‘The guys who crashed the car: why Labour is still in a mess over spending’, New Statesman, 1 May 2015

When it comes to being interrogated on live television by members of the public, as they were on the BBC’s Question Time last night, most politicians, even the most testosterone-fuelled, tend to follow the advice of Estravan, the androgynous lead in Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, recently dramatized on Radio 4.  “To learn which questions are unanswerable,” he/she observes, “and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”

But it doesn’t always work – not in Yorkshire anyway.  Although most of the headlines this morning were dominated by Ed Miliband ruling out  ‘a deal’ with the SNP – albeit in a way that will still mean it can support a minority Labour government taking over from David Cameron if the arithmetic works out – his most awkward moment (apart from tripping off the stage) came as he was asked point blank whether he accepted, when Labour was last in power, that it overspent.  “No, I don’t, and I know you may not agree with that,” he replied.  Sadly for him, judging from the audience’s reaction at least, he was dead right.

But this was nothing new. Ed has had five years to come up with an answer to that question and neither he, nor anyone else in his party, has managed it.  Right from the start he and Ed Balls have been prepared to admit that not everything New Labour did on the economy was perfect. But their apologies – if that’s what they were – have always been qualified, limited to Labour’s failure to properly regulate the City, to reduce the country’s reliance on the financial sector, and to be clearer, following the banking crisis, about the need to reduce the deficit and to do so by making spending cuts. Moreover, thosemea culpas have always been immediately mitigated by the insistence that it was that crisis, rather than any excessive debt-fuelled spending, which blew a hole in the nation’s balance sheet.

Factually, that interpretation has a lot to be said for it – one important reason why neither of the two Eds, both of whom set great store in such things, can forget it.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t what the public believed any more – not after being told again and again by George Osborne, while Labour was distracted by its leadership contest, that it had ‘maxed out the nation’s credit card’ and ‘failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining’. Moreover, the likelihood that people could then be persuaded to change their minds again was vanishingly small.

It might, perhaps, have been different had Ed and Ed been more determined, once the dust of a contest in which every candidate (even David Miliband) distanced themselves from New Labour, to defend its record in government. But they weren’t. Quite understandably, they wanted to talk more about the present and the future than the past. But, if they were going to pursue that course, then perhaps they should have gone the whole hog.

The whole hog, however, would have involved them taking the advice of Tony Blair’s most candid friend and ardent admirer, Philip Gould. Writing in The Unfinished Revolution – New Labour’s bible-cum-playbook – Gould declared that, if you’ve have lost the argument with the public, then, even if you still suspect you might be right, you nevertheless concede and move on. Only then can you truly leave history behind and talk about what you want to do – and do differently – in the here and now.

Being more open about Blair and Brown’s mistakes, and in particular their willingness to borrow even in the good times, might have allowed Labour’s leader to recall their achievements more easily. Certainly his difficulty, and by extension the party’s difficulty, in doing just that has been amazing – and a source of some frustration among its MPs – considering how real those achievements arguably were. It might also have provided a more solid foundation of credibility from which to present what Labour is offering voters at this election.

On the other hand, it’s never easy to confess to a crime that you don’t think you’ve committed.  And perhaps, in the end, it’s not really that sensible either. Any apology for racking up the deficit would undoubtedly have been used by the Tories as a stick with which to beat its main opponent not just at this election but for years, if not decades.  As the political commentator, Steve Richards, who might easily have become Ed’s media chief, put it a few years ago “Sorry we screwed up the economy – Vote Labour” is hardly a winning slogan.

[Originally published at http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/05/guys-who-crashed-car-why-labour-still-mess-over-spending]

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‘Want to get your research noticed by politicians? Work with a think tank’, Guardian, 27 April 2015

Academic impact on politicians can be a hit and miss affair. Indeed, when it comes to direct influence, it may well be more hit than miss. Carefully crafted press releases and the launch of new institutes is one thing. But unless, like Oxford’s Stewart Wood and Marc Stears, you are personal friends of the Leader of the Opposition, your chances of getting the sort of face-time with the big-beasts of Westminster that would allow you to showcase your research, however relevant, are pretty small.

Approaching their parties as organisations isn’t easy either. Anyone who thinks university websites are opaque when it comes to telling you who exactly does what should try searching for who’s in charge of a particular policy area in a political party. Which is why it may make much more sense to try a think tank instead.

