The real battle for power in Scotland and Wales
The aftermath of last yearâ€™s general election proved something of a shock to the Westminster village.
Although it had been apparent for some time that there might be a hung parliament, few had anticipated competing sets of talks between different pairs of parties or the advent of a full blown coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. A short-lived minority governmentÂ – as in February 1974Â – seemed a more likely outcome than that.
But since the advent of devolution, both coalitions and long-lived minority governments have become part of the fabric of politics in Scotland and Wales.
The story so far
Between 1999 and 2007 Scotland was governed by a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, while since 2007 the SNP has sustained a minority government despite having just 47 out of 129 seats. After an initial spell of Labour minority rule, Wales too enjoyed a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition between 2000 and 2003, while since 2007 Labour has shared power with Plaid Cymru â€“ after an initial agreement between Plaid, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to form a â€˜rainbow coalitionâ€™ collapsed after the Liberal Democrats got cold feet.
The reason is simple. In both countries elections are conducted under proportional representation. As a result, in Scotland winning an overall majority is more or less impossible while in Wales it is difficult. Thus, who forms the government after the devolved elections on 5 May may depend not just on who can win most seats on polling day, but on who can do a deal with whom on what basis thereafter.
One key constitutional difference from Westminster should be borne in mind. In both countries, the First Minister has to be elected by the Parliament or Assembly. In the absence of a single party majority, anyone who wants to form a government has to secure the explicit permission of one or more other parties, either through a vital abstention or a positive vote in support.
In Scotland, Labour hopes to return to power after its shock defeat in 2007. Many in the party would like to govern alone. They did not always enjoy the experience of compromising with the Liberal Democrats between 1999 and 2007, while for many the thought of doing a deal with a party that is now in league with the Tories at Westminster is an anathema.
But Scottish Labour leader, Iain Gray, has carefully avoided ruling anything out â€“ and indeed has noted the difficulties the SNP minority government has had in getting its legislation passed. Recently Labourâ€™s poll lead has tumbled, threatening its chances of securing sufficient seats to make running a minority government look like an attractive or even a viable option.
So Labour may well need some kind of arrangement with another party â€“ though the better Labour does, the more likely it will aim for a Â ’confidence and supply’ agreement, rather than a full-blown coalition.
But to whom might Labour turn? The Conservatives seem unlikely partners. Labour is, after all, fighting on a “defend Scotland from Tory cuts” platform while the Tories themselves seem much happier dealing with the SNP’s Alex Salmond.
In contrast, the prospect of a coalition with Labour would undoubtedly be attractive to the Liberal Democrats. It would help reduce speculation that the Westminster coalition could turn into a marriage.
But the polls suggest the Liberal Democrats may have too few seats to help ensure anyone can be elected First Minister. Mr Gray might need to look instead – or as well – to an enlarged Green contingent for support.
Unlike Iain Gray, Mr Salmond seems inclined to run another minority government. But he will still need partners â€“ and they may want something more formal than the understandings that have helped keep the SNP afloat during the last four years.
In contrast to 2007, the Conservatives are (unsurprisingly) willing to enter into talks about forming the next administration. They might want to use their bargaining power to demand concessions in return for a confidence and supply agreement.
Meanwhile, now that four years of SNP government seem not to have brought Scotland any closer to independence, the Liberal Democrats appear more willing to talk to the nationalists too. If Mr Salmond played his cards right perhaps they might be tempted to be part of a multi-party anti-Labour pactÂ â€“ and to do so even if Labour have a few more seats than the SNP.
In Wales Labour does have a chance of winning an overall majority; indeed currently the polls suggest that is the most likely outcome. But if Labour fails, then it is likely to try to do another deal with Plaid â€“ previous experience at running governments without a majority proved uncomfortable while, given the current position at Westminster, a coalition with Plaid is to be preferred to one with the Liberal Democrats.
Labourâ€™s hand in any dealings with Plaid could be strengthened if, as the polls suggest could happen, Plaid fall into third place behind the Tories.Â The attraction of the â€˜rainbow coalitionâ€™ for Plaid in 2007 was that their leader, Iuean Wyn Jones, would have become First Minister. Â But few in the party would prefer to play second fiddle to the Tories rather than Labour.
Britain may have a tradition of single party majority government, but in practice its politicians have shown themselves to be rather adept at dealing with the realities of a hung parliament. They will soon be getting some more practice.
â€” Guest blog by John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University.
- Attend our event on 12 May: Coalition government - one year on
- Read about theÂ Institute's policy reunion seminar on Scottish devolution