No Overall Control? - Hansard weighs up a hung parliament

21 March 2008

Guy Aitchison reviews No Overall Control? The impact of a Hung Parliament on British Politics edited by Alex Brazier and Susanna Kalitowski, Hansard Society (with contributions from David Butler, Vernon Bogdanor, Philip Cowley, Helen Margetts, Mark Gill, Rosanne Palmer, Stephen Thornton, Mark Cowley, James Mitchell, David Docherty, Austin Mitchell, Simon Jenkins, Simon Hughes and Philip Norton).

(Hansard Society, March 2008, 116pp)

Politicians and the media have started to think seriously about the prospect of a hung parliament. With polls showing falling support for Labour and as yet no decisive swing to the Tories it's an increasingly likely scenario following the next general election. Last week I went to Westminster for the Hansard Society's launch of No Overall Control? The impact of a ‘hung parliament' on British politics, a collection of fifteen bite-size essays on the political and constitutional impact of a hung parliament, with lessons from the devolved administrations and Canada. The launch was well attended by prominent columnists and politicians with a panel that included Vernon Bogdanor, Phil Cowley, Alex Brazier and Rosanne Palmer.

Bogdanor ran through the history of hung parliaments and the potential constitutional issues they raise. There is much speculation about coalitions in the event of a hung parliament, he said, but on the five occasions in the 20th century when an election failed to produce a single-party win (January 1910, December 1910, 1923, 1929, 1974) the result was not coalition but minority government. In 1974 the Conservatives under Heath were the largest party in terms of votes but Labour had won more seats and needed only 17 more to secure a majority. The Liberals offered coalition with Heath in return for a commitment to PR, but this was a commitment Heath was unable to make and after failed negotiations with Ulster Unionists he eventually resigned to be succeeded by Harold Wilson and a minority Labour government. Between 1977 and 1978 Labour under Callaghan had a working agreement with the Liberals. They did not become part of government and were not committed to supporting all government legislation only to ensuring Labour was not defeated in a vote of no confidence.

According to Bogdanor, that hung parliaments usually produce minority government rather than coalitions is down to the fact that in Britain the central principle of parliamentary government - that a government must enjoy the confidence of the Commons - does not require that the government commands the positive support of a majority in the Commons, only that there is no majority against it. He insists that a hung parliament would be a "political problem, not a constitutional one", since there is no reason why the decision to appoint the PM or to grant the dissolution of parliament cannot be agreed upon following negotiations between the parties. It need not put the Queen as sovereign in the awkward constitutional position of having to lead the talks and secure agreement. In his chapter Alex Brazier of Hansard confirms that Parliament is well-placed to adapt and function in the event of such a contingency and has done in the past

This suggests that there is no valid constitutional objection to PR on the basis that it is unlikely to produce single-party majorities. Hung parliaments are common in most other parliamentary systems but rare in Westminster because FPTP exaggerates a plurality of votes into a majority of seats in the Commons (this produced the perverse situation in 2005 whereby Labour received a majority with only 35% of those who bothered to turn out - 22% of the electorate - voting for them). Will people continue to accept government as legitimate if there is another absurdly disproportionate outcome next time round?

In her chapter Helen Margetts argues that Westminster is in the process of a prolonged transition to PR, with a marked increase in the number of parties in operation fuelled by the use of different electoral systems at other tiers of government. Looking at the positions of the two main parties she concludes there would need to be a hung parliament with the Lib Dems making electoral reform a condition of partnership before any serious progress is made. This scenario is likely given current levels of support for the Lib Dems and Nick Clegg's recent commitment to a British Constitutional Convention and electoral reform. But much would depend on who the coalition partners are. While Brown has shown interest in working with Clegg on constitutional reform, Cameron has been less forthcoming.

Simon Jenkins is less rosy about the prospect of a hung parliament. In his chapter he describes them as a "nightmare" that produces unstable government and makes it almost impossible for the electorate to vote a government out of office. He obviously hasn't been paying attention to recent experiences close to home. As chapters on the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament show, political parties in the UK are ready and willing to adapt to a situation where single-party rule is the exception rather than the norm. Although we shouldn't expect a "new" consensus politics overnight, hung parliaments can certainly contribute to a "cultural" change increasing the incentives for parties to work together.

It is of course impossible to predict with any certainty what will happen in the event of a hung parliament but the editors of this collection have done a good job highlighting the main issues and providing a number of different perspectives. One point comes across clearly: for proponents of electoral reform a hung parliament is the best possible outcome.

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