Sunday, 28 February 2010

What would a Hung Parliament look like?

The opinion polls have been narrowing lately (IPSOS-MORI's latest poll shows the Tories only five points ahead of Labour). So as such much talk surrounds the possibility of a hung parliament, a parliament where no one party holds a majority, so an important question worth redressing (and one I am constantly asked when I suggest that a hung parliament is likely) is "What would happen under a hung parliament?" For a fuller discussion of this issue I suggest Charter 2010, a blog which is dedicated to "Planning for a Hung Parliament", but for a briefer analysis, look no further.

What happens in a hung parliament largely depends upon a variety of factors. Public opinion, the electoral composition of the parliament, and the strategies of the various parties are all important factors. So what are the major possibilities?

The 'February 1974' option. In February 1974 Britain went to the polls. The electorate voted on the most fractious lines it had since World War II. The SNP secured its best ever result, the Liberals almost doubled their seats and the Tories and Labour were separated by only 0.5% of the population vote. This is the only hung parliament to have resulted from a post-World War II election. Unfortunately the fractious nature of the parliament meant that a government couldn't be formed and after months of instability a new election was held in October (only the second time in the 20th century that two elections were held in the same year). This is a possibility with possible electoral breakthroughs for the Greens, UKIPs and independents in the wake of the expenses scandal. However, my view is that this group is unlikely to achieve enough seats to be decisive. What's more the Liberals of 1974 had only 13 seats. The Liberal Democrats of 2010 will probably have at least 4 times that, giving them much more potential capability to negotiate.

The Lib Dems as Kingmaker option. Most assumptions about a hung parliament tend to see the Lib Dems as 'Kingmakers' capable of deciding between the Labour and the Tories. This is somewhat unlikely as between the eighteen seats reserved for Northern Ireland, the seats for the SNP and Plaid Cymru, and the other seats held by independents and third parties it is unlikely that the Lib Dems will be in quite this role. That said this is a possibility. In this situation the Lib Dems would have a gigantic degree of negotiating power, far beyond their size. The Lib Dems may decide a preference for a coalition or a minority government. In the former the Lib Dems would hold ministries in the cabinet (for example Nick Clegg as Deputy PM and Vince Cable as Chancellor or Treasury Minister?) and would form joint policy with the governing party, in the latter the Lib Dems would support a single party government in budget and confidence bills to prevent the government from falling but would otherwise pursue a unique position, but legislation would probably be negotiated on a bill by bill basis. In exchange for either of these options the Lib Dems would probably demand electoral reform, as well as other party priorities such as higher education funding and tax reform. More likely however is that the Lib Dems will be able to guarantee a majority to only one party, which will weaken their negotiating power. There are also questions around the politics of supporting each party. The Conservatives are less likely to give into Lib Dem demands, but if the Lib Dems support a Labour government, an unpopular, discredited government the argument could be made by the Tories that a 'vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for Labour', and as, to a large extent, a protest party, joining the establishment could rock the Liberal Democrat's support. Therefore the Liberal Democrats have a difficult tight rope to walk in a hung parliament.

The other parties option. If a party gets close to, but does not get a majority it may be able to get backing from another party besides the Lib Dems. A smaller party would have a weaker negotiating capability than the Lib Dems, advantaging the larger one. The Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland would qualify well, as would the nationalists in Scotland and Wales. Both would probably demand extra spending for their region, or possibly extra powers, which would be easier pills for either the Labour or the Tories to swallow than demands for electoral reform for example.

The Canadian Approach. Canada has a very similar political system to our own, with a House of Commons elected by First Past The Post, an appointed Senate, and so on and so forth. Since the 2004 election Canadian political parties have repeatedly demonstrated themselves incapable of winning majorities, for reasons that do not need going into here. Since 2006 the Conservative Party of Canada has been the largest party in the Canadian House of Commons, and they have governed Canada as a minority government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Harper's strategy has been to govern Canada as if he had a majority. What this means is that Harper uses the powers attributed to the cabinet as much as possible to his advantage, Harper likes to attach confidence motions to bills so that if they fail the government falls (forcing opposition parties to choose between passing Conservative legislation or a fresh election). This is an option particularly for the Conservatives if they are close to a majority, but it depends as well on opinion polls. A fresh election will seem far less threatening to the other political parties if it appears they will gain seats.

All in all I think it is worth remembering several things. Firstly that the situation in a hung parliament is potentially unpredictable and flexible, this is not necessarily a bad thing (indeed the argument can be made that the need for parties to negotiate will provide heightened accountability for government). Secondly, as votes for the Conservatives and Labour decline more fragmented parliaments are inevitable, and the likelihood of hung parliaments increases. Polls show that a majority of Brits would prefer a single party majority government, but with the two main parties continually losing seats and votes they may find that hung parliaments increasingly become the norm.


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