England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Election viewpoint: one week to go – what do the polls tells us about the next parliament?

As we enter the final week of the campaign we are still left waiting to see if the polls are going to budge. The Conservatives and Labour appear doomed to be stuck around the 33% mark and a ‘35% strategy’ looks like a bigger challenge than either party imagined. In Scotland the SNP seem unstoppable – yesterday saw a poll predicting that they will take every seat in Scotland on 54% of the popular vote.

However, as Mark Pack has pointed out each pollster has been broadly consistent in its own results: the Conservatives leading in ICM, Ashcroft and ComRes polls and Labour ahead with Panelbase, Populus and Mori polls. In reality national polls are telling us very little in an election that remains so close. Whether UKIP are polling at 12% or 15% nationally may be irrelevant to its performance in South Thanet, Thurrock and its other target seats. British politics famously relies on a small number of marginal seats and what happens there will decide which way this election falls. As Ashcroft has demonstrated in his constituency polling, the traditional reliance on a ‘universal swing’ is out of date and masks short-term changes on the ground.

Given the current polling we are certainly in for a parliament like none in living memory. Current parliamentary structures grew up as our democracy evolved from loose coalitions to political parties, with two parties holding nearly all the seats; in 1955 Labour and the Conservatives held all but 8 seats in the House of Commons. This concentrated power in the hands of the party leaders, allowing them to control appointments, choose the Speaker and set the parliamentary timetable.

“Every vote will matter, every rebellion will count.”

In a parliament where more than one in six MPs is from a “minor” party the rules could well be highly contested – why should only two parties decide how the House of Commons runs its business? For political anoraks this will make the next parliament exciting as every vote will matter, every rebellion will count. And, just as the main parties are losing their hegemony over the parliament, their capacity to manage their own MPs will be severely limited. We saw in the 2010-15 parliament the growing prominence of campaigning MPs on Select Committees (think of Margaret Hodge chairing the Public Accounts Committee) and on the backbenches Zac Goldsmith and Andrew George. We should expect to see MPs championing causes, challenging their own leadership and ever immune from the Whips charms and threats.

This unpredictable parliament will, in turn, shape the political agenda across the UK regardless of who is in power. For political campaigners this brings threats and opportunities. For those advocating policy positions there is a risk that the white noise of “high politics” will drown out substantive debate. If the SNP are to hold the balance of power then will Nicola Sturgeon, the full-time MSP and First Minister, be petitioned on issues effecting England and Wales but not Scotland?

Conversely, if the party leaders are focused on holding their fragile powerbases together, it is possible that ambitious Ministers, provided they have civil service support, could steer through significant reforms without attracting concerted opposition. The legislative process will also provide more opportunities for individual MPs to shape our laws; freed from party control, campaigning MPs could use parliament’s outdated procedures to amend and prevent legislation.

Multi-party government and legislatures made up of many, smaller parties do not equal powerless governments; in many vibrant democracies it is the norm. But it does end the closed shop of the main parties. Whether this is good for government or the state of democracy will be a matter for the electorate on 7 May 2020.

Unless it really doesn’t work, in which case we may be voting again sooner than most new MPs would care for.

On Tuesday 28 April 2015 Connect Communications hosted a panel event with Sam Coates (deputy political editor, The Times), Dan Hodges (The Daily Telegraph), Tony Grew (ParlyApp), and Darren Hughes (Electoral Reform), chaired by Connect’s Chief Executive Gill Morris.