Our fragmented future: Why we’re now in an age of coalition politics

Stephan Shakespeare
Follow Stephan
THE PHRASE “no overall control” is likely to become the norm for British politics, certainly at the national level. The results of the recent local and European elections make clear that the electorate has no appetite for a strong Conservative direction, nor a Labour one. In spite of a concerted effort by the big guns from across the establishment, Ukip outperformed even its own expectations. And gaining so many council seats and MEPs means it cannot be dismissed – we now have four-party politics. But will Ukip really affect the future?

It’s easy to imagine that Ukip will continue to grow, and might even win one or two parliamentary seats. But we should not exaggerate what has happened. The public has clearly learned how to use their votes cleverly, as we can see by comparing the European and council results.

It will become obvious to voters that Ukip cannot win enough seats to have a real impact on government, halting the party’s progress. Our first-past-the-post system means no one will go into the general election expecting a Ukip government, nor even Ukip as a coalition partner. This is illustrated by comparing its 27 per cent vote share in the proportional representation European elections with the 13 per cent national projection from the simultaneous local elections.

And as council seats are smaller, they are easier to win than parliamentary constituencies – 13 per cent probably represents a high-water mark. Even if Ukip leader Nigel Farage does an amazing job making the party look fit for government (and that is hard for a party keen to remain a disruptive outsider), I would guess Ukip will be back to single figures by May 2015.

Initially, the growth of Ukip was mainly at the expense of the Conservatives. But as its appeal expanded, Ukip took support from Labour and the Liberal Democrats. It is probable that as Ukip returns to single figures, it will again be the Tories that sustain most of the damage – enough to make it highly unlikely that the party will increase its 2010 vote share, even with a strengthening of the economy. Given that Lib Dem losses will go more to Labour than the Tories, and that Labour can hardly fail to score more votes than at the last election, I see no reason to alter my argument of the last three years: the Conservatives cannot win an overall majority.

Labour is doing its best to remain uncompetitive, and the biggest loser from the weekend was Ed Miliband. His weak performance throughout his time as leader – unambitious and confused – was crystallised in a very poor showing, and it is hard to imagine Labour winning a majority. But all is not lost.

Political scientists tend to agree that there are three main drivers of electoral success: first, having a leader perceived as “Prime Ministerial”; second, being seen as the most competent on the economy; and third, sharing the values of the population. Surveys show that on the first two, Conservatives are decisively ahead, but Labour wins on number three. It is just possible that Labour will capitalise on this, emerging with the most seats and leading a new coalition.

The Lib Dems are harder to call. True, the party’s collapse has been dire – but it was entirely expected. Tactical voting resumes in 2015, and Lib Dems have proved highly adept at hanging on in strongholds, as some of the local election results show. The party will remain a powerful force in coalition politics.

When polls ask the public who they trust, no party receives an enthusiastic endorsement, even from their own supporters. The public doesn’t believe in a particular political party as a way of making real progress – only as a way of avoiding the worst. We need not blame this on the failure of politicians or an ignorant public: both may be acting intelligently. We live in a world of broad consensus on many issues. The public can no doubt sense that the continuing weakness of parties reduces the risk of significant change. It’s absurd to analyse the spirit of a population as if it were one beast, but I will do so anyway: voters are behaving as if they like the compromises of coalitions.

My broader prediction, that we are entering an era of coalitions, is based not only on recent circumstances, but the long-term trends that produced them. First, a decrease in voter loyalty because of a reduction of class differences (few now see a particular party as reliable defenders of their sectional interests); second, parties’ willingness to shift to what they see as the vote-rich “centre ground”; finally, the parties’ resulting tendency to imitate each other, making them increasingly shrill about tiny differences.

Small, more differentiated parties appealing to free-floating citizen-consumers can increase their vote-share and even win seats, making workable single party majorities ever less likely.

Stephan Shakespeare is the chief executive of YouGov.