Commentary on recent elections suggest we have entered ‘four party politics’ - but a more plausible reading of the system and situation is that we may actually have stepped back into ‘two party politics’.
The evidence is this. The senior party in the coalition government has taken exactly the mid-term knock one would expect. The junior party in the coalition government has taken a punishing near wipe-out (the one really game-changing new trend – hence its internal convulsions since). The official opposition party has made exactly the mid-term gains one would expect. The new party on the block has shown quite predictably that with momentum it can achieve something like a quarter of the votes (which, in the first-past-the-post local elections, meant only being able to pick up a modest number of new seats – only half what the official opposition party managed to pick up).
Let us pretend that this evidence works as a direct indication of what will happen at next year’s General Election (which, of course, it doesn’t - because more people will vote and because the direct link with representation in the EU will be absent – but it might give us some indication).
UKIP’s even a quarter of the vote roughly evenly distributed across the country on our present election system might not garner it a single MP. Not much of a ‘fourth party’ there.
If all added together the low level of support for the punished Lib-Dems and for others such as Greens and independents accounts for only another 15% of the votes in most constituencies, this leaves 60% of votes to be divided between Conservative and Labour.
On this basis, where either Conservative or Labour gain more than 30% in any particular constituency (the support from each being quite unevenly distributed between constituencies makes this likely in most) it wins, and the one which wins most gets an absolute majority of seats in the new House of Commons.
Which of the two it is may simply depend on the mood in a year’s time.
If it felt that the economy and EU reform are both moving forward, David Cameron is reliable, and Ed Milliband is simply weird, then we will have another five years of Tory government. If it is felt that the economic squeeze is intolerable for too many, David Cameron doesn’t care enough about ordinary people, and some of Ed Milliband’s team are making surprising sense, then we will have five years of Labour government.
A re-elected absolute-majority-holding Cameron administration would be a thing to behold. In a first term operating within the constraints of coalition it did things like restrict reading opportunities in prison and remove benefits from those for whom a supply of smaller social housing into which to move was known not to be available, what might they do in a second term? What would Teresa May be doing to the visa system or Michael Gove to the education system or Ian Duncan-Smith to the benefit’s if they were actually on a roll and had a free hand?
A newly elected absolute-majority-holding Milliband administration’s first attempts to wrestle with the economy might also be an equally horrifying but much less predictable spectator sport.
But the main point isn’t that. It is this. If in a year’s time the Lib-Dems are punished as severely as they deserve for what their previous supporters see as delivering five years of punitive Conservative government, that unravels all the old ‘three party politics’ maths which gave us a ‘hung parliament’ last time. If in a year’s time UKIP enters a first-past-the-post election with only a quarter of national voting support, that will simply make no impact. It will be two party politics time again – and one of the two parties would be likely to come out of the election with an absolute majority.