The benefits of a hung Parliament or two, and our broken democracy

Gerry Hassan
21 February 2010

A Conservative Government has for a long time been seen as the inevitable outcome of the next election. David Cameron was viewed as a Prime Minister in waiting, and the Labour Party, unpopular, led by a disliked leader, and seen as having lost the will to live.

Now all of this is beginning to change. The prospect of a hung Parliament, where no one party has an overall majority is now being seriously considered. The Conservatives have proven less than sure-footed, while Labour has shown itself less dead in the water than previously assumed.

A hung Parliament is now possible for a number of reasons. The most cited is the way the current electoral system works to the Conservatives’ disadvantage and Labour’s advantage. This is because Labour’s constituencies are generally smaller in the number of voters they have and have lower turnouts, resulting in Labour winning more seats with less votes than the Tories.

The Conservatives need a lead of more than 9% of votes over Labour to have an overall majority of one. Any lead between 6-9% would leave the Conservatives as the largest party but without an overall majority. Anything less would result in Labour being the largest party. All of this is of course on the caveat of a ‘national swing’, and does not take into account marginal seats moving more one way or another.

Second, the Conservatives start a long way back in terms of seats and need to win 116 seats for a majority of one, something the Conservatives have never done since 1931. They would also need the largest post-war swing to the Tories they have ever managed, and the largest ever since 1945, with the exception of 1997.

Third, the amount of ‘third party MPs’ increase the chance of a hung Parliament simply because they do not take the Labour or Tory whip. In 1959 there were a mere six Liberals and one independent. In 2005 there were 92 ‘third party’ MPs, including 62 Lib Dems, 9 Scots and Welsh Nationalists, and a host of independents, ranging from Richard Taylor to George Galloway. 

A final consideration is the Northern Irish MPs, who have increased in number from 12 to 18, and who used to provide a fairly stable contribution to the Tory block, but who now sit for other parties. Whatever the result of David Cameron’s alliance with the Ulster Unionists, most Northern Irish MPs will continue to sit in the ‘third party’ ranks.

The general assumption in the media and markets is that hung Parliaments are bad for business, and that sterling and gilt markets will be particularly prone to panic due to uncertainty, and even the FTSE with its global horizons, would be vulnerable.

Yet, if a hung Parliament is bad for business, is it necessarily bad for democracy? Britain’s political system is tottering in crisis, discredited, shorn of respect, lacking in trust, and seemingly incapable of putting its house in order. ‘The rotten Parliament’ has from start to finish been shaped by scandal and financial abuses and corruption, from ‘cash for honours’ to the watershed moment of MP expenses.

Most of the public know something is wrong with our politics and society. 73% of voters think politics is broken in the UK. 70% think society is broken. 82% think that it is time for a change. A poll in this week’s Sun showed that 83% think the expenses issue has been a ‘major scandal’ while 14% took the view it was a ‘minor matter exaggerated by the media’. There is a palpable feeling in the air, as with the early 1960s, 1979 and 1997, that the country is heading in the wrong direction.

How does Britain’s politics embrace reform and transform itself? The two main ‘old’ parties love the traditional, time-honoured manner of doing politics and running things, winning absolute power and being able to maintain a system of increasingly centralist power.

This version of politics has encouraged an unsustainable version of the economy based on bloated financial services, marketisation and debt. Many city observers hope that the election will provide a government with a strong enough mandate to deal with public sector borrowing and the impending cuts, and worry that an inconclusive election may produce a lack of will to make tough choices.

It is possible in this climate that the first election of 2010 will show voters as nervous and unconvinced of all the alternatives on offer, and unwilling to plump in enough numbers for any of the main parties. 

A number of scenarios could emerge from a hung Parliament, from a minority Cameron government, to a Con-Lib Dem or Labour-Lib Dem coalition or arrangement. If the Tories win significant numbers of seats and Labour lose heavily, but the Tories fall short of a majority, a Cameron government is much more likely than a Labour one.

Only once in the post-war 17 elections has there been a hung Parliament, February 1974, but prior to that pre-1945, the 11 elections saw four such Parliaments. The results of the earlier elections were caused by the slow decline of the Liberals and rise of Labour.

The main two party tribes are in fundamental decline and crisis, no longer sure who they represent or give voice to. A turnout of about 50-55% this year in an angry, messy contest could see the support of the two big parties as a percentage of the electorate fall to about one third between them, while both feel they have the right to govern on their own. 

A first inconclusive election will see Conservatives and Labour position themselves to win an overall majority as soon as they can. In this, Westminster is very different from the Scottish Parliament, the former shaped by the allure of majoritarian government, the latter, by multi-party politics and everyone being a minority. The experience of a three-year minority government that we have seen in Scotland still seems inconceivable at Westminster.

What would happen if a second election were called and no party won a majority? Wilson, when he called a second contest in October 1974, just scraped home with a majority of three, whereas Herbert Asquith calling a second one in December 1910, failed again to win a majority. A hung Parliament then existed for the next eight years and throughout the First World War.

Isn’t it just possible that our broken democracy and politics could be aided by a second election producing a hung Parliament, confronting our political classes and atrophied two main parties with their shrunken state and the many crises we are in?

Such a result could offer an opening for radical reform of our politics and democracy, and then provide the stability to engage in the tough choices we need to take as a society and economy, turning our back and changing direction from the Thatcher-Blair ‘Fantasy Island Britain’ of the last few decades.

Maybe, just maybe such an outcome could bring about the change many of us long for, and which the system needs a seismic shock to, the threat of instability, and a degree of hard-headed determination from reformers, to bring about. At the moment, most of the reform camp, whether it be the Lib Dems under the lacklustre leadership of Nick Clegg (he of ‘savage public spending cuts’ fame), or Power2010 with their New Labour-like five pledges for reform, seem to be lightweight in their calls for reform, versus the scale of the economic, social and democratic challenges we face.

And maybe in all this, the people will take matters in to their own hands, and - who knows? - years from now we may look back and reflect on the historic second election of 2010, a century after the Asquith elections of 1910.

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