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 showing 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 seemingly hanging in the balance. Meanwhile, UKIP and the Green Party have derived a large portion of their support from the larger parties, stealing away vital votes needed to secure a majority government. Thus, we should be asking whether the likelihood of coalitions is higher now, 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 Post voting system requires tactical campaigning in target seats, with centralised support being necessary to be able to take control of the required number. This is what allows for 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, this centralised support will weaken, and give rise to a more competitive form of politics.
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 into MPs. 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, and success for the party cannot be ruled out in areas such as Thanet and Folkestone in Kent. These are both areas where levels of confidence in the party have dramatically risen over the last year and, if UKIP campaign well, the party is likely to gain seats in Westminster next year through such support.
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 provide enough support for the party 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 lead to significant gains.
Similarly, the Green Party is also 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 however, they are going to have to inspire confidence in the electorate to not vote tactically. They will need to demonstrate their feasible chances of winning in a seat, and they must also argue that a coalition government with them as partners would be better than a Labour or Conservative majority.
Labour and the Conservative Party not only need to retain the majorities they hold in their local seats, but also ensure that the gap between their vote and their opposition does not narrow. If they are not successful, 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.
By James Phillips