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for wondering why. Labour’s election manifesto doesn’t mention think tanks at all, and nor does the Liberal Democrats’, while the only mention of them in their Tory equivalent is confined to a claim that “the Commonwealth Fund has found that under the Conservatives the NHS has become the best healthcare system of any major country”.

Yet turn to the website of a prominent centre-right think tank and you gain a very different impression. Policy Exchange produces a whizzy graphic to back up its claim to have influenced the manifestos of all three main parties, albeit to different degrees. It also cites a Channel Four report on the Tories’ attempt to re-animate Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy, to the effect that “Policy Exchange first floated the basic idea of forcing councils to sell off their most valuable social housing in this 2012 paper”.

This should surprise no-one. Clearly, there is a risk of over-claiming by think tanks, but there is no doubt that parties listen to them – and now possibly more than ever. After all, in an era of valence rather than position politics, where “what counts is what works” rather than what conforms to tribal notions of left and right, the UK’s main parties are bound to be more eclectic, even promiscuous.

With so much spending devoted to fundraising, admin and marketing, those same parties also travel even lighter than ever in terms of their own policy capacity – and the latter was never great to start with. They failed in their heydays to do what their German equivalents did and set up well-funded foundations to do some of the intellectual heavy-lifting for them.

That said, parties do enjoy particularly close relationships with certain think tanks. Although the IPPR, like Policy Exchange, claims pick up in a range of party manifestos for its ideas, it is known to be close to Labour – a closeness fostered by an interchange of staff. Its current director, Nick Pearce, was head of the number 10 policy unit under Gordon Brown. George Osborne’s policy advisor, on the other hand, is Neil O’Brien, formerly director of, first, Open Europe, and then Policy Exchange.

The author of the latter’s 2012 report recommending councils be obliged to sell-off high value properties is Alex Morton, who now works in Downing Street – another perfect illustration that politics in the UK, despite its being a country of some 64 million, can sometimes be a very small world indeed.

For academics hoping to impact (pun very much intended) on public policy this can be seen in one of two ways.

Pessimists see a hermetically sealed environment that anyone outside of what George Osborne and his ilk like to think of as “the guild” can permeate: what, then, is the point of trying?

Optimists, on the other hand, believe that the so-called “Westminster bubble”, is actually quite easy to prick – as long as you pick your pin (and your moment) carefully. That may well mean using think tanks as privileged mediators capable of translating and uploading academic work in smarter fashion than a direct approach to parties, politicians and, indeed, civil servants could possibly achieve.

Most think tanks keep an eye out for and, indeed, welcome academic work which, in their eyes anyway, supports whatever contention or policy they are trying hard to push. This means that academic work can turn up in reports, which in turn influence policy, without its authors necessarily knowing about it beforehand, or at all.

Take for example this research paper about responsible capitalism. It was picked up in a think tank piece before informing this speech by one of the formulators of Labour’s 2015 manifesto. Sometimes this can occur in ways that authors’ find problematic: Morton’s Policy Exchange Report, for instance, is by no means alone in containing references to academic research whose authors might well contest the way it has been used.

Although a proactive, genuinely two-way approach on both sides can help to minimise such problems, some loss of control almost certainly comes with the territory whenever an academic deals with parties and think tanks. But when they are such fertile territory for impact, it may be a risk that more of us should be prepared to run.

[Originally published at http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2015/apr/27/want-to-get-your-research-noticed-by-politicians-work-with-a-think-tank]

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‘Cameron looks more like a captive than a captain of his party’, ConservativeHome, 26 April 2015

You don’t have to have succumbed to full-blown “Milifandom” to notice that Labour’s leader seems to be having a better election than his Conservative counterpart. He can’t possibly be as ubiquitous in real life as he’s been on Twitter of late. But he’s clearly out there and loving every minute of it. He also looks as if he’s the one in charge of his party’s campaign.

David Cameron, on the other hand, doesn’t look like he’s enjoying himself at all. It’s as if his campaign is in charge of him rather than the other way around. The Prime Minister (supposedly the most powerful man in the land, remember) looks like he’s doing as he’s told rather than doing the telling – a captive rather than the captain of his, or his party’s, soul.

