The conference season has come and gone with very little real impact on the overall state of play in the run of opinion polls. Even this relatively small fall in its support would see the Labour Party lose the election. However that is not the same thing as saying the Conservatives will win it. The distortions of our electoral system mean that in order to gain a majority of 2, the Conservatives need a swing of nearly seven percent- the second highest swing in recent electoral history. Yet the polls, while charting a solid lead for the Tories in the popular vote, are far less certain about whether their lead in votes can be converted into a working majority of seats. Neither do the polls show great enthusiasm for the prospect of a Conservative government and much may happen between now and Thursday June 3rd 2010 which is the last date by which the election must be held.
What happens if Labour do indeed lose but the Conservatives can not gain a majority?
For the Liberal Democrats such a scenario could have many opportunities, but would also be fraught with peril. If the party has been resilient in holding its seats and the Parliament is evenly balanced, then Nick Clegg could have a certain freedom of movement. If, however, the Lib Dems have lost a large number of seats and the party can give neither side a mandate by themselves, then the Liberal Democrats face something close to a nightmare scenario: they become the victims of a hung parliament and not its arbitrators
Meanwhile, an inconclusive election would create political uncertainty at just the point when the economic crisis will have entered a new stage, with unemployment rising and government expenditure being forced up to match it. The negotiations for a new government may be taking place in an atmosphere close to crisis: Sterling would come under pressure and the markets would react poorly. If David Cameron was the leader of the largest party, the Queen is obliged to call him first to form an administration unless its is quite clear that he could not or would not take the mandate. The Conservatives could be in a position to form a minority government.
The problem for the Conservatives would be that they would probably not be able to get measures such as significant expenditure cuts through Parliament without the support of other parties. Cameron might defy Parliament and dare it to bring down his newly minted government in the hope that a second election could give him a majority. To my mind, this is the most likely scenario. It also demonstrates just how narrow the window of opportunity for the Liberal Democrats actually is- unless the second election returns a further inconclusive result.
In the end the Lib Dems want constitutional reform, and in particular the single transferable vote in General Elections. In my view, the public are more ready to accept that the constitutional system needs changing than they have ever been: it therefore makes sense to place these constitutional ideas at the forefront of the Liberal Democrat campaign. It gives the voters clarity about the key priorities for the party - and this also gives political legitimacy to demands for such changes in any possible coalition negotiations.
The way in which any inconclusive election result works out is critically dependent on small details that are essentially impossible to forecast: regional swing, value of incumbency, the relative strength of support of the third party and so on. However the Liberal Democrats are not doing themselves any favours by putting constitutional reform at the back of their list of priorities when for good reasons of political tactics as well as of political principle they should be at the front.
One hung Parliament might not be enough to gain the traction that the party needs to get the changes we think are necessary for our country. Two hung Parliaments would be an unarguable choice by the electorate in favour of political change. It is a moot point as to which way the voters will jump in 2010 and afterwards.