The BBC’s Nick Robinson has it almost right when he says there are two ways of judging these elections – through the prism of the last three decades of British politics with its long-lived single party governments (Tories 1979-97; Labour 97-2010) or through the prism of 1970s one-term Governments. In the 1979-2010 period incumbent governments suffered mid-term slumps only to recover and win. In the 70s they suffered mid-term slumps and went on to lose at the next election.
But this is not the 70s, or the 80s, or 90s or noughties. The age of single party rule appears to be over, or at least on the endangered species list.
What we have seen is a very long-term, historic, trend away from single party government. The two main parties shared only just over two-thirds of vote in these elections, compared with almost 100% in the 1950s, and the end seems set to continue.
At the last election the Tories faced an unpopular, unelected, PM, leading an unpopular government that had been in power for 13 years and we’d just had the biggest financial and fiscal crisis in decades. Even then they couldn’t manage to get a majority. Does anyone seriously think that after 5 years leading a coalition that has delivered weak deficit reduction, even weaker economic growth and what could prove disastrous public sector reforms the Tories are going to win an outright majority in 2015?
Nor does it seem remotely probable that a new Tory-LD coalition is likely. The LDs are not going to recover substantially, certainly not to anything like their 2010 performance, and could easily be reduced to a rump in 2015. That is even if there was an appetite for continued Coalition on either side, which seems increasingly unlikely as both sides become increasingly fractious.
Nor does it seem likely, even on these elections results, Labour is really going to cruise to an outright majority. People voted yesterday mostly on national issues, despite it being local election, but they voted as a referendum on the Governments performance rather than as if they were making a choice of governments. If they had being choosing a national government, I doubt Labour would have done quite so well. This may change over the next 3 years, but it is not guaranteed or even probable.
On these results then nothing is certain, but what seems a real possibility is that 2015 (if the Coalition lasts that long) would produce Labour as the biggest party but without an overall majority, a reduced LD, and more smaller parties MPs. The question then would be what sort of Coalition would Labour form, or would they, 1960s or 70s style, try and form a minority government? Can Labour (or the Tories) adapt to what will become a politics of maneuver rather than of position, to use Gramsci’s famous phrase? Both main parties have decades of trench warfare tribal mentality to overcome if they are to be able to construct Coalitions in the future. Whichever main party succeeds in that will have the brighter future.