Why the Tories are wrong about hung parliaments

Stuart Wilks-Heeg
27 April 2010

The possibility that the election might produce no clear winner has prompted a series of warnings from senior Conservative politicians that if politicians have to negotiate - or ‘haggle' as the Conservative describe it - then the markets will be rather swifter to react.

The result will be an immediate sterling crisis.

We are being warned that we face a re-run of everything which happened last time we had a ‘hung Parliament' (although nobody actually called it that at the time).

Based on a simplistic reading of events after the 1974 General Election, the Conservatives' prophesy is one of political paralysis leading quickly into economic meltdown.

All the horrors of the mid-late 1970s will come back to haunt us: sky-high interest rates, rising unemployment, widespread industrial action, a sinking UK credit rating and the intervention of the International Monetary Fund.

This is a deeply problematic interpretation.

The UK's economic problems in the 1970s had little to do with the balance of power in the House of Commons - they arose from a combination of long-run economic decline presided over by post-war Labour and Conservative governments with large majorities, the oil crisis of 1973 and the onset of recession internationally.

Taking a longer-term and comparative view, there is simply no connection between clear governmental majorities and national economic performance. During the immediate post-war period, the necessity of minority and coalition government did not prevent Germany, Sweden or France overtaking the UK on most key economic indicators.

Even in the period of the British economic ‘miracle' from the late 1990s onwards, the UK failed to out-perform many European countries governed by coalitions, such as Spain, the Netherlands and Ireland.

There is really no evidence at all that poor economic performance is related to minority or coalition government.

There is, however, a rather stronger relationship between single party government and social inequality. Within the EU, the UK saw one of the sharpest rises in inequality from 1997-2005, while other countries with similar electoral systems to the UK, including Australia and the USA, also have greater levels of inequality than the European norm.

Given that we are facing inevitable large-scale cuts in public expenditure and increases in taxation, a balanced Parliament in which the political parties seek to define a consensus approach is arguably crucial.

The challenges we face collectively over the next few years will require policies rooted in as broad a social consensus as can be achieved in a period of crisis. In short, they require a new kind of politics.

If Moody's, the international credit ratings agency can recognise this point, surely we can expect senior Conservative politicians to grasp it also.

Stuart Wilks Heeg is director of Democratic Audit. You can read Democratic Audit's recent report on Hung Parliaments here

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