To understand why, you have to go back to the Conservative campaigns of 2010 and 2005. Among those involved, it is a truth universally acknowledged – even if isn’t actually true – that one big reason they didn’t win a majority five years ago was that their campaign was a bit of a mess. First, there was the Big Society – a confusing concept sprung on an unsuspecting (and, as it turned out, uncomprehending) electorate without being focus-grouped first. Then there was the pretentiously-titled manifesto, An Invitation to Join the Government of Britain, launched, for some reason no-one could ever quite work out, at Battersea Power Station. Meanwhile, back at party HQ, nobody was ever quite sure exactly whom they were reporting to and who had the final word.

What a contrast, the critics pointed out, with 2005, when, whatever the result (just a reminder, it was dire, albeit not as dire as 1997 and 2001), at least everyone knew who was running the show – the so-called Wizard of Oz, Lynton Crosby.

Campaign 2015, then, would be, at risk of sounding like the title of the dullest-ever episode of Friends: “The one with the guy who looks and sounds like a Prime Minister sticking to the game-plan devised by the Australian who knows what he’s doing.” Cameron, having decided, along with George Osborne, on the basic strategy – banging on about business backing and the “long term economic plan”; counterposing Conservative competence with Labour chaos; talking up the SNP while simultaneously slagging them off as bullies and blackmailers; and badmouthing Miliband as a weird, wet blanket who shafted his own brother, for God’s sake – left the tactics (and the all-important “grid”) to the hired help.

Interviewed this week by journalists on a train taking him to yet another carefully crafted pseudo-event, and clearly conscious of internal critics who’ve begun to wonder out loud (albeit anonymously) whether he might be “too posh to push”, Cameron emphasised how hard he’s been working and how many visits he was paying to constituencies up and down the land. “Look at my schedule!” he protested, “I don’t know what more I can do.” Maybe, he opined, the carping was simply a consequence of the fact that “I always manage to portray a calm smoothness”. Of one thing, however, he was absolutely sure: this was the “most organised, disciplined, clear campaign I have ever been involved in.”

Maybe. But, as anybody who knows anything about football will tell you, sheer work-rate and an effective offside-trap rarely win anyone the big prizes – not unless the team in question can also boast one or two “flair players” in its line-up.

Whatever you think of former Prime Minister, John Major, he was never exactly a flair player – and two decades out of the game haven’t made him one. As a result, bringing him on as some sort of “super-sub”, as the Tories tried to do at the start of the week, looked desperate for the simple reason that it was desperate. Hoping, as some obviously do, that Boris Johnson – a flair player if ever there was one – might come off the bench and do the business in the dying minutes is no less pathetic.

But let’s not write the Prime Minister off just yet. Cameron has, in the past, been able to turn it on for the big occasion, and might still be able to do it again. Right now, though, he looks more like a man dutifully executing someone else’s plan – one that doesn’t seem to have survived contact with the enemy – than a commanding officer leading from the front.

[Originally published at http://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2015/04/tim-bale-cameron-looks-more-like-a-captive-than-a-captain-of-his-party.html]

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‘UKIP should not be written off yet’, Financial Times, 24 April 2015

The narrative says one thing but the numbers say another. Contrary to common wisdom, the UK Independence party — and its leader — seem to be holding up fairly well under fire.

There are plenty of accounts of the campaign so far that give the impression that things are not going so well for Nigel Farage and his party. He is supposedly flagging and frustrated, and far from confident that he can bag himself a seat in parliament.

Ukip is apparently being squeezed, getting less airtime than it had hoped for, while many voters who had toyed with the idea of voting for it are having second thoughts now things are getting serious.

This would be nice, especially for the Conservatives. Sadly for them, however, it is far from being the whole story. Mr Farage, as the leader of one of the UK’s no-longer-so-minor “minor parties” may not be Nicola Sturgeon, but he is certainly no Natalie Bennett.

The polls do not show Ukip’s early showing holding up as well as the SNP’s, but nor does the party seem to be fading like the Greens (although, even in their case, Labour and the Lib Dems still cannot sleep entirely easily).

Certainly, Mr Farage retains a degree of pulling power that the leaders of the three main parties would be happy to match — at least when it comes to television audiences. Some 2.5m tuned in to watch his one-on-one with the BBC’s Evan Davis: that was more watched than the equivalent interviews with David Cameron, Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg.

Whether Ukip’s leader has necessarily made the best use of his TV appearances during the campaign is more of a moot point. Few spin-doctors would advise their candidate to attack the studio audience as Mr Farage did during the so-called challenger’s debate.

