After five years of Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, the people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland go to the polls on May 7, with no clear idea of what will result afterwards. Since 2010, the British political landscape has undergone some of the most substantial changes seen since the Second World War. In past years, the Conservative and Labour parties dominated in a stable two-and-a-half party system, with the centrist Liberal Democrats as the only large third party. In the wake of the unsuccessful Scottish independence referendum, and the rise of the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), this system seems close to complete collapse. Current polling suggest Labour is set to lose dozens of seats in its Scottish heartland to the pro-independence, socially democratic Scottish National Party, depriving Labour of the ability to form majority government.
On the right, the Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, faces losing the support of traditional Tory voters to UKIP. UKIP has grown substantially since its foundation in 1993 by a group of Eurosceptic academics at the London School of Economics. During the 2000s, UKIP steadily gained support in elections of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). Following the 2010 election, popular and charismatic MEP Nigel Farage was elected leader, and led UKIP to strong performances in by-elections from 2010 to 2013. In February 2013, a by-election for a safe Liberal Democrat seat in Hampshire saw UKIP’s candidate beat the Conservatives into second place. Farage and UKIP followed up this success with a victory in the 2014 European Parliamentary elections, winning a plurality of votes in the UK. In late 2014, two Conservative MPs defected to UKIP, and won their resulting by-elections. Current polling suggests UKIP will receive around 10-12% of the vote, but win only around six seats (including Farage’s candidacy in South Thanet), due to the UK’s first-past-the-post voting system.
As UKIP’s star has waxed, the Liberal Democrats’ has waned. In the 2010 election, the ‘Lib Dems’ won their largest share of the vote since the party’s creation, 23%, and won 57 seats, which gave them the balance of power in Parliament. A coalition government (the first since the wartime National Government) was formed between the Tories and Lib Dems, led by Nick Clegg. This involved compromise on both sides, the most painful being the raising of university tuition fees. Before the election, Clegg and all Liberal Democrat MPs signed a “Vote for Students” pledge, pledging to oppose any rise in tuition fees. In December 2010, a bill raising the cap on tuition fees to £9000 annually, from a previous cap of £3000 was passed with Lib Dem votes’ added to it. This proved to be a devastating blow to the party; Clegg had been extremely popular amongst students and had a reputation as an honest politician amongst the public. The Liberal Democrats’ typically young, centre-left voting base felt betrayed by Clegg’s seeming willingness to support unpopular Tory austerity measures. As of 2015, polling data indicates that many previous Lib Dem supporters have abandoned the party, in favour of either Labour or the Green Party. It seems inevitable that they are set to lose many seats come May 7.
The House of Commons has 650 seats- therefore, 326 is needed for a formal majority, but given that Sinn Fein’s 5 MPs do not sit in Parliament, a working majority equates to 323. Current polling suggests that Labour and the Tories will both win approximately 32-33% of the vote, winning around 270-280 seats apiece. Late polling indicates that, if anything, the Tories may win marginally more seats, but this is unlikely to change the dynamic. No majority government is likely to be formed. In the event of a hung parliament, the incumbent PM is given the first opportunity to prove to Her Majesty that they can form government. But with the Conservatives winning around 270-280 seats, and the Liberal Democrats 20-30, the current coalition may not be maintained. David Cameron would have to form a hitherto unknown ‘rainbow coalition,’ with the support of UKIP, the Lib Dems and Northern Ireland’s Ulster Unionist Party. Bringing this group together would be essentially like herding the proverbial cats. Farage would likely demand an EU referendum in return for confidence and supply, something the Lib Dems (with more seats), would absolutely oppose. Labour leader Ed Miliband would then have to prove that he can form a government- most likely with the aid of the SNP and the Lib Dems, who together would see Miliband’s support reach the 323 seats required. This is complicated by the fact that Miliband has explicitly ruled out any deals with the SNP. Nevertheless, a Labour minority government seems the most likely scenario- but there are no guarantees that it would last.