As territorial parties make clear that their involvement in post-election arrangements will come with a hefty price tag, Charlie Jeffery considers this new form of 'pork barrel politics' in the UK.
The ‘pork barrel’ has long been a defining feature of American politics. The US political scientist Tom Lancaster gives us a good definition: ‘Pork barrel politics is the process that allows a legislator to attain central government projects for his geographic constituency by directly influencing appropriations … A characteristic of a pork barrel project is that the benefits are geographically targeted whereas the costs are dispersed through general taxation.’
In plainer English, and translated to the UK, pork barrel politics is about MPs winning funding for projects in their constituency while getting taxpayers across the country to pay for it. We too have seen plenty of examples where a bypass or some other infrastructure project is built when there might have been more efficient uses of public funding. These projects often happen in marginal constituencies and become part of the argument for the re-election of the MP whose wisdom, skill and perseverance led to the project getting funded.
We are now observing a fascinating variant of pork barrel politics in the positioning of parties competing for seats outside England in the 2015 UK general election. It is now pretty clear that neither Labour nor the Conservatives is likely to win an absolute majority of seats. But it also looks possible that there may be no feasible two-party grouping that will produce a majority vote in the House of Commons to establish a government. So Labour or the Conservatives may need to corral three or more parties to get that majority.
Currently the range of options is fairly complex but the latest Electionsetc forecast from 24 April is set out below.
As well as predicting seat totals, Electionsetc calculates the probabilities that different party groupings will need to align to create a majority. A close look at the chart gives the SNP – which Electionsetc forecasts will win 53 out of 59 Scottish seats – a 31% chance of being needed by Labour to win a majority vote to establish a government (the SNP has said, of course, that it will not support the formation of a Conservative government).
Perhaps surprisingly Northern Ireland’s DUP, which nobody forecasts to win more than nine seats, is even more likely to be in the frame, with a 39% chance of helping to form the next UK Government – and that’s because it is keeping open its options to help establish either a Conservative or a Labour government. And there is also scope for the small handful of seats likely to be won by Plaid Cymru in Wales (a 17% chance of being in the frame, disguised under the heading of ‘other left’ and ‘others’ in the Electionetc chart) to be part of the equation in establishing a Labour-led government.
This is where the pork comes in. If the votes of these parties in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales are needed to establish a government, they will need to be bought. Much has been made recently of the SNP’s support for full fiscal autonomy in Scotland, now renamed ‘full financial responsibility’ (FFR) in the SNP manifesto. Many assume this would mean the end of transfers to Scotland from the UK Treasury and with that lead to major problems for Scotland’s budget balance, at least in the short term.
But Nicola Sturgeon has now called both for FFR to be phased in rather than introduced in one big bang, and for UK public spending to be £140 billion higher over the life of the next Parliament. She is not calling for £140 billion extra UK spending without an expectation that it will benefit Scotland as well. For example, of the extra £24 billion the SNP manifesto anticipates being spent on health in the next UK parliament, the SNP envisages £2 billion flowing as a consequence to Scotland. Using the same proportions, £140 billion would deliver around £12 billion to the Scottish Parliament over the next UK Parliament. So there we have it: the cost of the SNP’s support for Ed Miliband is a cool £12 billion.
The DUP’s hands are in the barrel too. A few weeks ago the DUP leader Peter Robinson denied that his party would be so ‘vulgar’ as to seek £1 billion for Northern Ireland as the price for supporting a government, as one of his colleagues was heard to say. But Robinson did say: ‘After an election we will sit down with any potential government of the United Kingdom and we will see to what extent they can help us deliver our plan for Northern Ireland and how we can help push forward their plans for the United Kingdom as a whole.’ Put in a less vulgar way, perhaps, but that still sounds like a billion to me.
And then there is the Welsh pork. For some time now there has been a call for ‘fair funding’ in Wales, reflecting the belief that Wales gets less funding than it should (and Scotland more). So it is no surprise that Plaid Cymru has called for the same deal as Scotland currently has. The cost: £1.2 billion.
Ed Miliband and David Cameron should note: getting together the support from other parties to get that precious majority vote to establish either as PM may well have a hefty price tag attached