Fears of hung parliament may send voters flocking to Labour - GulfToday

Fears of hung parliament may send voters flocking to Labour

Andrew Grice

Political columnist for The Independent.

Ed Miliband, John Major

Ed Miliband, John Major

For months, Conservative and Labour politicians have presumed we are either heading for a general election like 1992, when Tories under John Major defied the opinion polls to spring a surprise victory, or 1997, when Tony Blair won by a landslide.

Last week’s local elections in England tell us the answer: neither. The Tories are very unlikely to win, but Labour cannot be sure it will secure an overall majority either.

Now the real prospect of a hung parliament is already shaping the long campaign before the next general election, expected to take place in autumn 2024.

The general election on many minds at Westminster is 2015, when the Tories won a surprise majority after portraying Ed Miliband as being in the pocket of the Scottish National Party and warning of a “coalition of chaos”. The Tories sense the same attack line could rescue them next year; that the public’s desire for “strong government” will turn them against the spectre of a “weak and wobbly” minority Labour administration.

In a series of TV interviews last night, Keir Starmer was repeatedly asked whether he would form a coalition with the SNP or Liberal Democrats if he failed to win a majority. As in 2015, Labour advisers grumble that the media is doing the Tories’ dirty work for them by obsessing about this hypothetical question again. But it’s a legitimate question. After the local elections, Labour had better get used to answering it.

I’m told that Starmer’s aides regard Miliband’s botched handling of the hung parliament question “with complete scorn”. In the run-up to the 2015 election, the then Labour leader was slow to realise the potency of the Tory attack. At the time, I warned him about the damage it was doing after interviewing him on the campaign trail.

After the election, Miliband had the good grace to tell me I was right, and he was wrong.

Starmer showed in last night’s interviews that he has learnt lessons from Miliband’s mistake by quickly ruling out a coalition with the SNP under any circumstances, because the party wants to break up the UK. However, he has changed his previous stance by leaving the door open to a post-election deal with the Lib Dems.

His stance on the SNP won’t stop the Tories and their media cheerleaders banging on about a “coalition of chaos” and warning the electorate that a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for Labour. There will be hundreds of headlines like today’s in the Daily Mail: “Now Starmer opens the door to a ‘grubby’ poll pact with the Lib Dems.”

However, I suspect it will have much less impact now than it did in 2015. It will be a bit rich for the Tories to warn about “chaos” after the successive shambles of Johnson and Truss governments. What’s more, the Lib Dems are hardly threatening: the Tories had their own “grubby poll pact” with them for five years in the 2010-15 coalition and, later, a confidence-and-supply arrangement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.

Surely even the Tories would baulk at issuing a poster showing Starmer in Humza Yousaf’s pocket now? The SNP is much diminished from the days when it boasted big beasts like Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. This week the SNP has been busy claiming it would “pull the strings” to drag a minority Labour government to the left, force it to rejoin the EU single market and allow another Scottish independence referendum. That feels like a desperate cry for attention from a party in crisis.

Moreover, Lib Dems might enjoy less influence on a minority Labour government than they expect. Ed Davey, their leader, has made clear he would not prop up the Tories if no party wins a majority. So the Lib Dems can hardly expect to bargain with both main parties for a post-election deal as they did in 2010 before hopping into bed with the Tories.

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