Nonetheless, he decided to take on not only Mr Miliband, Ms Sturgeon, Ms Bennett and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, but also the select (and apparently carefully selected) few sitting in the stalls, accusing them of a “total lack of comprehension” and labelling them “a remarkable audience even by the leftwing standards of the BBC”.

Yet, like his remarks during the seven-way debate on so-called “health tourists” travelling to the UK to get free treatment for HIV, this was a perfect illustration of the fact that Mr Farage is playing a different game to his mainstream rivals.

Obviously, they, too, have to mobilise their core vote, inasmuch as any party has such a thing any more. But whereas they still have to spend much of their time playing centripetal politics — appealing, albeit from different points on the political spectrum, to the hallowed centre ground — Farage is a centrifugal force.

Ukip’s task is not to convert — that was what it was up to between 2010 and 2014, when it won 27 per cent of the vote at the European Parliament elections — but to preach to the converted. It is vital that they do not just stay at home and shout at the TV but get up off the sofa and go to the polling station on May 7.

One way to do that is simultaneously to tap into their well-established grievances, especially on immigration, and to their conviction that the media is biased against Ukip — something that, according to polls, eight out of 10 of those intending to vote for the party believe.

This aggressive doubling-down on Mr Farage’s part may be alienating the two-thirds of voters who, polls say, would not even consider voting for his party. And it may be eroding his personal ratings (although it is worth noting that, unlike Mr Cameron’s, Mr Clegg’s and Mr Miliband’s they are still in positive territory).

But for the moment anyway it looks like doing the trick — a win for Mr Farage in Thanet South, some second-places in Labour-heartland seats that might be won in 2020 and a vote-share in double figures.

Precisely how many Labour-Tory marginals Ukip winning over 10 per cent of the vote could cost the Conservatives is the subject of keen psephological argument. The answer, broadly and bluntly speaking, is almost certainly enough — not just in the sense of denying Mr Cameron a majority, but also threatening his grip on power. Things really are getting serious.

[Originally published at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/05c71f18-ea7b-11e4-a701-00144feab7de.html%5D

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‘General Election: the Parallels with 1970’s Shock Result’, Financial Times, 17 April 2015

Human beings are hard-wired to search for patterns and parallels — especially those that seem to confirm their existing prejudices. Hardly surprising, then, that politicians are so fond of comparisons between elections past and present, and so inclined to pick the precedents that appear to point to their preferred outcomes.

Tories today like to hark back to 1992 when John Major was re-elected on the back of a negative campaign built on questioning Labour’s economic competence and the fitness to govern of its left-leaning leader, Neil Kinnock.

Labour people, meanwhile, are more likely to recall either 1979, when the party was beaten by the Tories despite Margaret Thatcher being less popular than James Callaghan, or 1974, when Harold Wilson managed to snatch back the keys to Downing Street from Ted Heath after just one term — although only after an election in which both the main parties suffered such substantial losses to smaller, insurgent outfits that neither could muster an overall majority.

Clearly, both narratives, have something going for them. But they may be missing the most obvious parallel of all — one that should give Ed Miliband rather more cause for hope than David Cameron.

It is 1970. The government has gone to the country with two obvious aces up its sleeve. The economy finally seems to be back on track, and the prime minister is clearly seen as up to the job of running the country — unlike the leader of the opposition, who, despite five years in the job, regularly flops in the Commons and just can’t seem to connect with the electorate.

As the campaign wears on, however, things don’t go quite the way the government has planned. For one thing, economic growth doesn’t seem to be delivering the anticipated “feelgood factor — almost certainly because real wages haven’t been rising fast enough or long enough. For another, while the leader of the opposition can hardly be said to have turned the public’s impression of him on its head, he is nonetheless proving a better communicator and campaigner than many imagined — including those in his own party who have previously despaired at his dogged insistence that, ultimately, substance will win out over style.

Sure enough, when the votes are finally counted, an election that should have been safely in the bag for the government turns out to be a victory for the opposition — and a personal triumph for the man leading it.

Clearly, the parallel isn’t perfect for Mr Miliband. After all, Ted Heath, the winner in 1970, was a Tory rather than a Labour leader. Even more awkwardly, his government turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, resulting in two general election defeats on the trot and his replacement by a world-famous successor.

The parallel is nevertheless a striking one when it comes to the campaign itself. Unless the polls — and, indeed, the body language and mood music — are profoundly misleading, Mr Miliband is, to the surprise of some of his friends as well as his foes, having a better time of it than most of his opponents, not least Mr Cameron. Thursday’s challengers’ debate was another pretty good night for the Labour leader.

