Bury Spy, 13th April 2015
Last Thursday, the leaders of the seven ‘major’ parties of the United Kingdom stood up in front of the electorate and argued with each other. On foreign policy, the NHS, the economy and immigration, each party was given an equal platform to offer their solution to the nation’s woes. Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru, pleaded with voters to choose her brand of debt-reduction strategy, combined with the Welsh nationalism on which her party is founded. Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, advocated Keynesian-style fiscal expansion, blended with the saving of the planet’s ice caps and oft-neglected vertebrates. Here, at last, is a television format which favours the few, belittles the many and offers a hand to the minority parties.
The trouble is, of course, that we have an electoral system which doesn’t. Our bipolar, first-past-the-post arrangement means that there is no chance of the formation of a government not spearheaded by Labour or the Conservatives. Since each party has to secure a majority in each constituency, there will be few seats not allocated to one of the big two. UKIP for instance, is polling around 18% of the vote (BBC Poll of Polls, 4th April), but stands to take just three seats.
However, it does remain highly likely that neither the Conservatives nor Labour will take an overall majority in May. So, naturally, attention has turned to the smaller parties who could make either of them up to that magic number of 326 seats. The third-place party could hold power as the ‘kingmaker’, as the Lib Dems did in 2010.
But it also needs to be remembered that the third-place party will, in the long term, be nothing more than that. The few seats smaller parties hold will provide a relatively small amount of political leverage once in government, and so history will render them insignificant. It matters little how Leanne Wood thinks we should fix the economy, because – given that she will field candidates only in Wales – the levers of power will still remain just beyond her reach. If the Green Party was to go into coalition with the Labour, they could hope for Environment Secretary at best. The SNP could probably manage one major cabinet role, perhaps two, but could also expect to have the majority of their agenda chopped back by their larger partner. UKIP, like a teenager first experiencing the clubs and bars of government, will be lucky to find anyone to climb into bed with.
In short, there are two categories of political parties. The ones who will make the decisions post-May – the Conservatives or Labour. And the ones who will snap at their heels with a tenth of the larger party’s seats, whining about their unfulfilled manifesto. A TV show in which the various minority parties can speak with barely-disguised amateurism about their radical new vision for Britain (Universal Basic Income, anyone?) is nothing more than fiction. The leaders would do well to be more serious about where they stand, electorally, and to whom they would be willing to lend a seat.
If anything, that would mean the politicians would be more honest with the electorate. It has become a trope of this election cycle that the next will be dominated by coalition, so it doesn’t make sense that the parties should continue the self-delusion that they could win a majority. Our population, more than ever, will have to spend their votes wisely – taking into account the possible deals and coalitions that could happen.
As we are continually reminded, May’s election will be the most important for a generation. What matters is not the ideological grandstanding of the country’s smallest parties, but their red lines and bargaining chips. Now is not the time to get carried away on TV with glitzy, unrealistic ideas.
Leaders: it is unwise to sell big to the country, because if you can’t convince Cameron or Miliband to deliver it, then you can’t deliver it either.