discussions, has only made an official invitation to Labour. The second stage involves preparing for different election outcome scenarios. Similar planning was done in 2010, and includes all likely scenarios of government formation and corresponding policy directions, which are drawn from party manifestos. O’Donnell stressed the importance of scenario planning, recommending that the civil service should not ‘get in the game being hung up on a particular prediction’.

Planning, however, is not an easy task. Even a renewed Conservative- Lib Dem coalition would have a different configuration, given that the Lib Dems are expected to win significantly fewer seats. This leads to questions of how to ‘coalitionise’ different government arrangements in terms of allocating ministerial portfolios, and the likely combinations of manifesto commitments. The third stage involves post-election talks between parties. O’Donnell suggested that it is very likely that multiple inter-party talks would happen concomitantly, and the civil service will facilitate these discussions by providing appropriate locations and ensuring confidentiality. Two aspects stand in contrast with the 2010 coalition talks. Firstly, decisions regarding entering coalition arrangements will have to be approved by party structures, not just agreed between leaders, and this is likely to slow down the process of government formation. Second, some ‘red lines’ will have been drawn before the election, as party leaders will receive questions from the media about their negotiation terms. Navigating through such statements is likely to complicate coalition negotiations further.

O’Donnell subscribed to the view (also expressed on the Constitution Unit blog here) that coalition talks are likely to last much longer than in 2010, when a coalition agreement was reached within 5 days. Also, compared to 2010, the unpredictable share of seats between parties widens the range of possibilities, with options such as minority government and confidence-and-supply arrangements adding more complexity to the mix. The precise coordinates of any multi-party government arrangement, such as coalition committees, cabinet committees, and the distribution of roles between coalition partners, are also likely to be complex.

O’Donnell concluded that the 2015 general election will place the spotlight on two key issues: the democratic legitimacy of the first-past-the-post voting system, and the changes affecting the Scottish political arena following the predicted surge in the number of seats the Scottish National Party holds in the House of Commons. However, both speakers agreed that multi-party politics and coalition governments have yet to become the norm in British politics, and it would take another coalition government and the prospect of another hung parliament in 2020 for a reform of the electoral system to be back on the agenda after the failure of the 2011 AV referendum.

David Cowling and Gus O’Donnell offered a comprehensive snapshot of the institutional and political variables to watch in the following weeks, as predictions for the upcoming general election are likely to rely on moving targets.

About the Author

Ruxandra Serban completed an MSc in Democracy and Comparative Politics at UCL in 2014. She is currently a Research Volunteer at the Constitution Unit.

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