True, Miliband, although he’s judged almost as “likeable” as Cameron, still lags some way behind him on “best prime minister”, as well as on attributes like “being good in a crisis” or “having a clear vision for the country”. But public satisfaction with the way he is doing his job, while still negative, has improved much more during the campaign than the Conservatives (and many commentators) were expecting. And, he appears, if anything, to be widening his lead over the PM on being “in touch with ordinary people” and looking after all sections of society.

This is not to be sniffed at. Elections are more than an extended executive search process. They are also about representation. Moreover, research suggests that voters judge challengers slightly differently from incumbents. It helps, of course, if, to coin a phrase, they’ve “got it”. But it’s just as important that they “get it”, too.

Cameron still has the edge on the former. However, it may not be big enough to render Miliband’s lead on the latter irrelevant. Yes, this is 2015 and not 1970. But if the PM is not careful, Ed could very well do a Ted.

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‘UK general election: ‘Happy Warrior’ confronts bomber pilot’, Financial Times, 10 April 2015

What constitutes a good week for a party leader during an election campaign depends very much on which leader you are talking about, as well as the kind of campaign they have made up their mind to fight.

David Cameron, for instance, is clearly intent on pursuing a classic incumbent strategy — so much so that Stanley Baldwin’s (unsuccessful) “Safety First” campaign of 1929 or Harold Macmillan’s (successful) “Don’t Let Labour Ruin it” warning in 1959 look daring and, indeed, positive by comparison.

For Mr Cameron, every high profile broadcast appearance is as much a threat as it is an opportunity. Think of the prime minister as a wartime bomber pilot: if he manages to drop a few incendiaries somewhere near the target and make it back to base in one piece, then it is mission accomplished.

So far, despite taking flak during a TV interview with Jeremy Paxman, Mr Cameron has come through pretty much unscathed, even if he can’t claim to have inflicted as much damage on the enemy as Bomber Command (in the shape of Lynton Crosby) might have hoped for. Certainly, Labour will be worried about polling showing that the prime minister’s job approval ratings have moved into positive territory for the first time in four years. This suggests that what he is doing, while it may be spectacularly dull, might actually be proving effective.

Given his plan to play the “Happy Warrior” in last week’s televised debate, it is tempting to extend the military metaphor to Ed Miliband. In fact, perhaps appropriately with the Grand National almost upon us, it is the sport of kings that provides a better analogy. Before the off, Labour’s leader wasn’t much fancied. But, since then, punters who previously weren’t paying much attention have noticed that there’s more to him than they had realised. Indeed, rather than fading, let alone falling at the first fence, Mr Miliband seems, if anything, to be gaining strength: polls show he is still unpopular but markedly less so than before the campaign proper began to raise his profile.

For the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, it’s not so much a question of raising his profile as raising himself from the dead. Somehow, he has to remind voters that, to quote Mr Cameron on Tony Blair, “he was the future once” without at the same time reminding them of how he betrayed the promise he displayed and the promises he made back in 2010.

Just as problematically, in order to be able to distance the Lib Dems from the once-again-wicked Tories and yet still trumpet his party’s achievements in coalition with them, the deputy prime minister somehow has to place himself firmly at the scene of the crime as the very same time as coming up with a convincing alibi.

“Good luck with that!”, some will cry — particularly if they are Labour sympathisers long since driven to distraction by the deputy prime minister’s infuriating blend of sanctimoniousness and self-abasement. However, some of the instant polling from last week’s debate suggests that less partisan voters may be a little (although only a little) more willing to swallow his man-in-the-middle-doing-the-best-he-can act. Mr Clegg’s ratings are still poor, but at just over minus 30, they are, like Mr Cameron’s, the best they’ve been since 2011.

Judging by the numbers, Nigel Farage’s shtick seems to be working too. Like an ageing rock star playing yet another moneymaking stadium gig, he has clearly decided to give his fan base the songs they have come to hear rather than risking any new material in a misguided attempt to reach out to a new audience. Polls suggest that his so called “shock and awful” strategy to mobilise his “grumpy old men” base will not prevent UK Independence party suffering some sort of squeeze. But it may mean it can avoid dropping into single figures.

Single figures is where the Green party will almost certainly end up, despite the fact that its leader Natalie Bennett can at least claim to have avoided another “brain fade” moment in the course of the campaign so far. This will suit Mr Miliband just fine. Sadly for him, however, the award for best actor in a leading role in the first fortnight has nevertheless gone, by common consent, to a woman — the Scottish National party’s Nicola Sturgeon.

