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The formation of a coalition between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats in 2010 was unprecedented. It signalled a public distrust of both of the two main parties by demonstrating that no party had the overwhelming support of UK citizens.
As we approach 2015, a coalition between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats is entirely possible, with a majority government for Labour hanging in the balance. Meanwhile, UKIP and the Green Party have seemingly derived a large portion of their support from the larger parties, stealing away vital votes needed to secure majority governments. Thus, we should be asking whether the likelihood of coalitions is higher, and whether we are likely to see a new one in 2020, if not next year.
History shows that neither of the parties need to reach a particular percentage advantage over their opponent to be able to gain a majority government, let alone have over 50% of the recorded votes. In 2005, Labour remained in power with 35.2% of the vote and a majority of 66 seats. Yet, in 2010, the Conservative Party gained a larger proportion of the vote at 36.1%, yet missed out on being able to form a majority government by 20 seats. This is an obvious example of how the First Past the Vote system requires tactical campaigning in target seats, with centralised support being necessary to be able to take control of the required number of seats. This is what allows for the parties to have safe seats and often beats off competition from smaller parties who are incredibly unlikely to win. However, with votes for UKIP and the Green Party rising in numbers, this centralised support will weaken and give rise to a more competitive politics with more players.
Although UKIP secured 31% of the vote in the 2014 European Parliament elections and were incredibly successful in gaining over a hundred more councillors in this year’s council elections, it can be guaranteed that this vote share will not translate to elections to the House of Commons. As previously discussed, First Past the Post requires centralised support and UKIP’s votes are spread out across the country, rather than situated in small areas. Despite this, some of its increased support will remain in areas where a UKIP success is not ruled out such as in Thanet and Folkestone in Kent. These are both areas where levels of confidence in voting for the party have dramatically risen over the last year and, if UKIP campaign well, the party are likely to gain seats in Westminster next year.
UKIP’s increased vote share is also driving down the vote share of the other parties as it commandeers their supporters. In many areas, this is unlikely to garner them enough support to gain a seat in Westminster, but it will close the gap between them and their leading opponents. Furthermore, if UKIP are successful in some areas, like those above, confidence in supporting the party will increase even more, closing that gap even further. It is a slow process, but it is a process of confidence-building that may become apparent. Just under a half of UKIP voters are ex-Conservatives and another third coming from the Liberal Democrats and Labour combined, according to YouGov data.
Similarly, the Green Party are benefitting from defecting voters and politicians. In Solihull, the party gained the position of official opposition on the council following defections from Liberal Democrat councillors earlier in the year, and a rise in support from the local electorate in the council elections. Furthermore, the party predicts that it can win the Bristol West constituency seat if voters demonstrate the same amount of confidence as they did in the recent European Parliament elections, where the Greens managed to secure the highest percentage of the vote in the wards.
Regardless, if the smaller parties want to secure a higher share of the vote, they are going to need to inspire confidence in the electorate to not vote tactically, they will need to centralise the support to demonstrate their chances of winning in a seat and they must also argue that a coalition government with them in would be better than a Labour or Conservative majority government.
Labour and the Conservative Party not only need to retain the majorities they hold in their local seats, but also must ensure that the gap between their vote and their oppositions does not narrow as smaller parties gain increases in support. If they are not successful with this, their chances of a majority government will weaken, small parties will gain seats in the House of Commons and coalition governments will become a common occurrence.
With May 2015 just over a year away, battle lines are beginning to be drawn between political parties in marginal seats around the country and many seats are likely to swap hands. One such seat is Brighton Pavilion where Labour is hoping to win back the seat gained by Parliament’s sole Green MP, Caroline Lucas.
Recent conversations between the Liberal Democrat’s Nick Clegg and the Labour Party’s Ed Balls, alongside a very strange two-worded tweet by the Deputy Prime Minister, have led to increased speculation by the media of a coalition pact between the two parties. But with Labour seemingly set to easily achieve a majority in the House of Commons in 2015, is this a meaningless conversation?