Media coverage in this election has been dominated by the Conservatives and Labour, and their competing policy plans. But a key difference between the parties is that, while a Conservative majority government is clearly possible based on the polls, a Labour majority government is not. Hence a Labour-led government would need to negotiate its policy with other parties, which would soften its stance. Robert Hazell and Meg Russell reflect on the lack of coverage of these questions, and what a Labour-led government would actually look like – in terms of personalities, policies and style.
Consistent opinion poll evidence during the general election campaign suggests that there are two possible outcomes: a majority Conservative government led by Boris Johnson, or a hung parliament. In the event of the latter, Johnson might still remain Prime Minister, but he has few allies – even having alienated Northern Ireland’s DUP. So a hung parliament might well result in a government led by Labour, even if the Conservatives are the largest party. But one thing is clear: nobody is really expecting a Labour majority government.
Consequently, particularly as the polls have failed to shift into majority Labour government territory during the campaign, it is strange that so little attention has been given to the question of what a Labour-led government might actually deliver in policy terms. To navigate policy through a hung parliament this would need to be accepted by other parties. In some areas – notably the commitment to a referendum on Brexit – the parties agree; but in other areas there may be less agreement. So whilst significant attention has been paid to the radicalism of Labour’s manifesto, a hung parliament – which might lead to a minority Labour government, or less likely (given statements from the Liberal Democrats and SNP) a formal coalition – would inevitably result in some dilution. As noted in the Constitution Unit’s 2009 report on minority government, hung parliaments ‘[entail] a greater degree of compromise and concession than leaders of governments at Westminster are used to’.
Thus focus on Labour’s economic policy – such as its tax or nationalisation plans – might usefully have been tempered by journalists asking questions of the other parties about the extent to which they would accept such plans, or how they might be softened as a result of negotiation. In a country where hung parliaments are more frequent, debate about the likely compromises between parties would be far more upfront during the campaign. Instead, the UK’s legacy of single-party majority government (notwithstanding the fact that this situation has applied for just two of the last nine years) has led to parties and journalists alike avoiding such questions. This, in turn, risks leaving the public ill-informed about the real prospects post-election.
This post hence briefly reviews what a Labour-led government might actually look like if the UK wakes up to a hung parliament on 13 December. It starts with questions of leadership, then turns to Brexit and wider policy on the constitution – where some of the points of agreement and disagreement are clear – before turning briefly to the wider policy agenda. It ends with some general conclusions, including on what the process might be to get from here to there.
Leadership: a ‘Corbyn-led’ or ‘Labour-led’ government?
Before addressing policy, a prior question in a hung parliament situation would be the identity of the Prime Minister. Core to the UK system is the government’s dependence on the confidence of the House of Commons. Paragraph 2.13 of the Cabinet Manual makes clear that the parties should discuss which individual is likely to command the Commons’ confidence, which will indirectly inform who the monarch appoints. Jeremy Corbyn is clearly for many a controversial figure, and Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson in particular has stated repeatedly that her party’s votes would not support him as Prime Minister, suggesting that she would find it easier to work with Labour if he stepped down. How much power she could exert in this situation is disputed, particularly if the Liberal Democrats had relatively few MPs; and the views of other parties (particularly the SNP) could also matter. Fundamental would be Corbyn’s own position, and that of his MPs – in 2010, when Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg indicated that he might support a Labour-led government if Gordon Brown stepped down, it was reported that the Labour leader was prepared to do so. That was in the context of potential coalition. If the goal was a minority government, parties beyond Labour would have less leverage. A Corbyn-led coalition seems very unlikely, while a Corbyn-led minority government dependent on parliamentary support from other parties might be more palatable to those parties. Nonetheless, it seems sensible to refer generically to a ‘Labour-led’ administration, rather than assuming that a hung parliament necessarily leads to a ‘Corbyn’ government.
Brexit and the constitution
The central policy question in this election is Brexit, and on this there is a high level of agreement between the non-Conservative parties on some fundamental issues. Crucially, Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens and some Northern Ireland parties are all committed to a further Brexit referendum. As outlined in a recent Constitution Unit report, a further referendum is a near-certainty in a hung parliament situation (even if that resulted in a minority Conservative government). The differences between the parties would be only on the precise question to put to the voters, and on the timing. Labour wants to negotiate a new Brexit deal, while a Conservative government might be forced into a referendum on Boris Johnson’s deal. Under a Labour-led government there could be pressures from some parties to move immediately to a referendum on Johnson’s deal, rather than awaiting renegotiation – or to limit renegotiation to the ‘political declaration’, and base the referendum on Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. While these issues could lead to some inter-party wrangling, the basic direction of travel is clear: a hung parliament almost certainly results in a Brexit referendum, presenting voters with the choice between a deal or remaining in the EU.