Mr Miliband, though, can perhaps take some small comfort from the fact that, while Ms Sturgeon’s assured performance will do nothing to help Labour in Scotland, it may make it harder for the Conservatives to argue that she should have no say in who forms the government of the UK. Come May 8, that could prove crucial.

[This article was originally published at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/7b04f38e-dec5-11e4-8a01-00144feab7de.html]

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‘The Napoleonic truth about coalitions: getting most seats doesn’t mean you win’, Guardian, 6 April 2015

Imagine this. It’s Sunday 18 June 1815 near a little-known place called Waterloo. Battle lines are drawn when word comes down the line that Napoleon Bonaparte is to be declared the winner without a shot being fired. He, after all, has about 73,000 soldiers at his disposal, making his army larger than the one commanded by Wellington, who can only boast 68,000 (a sizeable proportion of whom aren’t even British). Never mind that Blücher’s Prussian force, supporting Wellington, is some 50,000 strong. The French, as the largest single contingent, have every right to run the show.

Absurd, no? Yet, if we fast forward two hundred years, this is exactly the argument that’s being made to support the idea that, should the Tories emerge as the largest party in another hung parliament after 7 May, they are somehow entitled to govern the UK for another five years or, at the very least, to get first go at trying to form a coalition or a minority administration.

This might be the common wisdom. But it is nonsense, nonetheless. As Napoleon found to his cost, you may have more troops than your nemesis; but if he’s managed to put together an alliance that outnumbers you then you will end up the loser, even if, to quote Wellington, it turns out to be a damned nice thing – “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life”.

Numbers count. Of course they do. But when it comes to forming governments, physics always trumps maths. Who gets to govern depends on what force they exert within the system, singly and collectively. Clearly, having large numbers of MPs helps. But so too does being (to use the political science jargon) pivotal – capable of deciding, by virtue of your ability as a party to jump either way, which one of a number of potential combinations can actually govern.

That is why, even though they underplayed their hand woefully in the ensuing negotiations, the Lib Dems were actually in a very powerful position in 2010, especially once they’d decided they wanted to be in government rather than merely support one from the outside.

That is also why the Lib Dems (along with, if the polls are correct, the SNP and also the DUP) may well be in an equally (if not more) powerful position in 2015 – even if, this time around, they end up with only half the seats they won then.

But, some purists will cry, what about the constitution? Wasn’t Stanley Baldwin, with 258 MPs, allowed to “face the House” in 1924 before giving way (after losing a confidence vote) to a minority Labour government, led by Ramsay MacDonald, with just 191 MPs?

Well yes, but what of it? For one thing, Baldwin was playing a highly sophisticated game, having already made up his mind that it would be in the long-term interests of the country, as well as the Conservative party, to allow “the Socialists” their first crack at government under controlled conditions. For another, it was all a very long time ago – a precedent, maybe, but hardly a convention that can bind 21st-century politicians.

To think that those same politicians will be bound by the civil service’s cabinet manual is equally absurd. The manual is not holy writ. It can suggest but it cannot prescribe. Ultimately (to use the pol-sci jargon just one more time) it’s a case of freestyle bargaining. Coming out of the election with more MPs than any other party doesn’t grant you any special rights, even if you’re the sitting prime minister. Those outraged by all this may come up with one last argument, namely that the UK’s proverbial sense of fair play will be offended if the party with the most seats doesn’t get to govern, or at least get first go.

But why, either inherently or rhetorically, would that be any less fair than handing power to a party with what would still be less than half of the seats in the House of Commons and only just over a third of the votes in the country?

Right now, those most determined to create a self-fulfilling prophecy (or at least a degree of momentum) in favour of the largest single party are Conservatives – presumably because they believe they will be that party. It is perfectly possible, however, that Labour will finish just ahead of the Tories – and perfectly possible, as the result of choices made by the “minor” parties, that Ed Miliband might nevertheless be unable to wrest the keys to No 10 from David Cameron’s patrician grasp.

The UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, it seems, is no longer able to prevent either its party system or its parliament from looking more European. So we need to realise, as they do on the continent, that sometimes those who “win” elections can still end up on the losing side.

[This article was originally published at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/06/napoleonic-truth-coalitions-most-votes-doesnt-win]

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