Probably neither Tories nor Labour will have a clear majority after 7 May. The new administration will be either a coalition, or a minority government dependent on deals with other parties.
Constitutionally, David Cameron remains prime minister until a new government is formed, however badly he does on 7 May.
Coalitions and minority governments have been common in British political history, and are the rule rather than the exception in many countries. The difference this time is that the jockeying for position after election day may be long.
Tory leader David Cameron centres his case against Labour on the claim that a Labour government would be controlled by its deals with the SNP; Labour leader Ed Miliband says he is “not going to have a Labour government if it means deals or coalitions with the SNP”.
But there are many more dimensions.
1. If Labour comes out from 7 May as the biggest party, but without a majority, in the unions and in the labour movement we should argue for a Labour minority government which presses on with all its better promises (which we should seek union pressure to improve), seeks to build working-class support by doing so, and dares the other parties to bring it down.
A Labour administration which legislates only compromises with the Lib Dems or Tories would have a longer life; but it would not serve the working class even in the most minimal way, and it would damage the labour movement politically.
2. A minority government can rule for a sizeable time without a single formal arrangement like the Labour-Liberal pact of 1977-8. The Labour minority government which made that pact remained in office for a good while after the pact broke down in summer 1978.
Parties will allow a minority government to win votes of confidence because they don’t want to be seen forcing a new election. Also, they know that a minority government gives them power to block measures they don’t like and push measures they do like which they may lose with an election.
Ed Miliband declares that a Labour minority government will put forward a Labour’s “Queen’s Speech” (plan) and stand or fall on it. Good: but then getting the measures into law is another matter again. For that, a Labour minority government would depend on getting this party’s vote for this measure and that party’s vote for another. “Deals” in that minimal sense are unavoidable: the question is which, and how.
3. We should worry about Labour-Lib Dem or Labour-Tory deals as much as about Labour-SNP deals.
Labour-SNP deals have the downside of boosting the SNP and making it harder for Labour to recover in Scotland. But many Labour leaders, especially in 2011, have dropped obvious hints that they would like Labour-Lib Dem deals, or even a coalition.
Such deals would tie Labour to the most right-wing strand in its own political make-up.
And if Ed Miliband wants to push through the cuts which Ed Balls has promised, or full Trident replacement? The SNP will vote against, even if they’re making equal cuts in Scotland. Even the Lib Dems may decide to tack left to regain support.
There is a real risk that a Labour minority government, anxious to look “responsible”, will pull itself to the right through deals with the Tories.
4. A Labour minority government would produce new pressure on left Labour MPs. Under Blair’s “control freakery”, paradoxically, there were more backbench revolts by Labour MPs than ever before, and with impunity. Under a Labour minority government, Labour leaders would increase pressure on left MPs to back government policies, including bad deals with the Lib Dems and others. The labour movement should back left MPs standing up for working-class principles.
5. We should also worry about Tory-Labour deals, i.e. a Labour opposition providing a Tory minority government with the votes it needs to get through right-wing measures opposed by the SNP, the Lib Dems, Plaid, and even, ultra-opportunistically, by UKIP.
On 14 January Labour whipped its MPs, with only five dissenters, to help vote through George Osborne’s “budget responsibility charter”. Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls said that doing otherwise would allow the Tories to brand Labour as “irresponsible”.
Imagine what those fears of being called “irresponsible” could do to Balls under a Tory minority government. Remember when the Labour leaders in 1961, fearful of seeming “weak on defence”, suspended MPs like future Labour Party leader Michael Foot for voting against the then Tory government’s military budget.
6. If the Tories come out clearly ahead on 7 May, the Labour right will move to replace Ed Miliband. (By Yvette Cooper? Who knows?) We should prepare for a left challenge in that leadership contest.
7. The only way Labour can win back ground from the SNP in any near future is by adopting policies clearly to the left of it. Pretending to be almost as Scottish nationalist as the SNP can only help the real Scottish nationalists win support.