Rarely does British politics see such electoral dissidence as it currently faces. Challenges to the Westminster model of governance are coming from all sides: Nationalists from Scotland and Wales, right wing populists and environmentalists from within; all represented by a ragtag band of political parties promoting rejectionist feelings toward longstanding political tradition. Although their proposals differ massively, the commonality between the SNP, Plaid Cymru, UKIP and the Green Party is that their support has significantly snowballed since 2010; almost promising to result in yet another hung Parliament come May. The fuel for this British political abnormality has proved to be continual economic hardship, which has spurred a subsequent willingness to explore solutions to the problem other than what is provided by the three-party status quo; alongside the displacement of the Liberal Democrats as Britain’s challenging third party. Traditionally as the main benefactor of voter dissatisfaction; their perceived treachery and weakness in Government has allowed for the formation of an electoral power vacuum within which the rising parties have found themselves able to thrive.
This fragmentation of voting intentions inexorably means that the race between the two parties at the top is a tight one. Labour, despite being hampered by a lack of policy coherence and the pathetically weak public perception of leader Ed Miliband, currently enjoy a slight lead over the Conservatives in the polls. Whilst this has dropped significantly from an average advantage of roughly +5% between January and July last year to + 1% since; the Tories have failed to establish and maintain a decisive lead at any point since 2010. Clearly they were never likely to emerge from the last five years of governance unscathed, given that austerity as a primary economic policy agenda is arguably the least electorally popular measure possible. This, coupled with the false perception of NHS privatisation and the challenge posed by UKIP; has diminished any hope of the Conservatives winning outright this time round.
But in the Conservative camp, hope remains that, as in 2010, a minority majority can be won, thanks to Labour’s advantage quickly becoming more and more unsustainable and discontinuous. Should this be the case, then a tough choice will face Cameron and the Party: to take a substantial risk and form a minority government or to yet again govern by coalition.
As to the former, history teaches us that minority government should never be a willing choice. Only on three occasions have we seen such governance in the post-war era: 1974, 1977-9 and 1996-7; with 1974 being the only time following a General Election rather than due to defections or by-elections. It was a gamble that year taken by the Labour Party under Harold Wilson who, having failed to gain an overall majority in the February Election ahead of Ted Heath’s Conservatives; found themselves unable to lure the Liberal Party into coalition even after intense deliberation. What ensued was complete legislative gridlock and Parliamentary inefficiency, with many Bills introduced by the Government being defeated by Opposition parties. Whilst Labour did go on to win the General Election which was re-held in October that year and form a majority government, it was by a meagre three seats; an unworkably slim majority which saw the government defeated through rebellions by its own backbenchers on many occasions. The culmination of this came in 1979 when Wilson’s successor Jim Callaghan ran the Party into a state of ruin that would last nearly two decades by suffering the humiliation of governmental collapse in the face of a vote of no confidence.
Minority government has proved itself to be a quick fix with potentially disastrous long term consequences. We live currently in an era riddled with trepidation surrounding security, economic and societal issues; one which demands not long winded processes of partisan scrutiny, Parliamentary infighting and indecisiveness, but rather a strong and effective majority government, able to bypass such hindrances placed upon its power to formulate and implement legislation. Although this is not possible as already explained; the next best thing is undoubtedly a coalition between parties who find themselves as ideological neighbours upon the political spectrum. The media had a wonderful time with this issue when we reached 100 days until the election, throwing together all kinds of predictions as to who could jump into bed with whom come May.
Yet nowhere have I seen whispers as to the potential for a coalition between the Conservatives and the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) should a hung Parliament reoccur. The party have made mainland headlines recently for expressing anger with regard to not being included in the televised leadership debates as they hold 8 seats in the Commons; more than any party other bar the main three. Clearly, their presence in Parliament is more substantial than is often recognised. They have displaced the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) as Northern Ireland’s leading unionist party since the convocation of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2007, and naturally aligned closely to the core principles of the Conservatives. They promise again this year to gain a significant amount of seats for a minor party and could very well hold the balance between a governmental minority and majority. Concerns as to allowing them into national government are often well justified. The DUP are a volatile bunch of politicians, descending directly both literally and ideologically from the loyalist faction of unionism which acted for so long to antagonise and exacerbate sectarianism which flared up during the Troubles and continues to exist to a degree today. Only recently for example they ruled out a move to implement mixed religious schools; opting instead to retain the institutions which serve to entrench sectarianism as a societal norm for many in Northern Ireland. Controversy would therefore be likely to ensue should the Conservatives seek to utilise them as a part of national government.
Regardless, for the DUP to ensure the establishment of majority government during a time of such uncertainly, subsequent criticism and unpopularity is a risk worth taking. As with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, before entering coalition, the Conservatives would outline clearly the areas within which the DUP would be allowed a degree of influence in a published Coalition Agreement. The Lib Dems opted to give up significant influence in key areas, most notably the economy, in order to dictate policy regarding constitutional matters. The outcome has been significant: a referendum on AV in 2011, the introduction of fixed term elections beginning in 2015, the referendum on Scottish independence, and so on. Should the DUP enter coalition, it is highly likely that their chosen area of influence would be Northern Ireland, demanding a degree of freedom over issues mostly relating to its annual budget and the devolution of powers; areas of policy which are often overlooked by the national parties due to Northern Ireland being of minimal electoral significance. I fail to see the merit in any counterargument to the benefits of increasing the budget of Northern Ireland which, despite its favourably distorted budget proportionality thanks to the Barnett Formula, suffers from a chronic lack of economic expansion.
Some would call me immoral for wanting a party whose track record for disobedience, stubbornness and volatility that so often reflects that of a small misbehaved child, to enter national government and to influence policy. But the DUP are a party which can be easily domesticated at a national level and be made subordinate to the Conservatives on the vast majority of policy areas. They would be a mere drop in the ocean, yet could be the makeweight between an effective coalition, or an ineffective and insufficient minority government which would work only to exacerbate political frustration as it currently exists: a sacrifice, in my view, which is well worth making.
Image Cameron and Peter Robinson (DUP Leader) Rights; Kelvin Boyes