Unless opinion shifts drastically in the next few days, no party will have an overall majority after 6 May. There will be strong pressure from big business for a coalition government.
The immediate political answer from socialists does not depend much on the details. We would advocate Labour seek to form a minority government. From that position it should rally support by pro-working-class measures. When eventually brought down by the Tories’ and Lib-Dems’ unwillingness to let the pro-working-class measures through, it should seek on that basis to win a majority in a new election.
Others than us will seek to shape the outcomes, though. And to orient ourselves, it is useful to discuss how they may shape them.
The capitalist class needs a government to push through cuts. A minority government of any sort will not be good for that, because the governing party will want a new general election soon in the hope of a better result, and will avoid unpopular measures in the meantime.
A coalition government — which might be able to boast a sort of endorsement from over 60% of voters — would probably be an even better instrument for pushing through unpopular cuts than a clear single-party majority government.
It would not be a good outcome from the point of view of the labour movement. A Tory/Lib-Dem coalition government might be more confident in pushing through cuts and restrictions on union rights than a straight Tory government.
Leverage for progress then would reside in the possibility of the unions pushing the Labour Party to a markedly oppositional stance against the Tory/Lib-Dem coalition government; that opposition bringing new life into the labour movement; and meanwhile some of the hardcore New-Labourites hiving off into the newly successful Lib-Dems.
A Labour/Lib-Dem coalition would “keep the Tories out”, but at the cost of giving the New-Labourites, in their Lib-Dem coalition partners, a powerful counterweight to labour-movement pressure to defend social provision and workers’ rights.
Sections of what now passes for the “centre-left” in the Labour Party, such as Compass, would be as keen on the coalition as the ultra-Blairites.
Lib-Dem policy is for “state funding of political parties” and “a cap on political donations” (i.e. a legal ban on union affiliation money of any consequence. Unions’ large votes in the Labour structures would also be scrapped). A Tory/Lib-Dem coalition would be happy to introduce it, and it is not ruled out that a Labour/Lib-Dem coalition might do it too.
Many New-Labourites have not even the poor connection with the labour movement that the “old Labour” right wing had, and will readily jump ship into the Lib-Dems if they see the Lib-Dems outstripping Labour.
The lever for progress here would be in labour-movement mobilisation against the Lib-Dem alliance, and against moves for a permanent electoral alliance between Labour and Lib-Dems or a full merger of the two parties.
Pressure for electoral reform will be strong if the Lib-Dems do well and have to be got into a coalition government, and even more so if the seats won by the different parties are wildly out of line with the votes they get, as now looks likely.
The Labour leadership’s plan is for an Alternative Vote system, as in Australia. It retains constituencies and “first past the post”, but people cast second, third, fourth, etc, preferences as well as first-preference votes, and the winner gets “past the post” only when transferred preferences take him or her past 50% of the turnout.
Like the current system AV leaves smaller parties (other than those with a very localised base) without representation. But it makes parties’ “transfers” — their recommendations as to how the voters who rank them no.1 should use their second, third, etc. preferences — very important.
Before the recent Lib-Dem surge, at least, Labour could hope that AV would produce a Lib-Dem/Labour deal to exchange preferences and thus lock the Lib-Dems into a position of junior partner to Labour, with electoral reform seeming “settled” for a good while.
The Lib-Dems would have to be stupid to accept AV as a good-enough electoral reform for a coalition deal now.
The Lib-Dems want single transferable vote in many-member constituencies, as in Ireland. They might settle instead for some “additional member” system, as in the Scottish Parliament. As well as “constituency” MPs (for a reduced number of larger constituencies), the parties would also get “list” MPs, depending on their share of the vote.
The “additional member” system helped the Scottish Socialist Party in its heyday, enabling it to win six seats in the Scottish Parliament. But the decline of the SSP since the split engineered by Tommy Sheridan with the help of the SWP and the Socialist Party shows that this electoral reform is no wonder-cure for the left.
It would make no sense for socialists to be last-ditch defenders (on spurious grounds of “ensuring stable government” or the like) of a “first past the post” system producing obviously distorted results. But it is not true that electoral reform would be a decisive step forward for the left.
It would help the Greens. It might help a Labour Party temporarily reduced to a rump after a big New-Labourite defection to the Lib-Dems. The key to political progress would still lie with political mobilisation in the roots of the labour movement, not in electoral technique.