Pretty much the only question about inter-party compromise that has been canvassed during the election campaign concerns another putative referendum – on Scottish independence. The Conservatives have repeatedly claimed that a hung parliament would result in two referendums within a year. This has been denied by Labour, whose manifesto states that the party would not agree to such a poll ‘in the early years of a UK Labour government’. Nicola Sturgeon has accepted that the Brexit referendum is the priority, and hence that the further independence referendum she wants would have to wait. She may be reluctant to wait too long, as new Scottish Parliament elections are due in May 2021, which could deny the SNP its majority. So this is a real sticking point. But given the firm commitment of all parties to prioritise a Brexit referendum, plus Labour’s clear position on Scottish independence, and the strains on both politicians and public that would result from two referendums within a year, the Conservatives’ claim looks ill-founded. More likely, the Brexit referendum would be proceeded with on a fast timetable, and discussions on an independence referendum would stretch out beyond May 2021.
Those are the key constitutional questions, but there are various others in the parties’ manifestos. One interesting issue is electoral reform, which was key to the coalition negotiations in 2010. The Liberal Democrats and others favour moving to a proportional system for the House of Commons, but the Labour manifesto (unlike in 2010) is silent on this issue. It seems unlikely that a pledge to reform could be forced on a Labour government, but (particularly given the controversies about tactical voting in this election), a formal review might be a more realistic possibility. Labour’s manifesto commits it to a wholesale review of the UK’s constitutional arrangements by a citizens’ assembly. This is a proposal that the other non-Conservative parties might happily support.
The wider policy sphere
As constitutional specialists, we are less well-placed to comment on the compromises in other policy spheres, but these will clearly also be crucial. The table below summarises the Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP positions on a range of key policy questions – including those discussed above. This draws heavily on the very useful and comprehensive analysis provided by the Institute for Government’s manifesto tracker – which readers are encouraged to visit for more detail.
The table above shows that the three parties are broadly aligned on many of these issues, but in many cases the Labour policy goes further. This suggests that, broadly, the other parties might rein a Labour-led government in to a more moderate policy position. Nonetheless, all are pushing in a similar direction on many of the key issues: supporting higher public spending, greater investment in health and social care, and a common environmental goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions. Any disagreements on these policy topics arise not from opposing goals, but from differing views about the desirable extent and speed of policy change. This makes compromise seem very possible.
There is greater divergence in two publicly contested areas. The first is renationalisation, where Labour’s ambitious policy has been central to its messaging for some time. The SNP manifesto says little on the topic and the Liberal Democrats – while favouring more public sector involvement in the railways – have indicated that they oppose renationalisation. Another key disagreement could be over the perennially divisive topic of Trident, where it is actually Labour that has the more ‘conservative’ position, whereas the SNP want the deterrent to be scrapped. On both of these issues, therefore, the status quo might well prevail. Nationalisation would require a significant investment of effort and money. It would also, as Labour makes clear, require legislation – on which no progress could be made unless a parliamentary majority could be built. Some compromise might be possible, but Labour’s more ambitious claims, such beginning energy and water renationalisation during its first 100 days, would be challenging at best.
What compromises might feasibly be reached in contested areas is a question best addressed by subject-matter experts. But whilst detailed analysis of the manifestos has been carried out by bodies such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Greenpeace and the Resolution Foundation, they too have offered little public speculation about the compromise positions that might prevail in a hung parliament.
The immediate question to be resolved in the event of a hung parliament is the identity of the Prime Minister. Thereafter, negotiation between Labour and other parties would be necessary on the policy detail. However, since the likeliest scenario seems to be a Labour minority government rather than a formal coalition, immediate agreement would need to be reached on only a few key topics. The clear parallel here is Theresa May’s ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with the DUP. This would require broad agreement on a budget, which could be the first sign of a trimming back of Labour’s plans.
The central policy on which agreement would be sought beyond this is Brexit, where a further referendum in the event of a hung parliament is a near-certainty. After that, policy agreement might be sought on a case-by-case basis, dependent on legislative needs. The key point to learn from international practice of minority government, as articulated in the Constitution Unit’s 2009 report, is that ‘when minority prime ministers seek to govern as if they had a majority the result is instability… and likely failure. By contrast, minority administrations which adopt a more consensual approach, negotiating and making concessions… are more likely to remain in office’. Theresa May sadly failed to learn this lesson. If Labour, by necessity or design, chose to do so it could result in a much more moderate government than many perhaps expect.
For more information on the constitutional aspects of the manifestos referred to above, see our blog post: Constitutional plans and pledges in the 2019 election manifestos.
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About the author
Professor Robert Hazell was the first Director of the Constitution Unit, and closely involved with helping the Cabinet Office draft the Cabinet Manual. He is currently working on a comparative study of European monarchies, due to be published next year.
Professor Meg Russell is Director of the Constitution Unit, and a Senior Fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe studying ‘Brexit, Parliament and the Constitution’. She is also the co-author of Legislation at Westminster: Parliamentary Actors and Influence in the Making of British Law.