Even with fewer seats, Labour makes the best case for legitimate government
At this stage in the general election, arguments are dual-use. Of course, they aim to maximise votes for a party and fire-up supporters, but they also serve a second function: to manipulate public perceptions of what happens on May 8th.
The Tories and Tory-supporting press have been on legitimacy duty for some time now. They want a pre-emptive victory. If, as expected, they are the party with the largest number of seats, they want any other party in government to be seen as illegitimate.
Polling suggests the public is open to this message. That's unsurprising. It seems intuitive. The party with the most seats should surely be the one which forms a government.
But it's false. The system does not grant government to the party with the most seats, it grants it to the party which can command a majority in the Commons. That is not a constitutional technicality or a trick: it is a true expression of political will. If the polls stay as they are, Labour have the best case for legitimacy, despite being forecast to gain fewer seats.
The key to all this is in the act of voting. Why do we vote and what are we giving our support to when we do it? Is it the local candidate, or the political party, or the person we want to be prime minister? Perhaps we voted just because we like one particular policy. Perhaps we liked one particular person. Perhaps – and this is more common – it is to keep someone else out.
No-one ever knows. It's not in Westminster's interest to know. When we keep the legitimacy conferred by votes as vague as possible, it allows us to manipulate the results to suit our own agenda.
Why do you vote?
The Lib Dems will, for instance, claim their votes give them legitimacy to negotiate with other parties for a coalition. But votes for Lib Dems are usually much more to do with the local candidate rather than national leadership and that will never be truer than in this election. Similarly, local candidates often claim votes were a statement of support for them personally, even though it's quite clear many are for a national party. Could most Labour MPs who won in 1997 really claim it was them, not Blair, who secured their local majority?
If, as expected, the Conservatives win the most seats this week, but not enough for a majority – even with the Lib Dems – then we will see a lot of very certain things written about why people voted. In a desperate bid to show the Tories are the only legitimate government, the press will pretend that votes are a simple and singular thing: a vote for a party. Nothing more.
But votes aren't just for a party, or a candidate, or a prime minister – or even policies. Votes also express a broader political loyalty. Voters who support Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Respect, the SDLP and the Greens are not just supporters of those particular parties: they are also left-of-centre voters. They are anti-Tory voters. If together they have enough votes to command a majority in the Commons, that is not a technicality. It is an expression of the democratic will of the United Kingdom, one which demands a government which suits their voters.
Whatever the press says, we all know we don't just vote for parties. If we did there would be no such thing as tactical voting. Millions of us vote for someone other than our preferred party. Many will vote Tory instead of Ukip, to keep Miliband out. Many will vote Labour instead of Green, to keep Cameron out. All over the country, people discuss politics as a game of avoiding the least-favoured option, rather than securing your preferred one. We vote according to broad assessments of our political values and what is likely to happen in our local area.
Many Green supporters will vote Labour to get the Tories out
The Tory press will say that we are much more simple beasts. They will say a vote for the Tories is a vote for the Tories and a vote for Labour is a vote for Labour and if the latter is lower than the former then the former must govern. It's factually and morally wrong – especially in an age when none of the parties can even command enough confidence from voters to secure a majority. It would be a tyranny of brands – nothing more.
Where no party can secure a majority, the government should be composed in a way which reflects the broad political will of the British public. If centre-left parties can vote down a Tory Queen's Speech, then that means another government should be formed putting forward a Queen's Speech which can pass the Commons. Labour is currently best placed to do that – not because it has done particularly well itself, but because more people are voting centre-left than centre-right.
Cameron may not have enough seats for a majority even in coalition with the Lib Dems
That's why the system which deals with hung parliaments is very democratically sound. A lot has been spoken recently of Queen's Speeches and votes of no confidence under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. But it almost certainly won't get to that. If the polls stay broadly where they are, it will go like this:
Cameron will discover that he does not have votes to pass a Queen's Speech, so he's not going to go to all the effort of writing one just to have it voted down. He will then have to go to the Queen and advise her on who can form the next government. This will be Miliband, as he is the "clear alternative" specified by the Cabinet manual. Cameron will then have to resign and the leader of the opposition will have a chance to show he can form a government.
This will not happen because of a technicality. It will happen because of the expressed will of the British people. If things go as we expect, Miliband will have the better case for legitimacy after May 7th.