Two things will make the next general election campaign quite unlike any previous election in this country. The first is that we now have four-party politics right across Britain. In Scotland and Wales, the nationalist parties have been a political force for a generation. But the big change is in England, where Ukip is emerging as a fourth force. Second, the campaign will be haunted by the spectre of another hung parliament. The question of what happens if no party wins an overall majority will be asked time and time again by an impatient media.
Between them, the Tories and Labour commanded the support of 96.8 per cent of the electorate at the 1951 general election, the zenith of the two-party hegemony. From 1945 until 1974, these two parties always garnered at least four fifths of the vote at any general election. But that percentage has declined markedly in the last 40 years. In 2010, the Tories and Labour received less than two thirds of the votes cast.
This decline led to neither the Tories nor Labour being able to win a majority. The Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition that followed, though, created the space for the emergence of Ukip as a fourth party. It has become the new ‘none of the above’ party and a repository for Tories alienated by the compromises of coalition. The polls suggest that about 8 per cent of voters now intend to back Ukip come what may.
Four-party politics makes campaigns more complex than before. For instance, Labour strategists are quite happy to see the prominence of immigration as an issue rise, despite its being a weak spot for their party. Why? Because their research shows that when concern about immigration is high, the Tories lose more votes to Ukip.
Equally, four-party politics creates a dynamic in which two parties can fight each other and both win. The Liberal Democrat attempt to turn this year’s European elections into a contest between them and Ukip with a debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage will probably benefit both sides. The two parties aren’t competing for the same voters and will, as a result of this tussle, receive more coverage than they otherwise would have done.
Another consequence of this new system is that a party can win with a far smaller share of the vote than before. Douglas Alexander, Labour’s election co-ordinator, has told colleagues that four-party politics means it is wrong to expect Labour to have the kind of poll leads it did before previous election victories. Indeed, thanks to favourable constituency boundaries and Ukip eating into the Tory vote, it is possible that Labour could win a majority with even less than the 35 per cent of the vote it achieved in 2005.
The Tory desire, though, is to get elections back to being a two-party contest. Lynton Crosby, the party’s campaign manager, has little time for too-clever-by-half ideas about how to play one opponent off against another. Instead, he has drummed into senior Tories that they need the next election to be a choice between the Tories and Labour and between Cameron and Miliband as Prime Minister. The challenge for the Tories is how to write the Lib Dems and Ukip out of the script. At the moment, their plan is to describe a vote for anyone other than the Conservatives as a vote for Miliband. The Tory high command has already earmarked Boris Johnson as the man to squeeze the Ukip vote by warning of the dangers of Prime Minister Miliband.
But writing out Ukip and the Liberal Democrats will not be easy. The European elections this year, where Ukip are on course to beat the Tories, will give Nigel Farage and co. a massive publicity boost. And the Liberal Democrats, as a party of government, have an easy way to write themselves back in.
The Liberal Democrats also benefit from the fact that a hung parliament is seen as the most likely outcome of the next election by the Westminster press corps. This means that anything Clegg says about what his party will do post-2015 is news.
The Lib Dem leader knows this and will use this media interest to try to show that he could do a deal with either Labour or the Tories. Neither of the two main parties is sure how to respond to Clegg’s musings. Labour is deeply divided over whether to prepare for another hung parliament. Some, notably deputy leader Harriet Harman, view this as defeatist. They think the party should simply say that it is going to win outright and leave it at that. Others believe that the failure to prepare for coalition talks in 2010 was what cost Labour office; they are determined not to repeat the same mistake again.
For their part, the Tories have no desire to look as though they are readying for a second coalition. This would go against their electoral strategy. Just as importantly, it would further strain relations between Cameron and his parliamentary party—many of whom suspect him of being keener on another coalition than governing with a small Tory majority. This charge was certainly true nine months ago, but it is not now. Cameron has become sufficiently narked by the Liberal Democrats and concerned enough about party management to believe now that a small Tory majority would be preferable to another coalition.
No. 10, though, is keen to avoid getting drawn into debates about what Cameron would do in the event of another hung parliament; ‘that way madness lies’, one Cameron confidant declares. But they are mustard keen to get the message across that their leader doesn’t want another coalition.
By contrast, the Liberal Democrat leadership’s worry is that so many red lines are drawn during the campaign that no coalition agreement is possible. They are acutely conscious that any deal will have to be approved both by their own party’s triple lock and by the side they are doing a deal with. How to sell any agreement to both groups simultaneously is a marketing problem that would challenge even Don Draper.
One thing is certain: it will be far harder to reach a coalition agreement in 2015 than it was in 2010. If Labour falls short of a majority, many in his team will urge Miliband to ‘do a Wilson’ and govern alone before going to the country again. On the Tory side, meanwhile, it will be hard to get a second coalition deal past the parliamentary party.
At the moment, though, it is hard to see either the Tories or Labour winning an overall majority. This means that if they want to govern, they are going to have to make some kind of deal. British politics isn’t just a two-party contest any more.