By James Le Grice of London-based Network Partner Insight Consulting Group

The UK General Election is just over a week away, and political pundits are almost unanimously ruling out the prospect of any party winning a Parliamentary majority. This year’s election has seen an unprecedented focus on popular small parties and the potential coalition agreements that either Labour or the Conservatives may seek with them to form a government. Many question whether Britain is seeing the end of its traditional two-party system. This point, however, is overstated. The unlikelihood of either major party securing a majority reflects more on recent shifts in their ratio of Parliamentary seats and the struggle of their leadership to appeal to a wide support base than it does on a British preference for coalitions.

By James Le Grice of London-based Network Partner Insight Consulting Group

The UK General Election is just over a week away, and political pundits are almost unanimously ruling out the prospect of any party winning a Parliamentary majority. This year’s election has seen an unprecedented focus on popular small parties and the potential coalition agreements that either Labour or the Conservatives may seek with them to form a government. Many question whether Britain is seeing the end of its traditional two-party system. This point, however, is overstated. The unlikelihood of either major party securing a majority reflects more on recent shifts in their ratio of Parliamentary seats and the struggle of their leadership to appeal to a wide support base than it does on a British preference for coalitions.

Coalition governments have long been the norm in many European countries, but in Britain – which uses a “first past the post” voting system – elections are traditionally a two horse race between Labour and the Conservatives. The last General Election in 2010 failed to produce an outright winner; a party needs to gain 323 seats in the House of Commons to secure a majority. This ‘Hung Parliament’ resulted in the first coalition government since World War Two, with the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties agreeing to share power.

However, the 2010 election result owed more to Labour’s success 13 years previously than an upsurge in support for the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s most prominent third party.  In the 1997 election, a rebranded and re-energised Labour Party under Tony Blair won a landslide victory taking 419 seats in the House of Commons. The Conservatives were reduced to only 165 seats, the party’s worst performance since 1906.

The Conservative party struggled to regain ground until the 2010 election. Under new leadership and running against a deeply unpopular Labour government, the Conservatives then won a historic victory gaining an additional 97 seats.  But, due to the low number of seats it entered the election with, these gains were not enough to secure the Conservatives a Parliamentary majority; hence a coalition was formed.

While the Liberal Democrats made relatively significant gains in the 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections, this trend was actually reversed in 2010 when they finished the election with fewer seats than they entered it with. Current polling suggests that they will lose half of their MPs next week.

The struggle of the Liberal Democrats is significant, because it is the only party that is truly committed philosophically to a “middle way” and the principles of coalition governing. Party leader Nick Clegg has repeatedly vowed to “break the two party system”, and the Liberal Democrats have entered this election with a “Wizard of Oz” message to offer a Labour-led government a “head” and a Conservative-led government a “heart”.

Instead, the small parties which have featured predominantly in this election stand either to the left or the right of Labour and the Conservatives, and are mostly focused on a very specific political or nationalist cause.

The most prominent of the right wing small parties is the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which pledges to take Britain out of the European Union and introduce a more stringent immigration system. UKIP caused shockwaves last year after outperforming both the Conservatives and Labour in the European Parliament elections. On the heels of this victory, two Conservative MPs defected to UKIP and won bi-elections, gaining the party its first presence in the House of Commons. However, most polls suggest that UKIP will only win three seats next week.

Leading the left wing small parties is the Scottish National Party (SNP), which despite losing its referendum on Scottish Independence last year is threatening to steal much of Labour’s traditional heartland in Scotland. Many considered SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon to be the winner of this election’s two televised party leaders’ debates, and the SNP is projected to win over 50 seats.

Rather than seeing the emergence of a third or middle political trend, the rise of small parties in this election is instead seeing the emergence of a two distinct left and right wing blocs. The SNP, Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru and the Green party in particular have already begun to synergise as an anti-austerity alliance.

Polling suggests that the winning party will finish the election with between 270 and 280 seats. A coalition with the Liberal Democrats would not offer Labour or the Conservatives enough seats to reach the 323 seat majority level, so either party would need to reach out to the members of its respective ideological bloc.

However, forming a coalition within one of the blocs could prove contentious. The Conservatives would need a multiparty coalition, and their natural ideological partners are UKIP and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a centre-right Northern Irish party. Yet, a coalition between these three would still not deliver 323 seats. The Liberal Democrats would need to be on board, but as a staunchly pro-European Union party, it is highly unlikely that it would enter a power sharing agreement in which UKIP is involved.

If Labour formed a coalition with the SNP, it could reach the 323 seat mark, but this would be highly risky for the Labour. The SNP is deeply unpopular in England, and this election season has been rife with fearful speculation about the possibilities that could emerge if the SNP had a role in government. Even former Prime Minister John Major, who has largely retreated from public life, came out to warn that the SNP would “create merry hell” if its demands were denied in a coalition government. Labour leader Ed Miliband has been careful to distance himself from suggestions that he is considering making a deal with the SNP.

Yet, a coalition government is not the only option if a party fails to win a majority. Given the potential difficulties with the parties that would need to be involved, this might not even be the favoured option. The party that wins the most seats could alternatively attempt to govern in minority.

This is obviously the least stable option, as it would be highly difficult for a minority government to pass its own legislation. Much negotiation would need to take place between the governing party and its allies in the House of Commons to reach agreement on each part of the legislative agenda.

Succeeding as a minority government would therefore require diplomatic and uniting leadership to be able to mobilise the voting power of either the left or right wing bloc. If the party that wins the most seats chooses this option, it would likely face a leadership challenge from within its ranks. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, who is standing for a Parliamentary seat, is widely tipped as a favourite to replace David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party. Andy Burnham, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, has likewise been tipped to replace Ed Miliband.

If new Labour and Conservative leadership can succeed in uniting ideologically similar small parties in Parliamentary votes, it is reasonable to expect that they could also win back the support base that has been lost to those parties. In this way, they would succeed where David Cameron and Ed Miliband are struggling in selling the Tory and Labour brand to the widest possible audience, and revive two party politics in Britain.

For this reason, it is unlikely that the traditional two party system has seen its final days. It is merely in recovery and awaiting cosmetic surgery.

For further UK General Election analysis from ICG, please visit: http://weareicg.com/what-we-think/