LONDON — Forget “snap election” or “boundary changes.” Few phrases pre-emptively exhaust British MPs like “hung parliament.”
But even if the key opposition parties who could topple the Conservatives in a likely 2024 election don’t want to say those two words out loud, they’re going to hear them a whole lot in the coming months.
Britain is already getting used to electoral pacts. After decades of mostly stable majorities in the House of Commons, the Conservatives have had to strike two deals over the past 13 years just to get the numbers needed to keep power.
Both have been bruising. A coalition with the center-left Liberal Democrats in 2010 obliterated the smaller partner, while a looser “confidence-and-supply” deal with the Democratic Unionist Party — at the height of 2017’s Brexit wars — left Prime Minister Theresa May fatally vulnerable.
Now, with English local election results sparking (hotly-disputed) chatter of a hung parliament next year, some whisper about a third way. What if Labour leader Keir Starmer rejected a coalition or a confidence-and-supply deal, and tried to run a minority government without a pact?
The last time anyone tried it straight out of an election was 1974, and that attempt lasted only six months. But it’s now “possibly underpriced” as an option, believes Catherine Haddon, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government think tank.
A minority government could be presented by Labour as a positive, Haddon said. “Rather than just negotiate with one or two other parties, and then you’re locked in, you’re giving yourself room to manoeuvre. You are, to some extent, able to play them off against each other.”
‘2010 was a disaster’
Labour insists readings of England’s local election results — which suggested the party could fall short of a general election majority in 2024 — are wrong, and therefore questions of deals and pacts are “academic.”
Philip van Scheltinga, director of research at the pollster Redfield & Wilton Strategies, agreed: “If there was an election tomorrow the Labour Party would win a majority.”
He said we are still not “close yet” to the crossover point into a hung parliament, adding: “What we’re really looking at is a public that’s very fed up with the Conservative Party, with poor approval ratings on the economy and the NHS.”
Thus many in Labour dismiss hung parliament chatter as the work of a Conservative Party keen to promote the idea of their opponents in cahoots.
Yet behind the scenes, MPs and strategists from both the Lib Dems and Labour, the two parties who appear most likely to talk if there is a hung parliament, admit they may have to think about the issue at some point. And their leaders are leaving some wiggle room.
Starmer has refused to rule out a Lib Dem agreement, despite promising “no deals” with the pro-Scottish independence SNP. Likewise Lib Dem leader Ed Davey has left the door open to Labour, even while ruling out a pact with the Tories.
Against that backdrop, several party figures POLITICO spoke to see a host of reasons the two parties might duck a formal pact.
Firstly, the Lib Dems want something Starmer is ill-inclined to give: electoral reform. Secondly, the turmoil of the Liz Truss and Boris Johnson majority governments makes a minority administration, to some, seem less of a gamble. And thirdly, memories of other types of pact are still too raw.
“We still believe in collaborative politics,” one senior Lib Dem said. But “our tolerance is way lower for the disaster that happened after 2010.” The Lib Dems were heavily punished in the 2015 election after their stint in office with the Tories.
A second Lib Dem, involved in that 2010 coalition, said “the party got screwed last time and that will make a lot of people cautious” — especially when it now has only 14 MPs to lose, down from 57 in 2010.
There’s one more factor at play too. Lib Dems are heavily targeting Conservative-held ‘Blue Wall’ seats in the south of England, where the Labour vote is thin. “It’s very difficult to imagine they could go from one moment fighting in the bluest seats to another moment in coalition with the Labour Party,” the second Lib Dem said. “That would risk all those seats in the next election.”
Who dares wins
Some senior Labour MPs believe it’s precisely this “anti-Tory” campaigning that means neither the Lib Dems nor the SNP would ultimately move to bring down Starmer — again negating the need for a formal pact. Scotland’s Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, said publicly in March that he would “dare” the SNP to “vote in a Tory government.”
“I just can’t see us doing a deal with the Lib Dems,” one shadow minister said. Another remarked: “Keir can say to them, ‘OK, if you want to oppose me go ahead and force a general election.’ I don’t think they will. It’s then just a case of how much they want to be a pain for us.”
Unfortunately for Labour, the answer might be quite a lot. “Maybe the Lib Dems keep such a government on life support, don’t give it any long-term guarantees, and extract as much as possible,” mused the Lib Dem involved in the last coalition, quoted above.
To run a minority government Labour would need different “tactics or strategy,” said Haddon, such as building cross-party bridges and projecting a “positive” message.
Another, more aggressive tactic would be to use statutory instruments — laws passed with little to no scrutiny in parliament at the stroke of a minister’s pen. This style, used to impose lockdowns on England, could be used in conjunction with full Acts of Parliament to reduce potential defeats.
But Haddon warned it will be “a big risk if you’re not doing it for the right reasons … If you’re trying to subvert using primary legislation, you are continuing a pattern of behavior in recent years that most commentators think is a big problem.”
