Ian Swanson: Allies will be crucial in election

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THIS election is going right down to the wire. Everything points to a hung parliament, but despite weeks of relentless campaigning there is no clear idea of who will end up in power. Even the bookies make it a dead heat.

Most projections put the Tories ahead in terms of seats, but without enough potential allies to make up a majority, while Labour might be able to get enough support from the smaller parties to form a government and win crucial Commons votes.

The campaign has been dominated by speculation and denials about who would do a deal with whom.

And already an argument has started about what kind of government would be considered “legitimate” once the results are known.

Some say the public would not accept Labour had the right to govern if it had fewer seats than the Tories. It’s true that some Labour politicians spent a lot of time early in the campaign insisting that the biggest party always formed the government – but that was to try and stop people voting SNP for fear of letting the Tories in. And it was not quite true anyway.

From a constitutional – and practical – point of view, the crucial point is not who has the most seats but who can command a majority in the Commons.

It is not unreasonable that the party with the most MPs should have first go at putting together a government. But if the Tories were the biggest party and yet failed to 
persuade enough of the other parties to back their programme, and Labour then succeeded in winning majority support for its plans, it is difficult to see how that can be interpreted as illegitimate.

As Nicola Sturgeon has said, if there are more anti-Tory MPs than Tory MPs, the chance is there to keep David Cameron out of office. And while Ed Miliband says there will be no Labour government if the price is a deal with the SNP, he has also said he would never put the Tories into office.

The election has not gone according to the Conservative script. The Tories were banking on Ed Miliband’s image problems sinking his party’s hopes but the Labour leader is seen as having fought a better campaign than expected.

Yet Labour has still failed to open up a clear lead over the Tories. Protesters brand them “Red Tories” and voters claim there’s little to choose between them and the Conservatives.

But the truth is Mr Miliband is now reaping the whirlwind for Tony Blair’s time in charge of the party.

He is doing his best to return Labour to its traditional values without turning back the clock. At every opportunity he talks about tackling inequality and making sure the country is run in the interests of ordinary people and not rich elites.

The IFS analysis of the party manifestos concluded the contrast between Labour and the Tories was the greatest it has been at any election since 1992 – and also that Labour and the SNP were much closer on the economy than either cared to admit.

The party machines will continue their spinning on election night and the following day as they fight for control of the argument about what must happen next.

After all the talk of coalitions, deals and conversations, there will finally be some hard realities to cope with – numbers of seats won and lost and a clearer picture of the options.

If the election campaign has seemed long and drawn out, the aftermath has the potential to be even more protracted.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com