If horse trading becomes a new fact of life in Westminster, expect plenty of focus on electoral reform — and a potential squeeze on Starmer from both the Lib Dems and the left of his own party.
Changing Britain’s national voting system from first-past-the-post to a form of proportional representation (PR) has long been a goal of the Lib Dems, and is supported by many grassroots Labour members, including in a non-binding vote at the party’s conference in 2022.
Starmer’s spokesman said this week that PR is “not something we’re looking to put in the manifesto” and “not a priority.” Asked if he would rule out ever offering voting reforms, he replied: “As in, for all time? No, of course not.” One frontbencher speculated that the idea of voting reform could resurface a couple of years into a Starmer administration, if the “machinery of government is working well.”
The Lib Dems have not yet produced their election manifesto, but the senior Lib Dem quoted above said: “I’m sure PR will be on there.”
Another Lib Dem official said: “If we’re going to ask for something, it should be long-term and hard for a future government to just get rid of.”
Former Lib Dem leader Vince Cable said three areas should be “negotiable” between the Lib Dems and Labour — whether, how and when to introduce PR; further devolution of power outside London; and how far to rebuild relationships with the European Union.
PR “has to be at the top of the agenda, but it can happen in different forms,” Cable told POLITICO. “The big argument is whether we go ahead and do it or have a referendum first — and that depends whether it’s in the Labour Party manifesto, and in what form.” A Lib Dem spokesman said: “Vince doesn’t speak for the party.”
Other campaigners for PR, spread across several mostly center-left activist groups, agree the question of whether any change to the voting system should go to a nationwide referendum is a live one. The Lib Dems are still smart from securing a 2011 referendum on changes to the voting system, and then losing.
One campaigner said: “Parts of the ‘democracy sector’ tie themselves up in knots about taking a seemingly more perfect democratic route — at the risk they never get there at all.”
Prominent anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller, who has set up her own party called True and Fair, said PR is “the one red line that is collectively more or less agreed among everyone I have spoken to” across the movement — though she can see doing it through a “Citizens’ Assembly”.
Adding to the pressure on Starmer would be the Labour movement, including its powerful trade union supporters, said Laura Parker, a former co-ordinator of the left-wing pressure group Momentum who now advises Labour for a New Democracy. YouGov polling in February found support for PR was 45 percent, rising to 60 percent among Labour voters. Parker said: “Across the Labour movement the demand for PR is overwhelming.”
She added: “PR could be legislated for, with a straight up and down vote in parliament. The Tories just changed the voting system [for mayoral elections] to first-past-the-post with hardly any noise.”
‘It would be daft if Labour refused to work with us’
Despite Starmer seeking to close down the option, the SNP — whose clear goal is being granted the power to hold a new Scottish independence referendum — still sounds bullish about its role as potential kingmaker come the next election. Its new leader Humza Yousaf said in April “we would certainly be willing to cooperate” but “that would come at a cost.”
One SNP MP said: “I don’t think there would be any choice. I am not sure the Lib Dems are going to get the seats. If the numbers add up then there has to be a discussion — it’s as simple as that.” A second SNP MP said: “It would be pretty daft if the Labour Party refused to work with us. We have had minority government and a co-operation deal in Holyrood, so we’re used to it.”
The first MP suggested it would not all be about independence — saying the parties could work together on repealing anti-union laws or raising benefit payments.
But Starmer’s spokesman said this week “there will be no deals going into an election and no deals coming out of the election with the SNP.”
Tory strategists in 2015 depicted then-Labour leader Ed Miliband in the pocket of SNP leader Alex Salmond. A Scottish Labour official added: “There just can’t be [a deal] and there just won’t be. If you do it, it’s the end of the campaign. It’s what killed Ed Miliband dead before he even started.”
‘Trying not to engage’
Right now, what unites Labour and Lib Dems is not wanting to talk about a hung parliament.
The senior Lib Dem quoted above added: “We are desperately trying not to engage, even with ourselves, in process — because that then distracts from the campaign effort.” A senior Labour strategist insisted there was simply no grand plan for a hung parliament yet.
“We’ve been burned before when leaders have talked about red lines,” added a Lib Dem strategist. They insisted the “biggest prize” is leapfrogging the SNP to become Westminster’s third-largest party — allowing the Lib Dems to be called after Starmer at PMQs, put down opposition day debates and have more allotted time on TV news.
All the kingmaker chatter has its upsides, though, the same Lib Dem strategist admitted. “There is one group that likes the idea we’ll have more influence — our donors.”
Some in Labour have in the meantime resorted to comedy tactics as Westminster buzzes with talk of post-election pacts.
After Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s press secretary refused to “speculate” on any deals, Labour issued a press release suggesting Sunak — bitterly opposed to Scottish independence — could in fact work with the SNP to “cling to power” — and making no mention of Labour’s own equivocation over the Lib Dems.
A Conservative statement later clarified: “We will not be doing a deal with any other party.”
Buckle up. There’s plenty more of this to come.