The case for a hung parliament

3:00 pm - March 25th 2010

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Guest post by Max Rashbrooke

If an enemy of your enemies is automatically your friend, then a hung parliament is undeniably a friend of Britain and of the left. Ken Clarke has become the latest conservative big beast to come out against a hung parliament, warning the Evening Standard that it would be “catastrophic”.

Many commentators have already refuted that claim, pointing out (as Larry Elliott did in the Guardian) that coalition governments have no problems tackling massive budget deficits, and that sharing power has hardly been a disaster in Scotland, Germany and numerous other countries. But no one has yet had the courage to set out why a hung parliament would actually be good for Britain.

This is best explained by looking to my homeland, New Zealand, which for the last decade has under a system of proportional representation elected a succession of coalition governments. There were many reasons for their switching to a system that was bound to deliver hung parliaments, but chief among them was a widespread anger with politicians following a series of broken promises to – and outright betrayal of – the electorate by both major parties.

There are clear parallels here with present-day Britain, where voters have been shocked by the expenses scandal and (in the case of core Labour supporters) dismayed by the government’s centrist turn.

A desire for a more representative parliament was another vital factor in New Zealand in the 1990s. Minor parties had achieved stunning results for little reward: one, Social Credit, won 21% of the votes but only 2% of the seats. Again, clear echoes: here the Liberal Democrats can poll 17% of the vote and get just 7% of the seats.

On both points, hung parliaments have been kind to New Zealand. The major parties, no longer secure in absolute power, are kept more honest. Not only are the main party leaders forced to consult their smaller partners: once they talk to the minor parties, they cannot escape having to consult just as much with their own MPs. This helps reduce the influence of the small coterie of advisers that inevitably surrounds any leader.

On the second point, a hung parliament returns a government that is far more representative of what New Zealand actually looks like, how it really thinks and votes.

A hung parliament could have the same healing power here in the UK. A coalition government would be forced to give greater weight to the views of backbench MPs, and could draw on a broader base of support. More voters would feel that their ballot had mattered.

Policy-making, too, could continue unimpeded. New Zealand’s coalition governments have all taken tough decisions and lasted the distance, with little more disruption than, say, an internally divided Labour Party.

Nor have their hung parliaments given minor parties more influence than they merit. After all, if the Liberal Democrats get (as current polling indicates) nearly 20% of the vote, and were in coalition with a Labour Party on roughly 30%, they would morally be entitled to two-fifths of power. In practice, they would have far less than that. A British hung parliament would therefore still give the minor party less power than it deserves, not more.

New Zealand’s experience also helps refute the argument, repeatedly trotted out against hung parliaments, that they are somehow fundamentally un-British. Spectator editor Fraser Nelson recently claimed that coalitions “do not work in the British political system”.

Yet New Zealand is, despite a great many changes in the last 20 years, still the closest thing to England outside of England. Its politics is based directly on the Westminster model; its politicians are no more naturally consensual, its Parliamentary debates no more politely carried out (sad to say), than those in Britain.

And yet we’ve made coalitions work. They are not universally popular, but the point is that if New Zealand can make them a success, Britain can. Of course, a hung parliament might, just might, end in disaster, but the international evidence shows that that’s not inevitable.

It comes down to the politicians, in the end: are they mature enough to understand that working together is, in fact, what the public wants of them? If they can realise that, and if a hung parliament is returned on May 6, the prize is a politics that, in some way at least, will be cleaner, fairer and healthier.

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Reader comments

Er, 20% + 30% = two fifths??

“Er, 20% + 30% = two fifths??”

No, Lib/Lab coalition has 50% support, of which the Libs have 20%, so 20/50 = two fifths of the power within the coalition.

3. Stuart White

This is an illuminating post.

However it is not quite right to say that ‘…no one has yet had the courage to set out why a hung parliament would actually be good for Britain.’

Didn’t Anthony Barnett do so in a front page article in this week’s New Statesman and at OurKingdom?

I don’t mind who first pointed it out or not, the more articles like this around the better. A hung parliament has been my wish for almost 2 years now, I’m crossing my fingers that we get it and the opportunity for some real reform presents itself through the dissolving of the power and presumption of the two party state.

The Spectator recently had an article pointing out that the UK has had four hung parliaments in the last century, and in three cases there was another election within the year. The parties all know this too. So if we have a hung parliament the Parties will stay in pre-election mode until someone is secure in office.

An interesting article. I tend to agree that a coalition would result in more of the electorate feeling that their views were being represented, with appropriate policies being pursued by the government.I hope that more people would then be encouraged to vote.

ad.History is only relevant if it is relevant.

The Hung parliaments you talk of, I assume, are 1910, 1923, 1929, 1974.

1910 is actually two hung parliaments, one after the other. With there only being 2 seats in it (and the second place party having more vote share) the decision was to try again. In the end it turned up an even more hung parliament. That government lasted, due to the war, for 8 years.

1923 was a year where three parties divided along one line, Labour and Liberals versus the Tories, as far as I’m aware. My understanding is the government only failed because of controversy and anti-communist feeling. So unlike 1910 where it was about the result between two parties being too close to call, this one was about external influence breaking down the government.

Skip ahead to 1974 and we’re back to the 1910 situation of things being too close to call. Even with Liberal support, either party would have been in a minority versus the other major party and “others”. It’s simply too small a margin to be workable in that situation.

And then finally 1929 which lasted for 2 and a half years. This is the most similar to the possibility we have right now (uncannily so). A strong two parties in terms of seat numbers and a third party controlling around about 60 seats. Why did it all end? Mainly because of the great depression which saw the government position become untenable. Given that we must hope that our own mini depression is now behind us in terms of the main fall this element should not be a factor in the future.

So if we’re going to take history then right now a hung parliament looks pretty strong as it is, with two parties on similar numbers, but with a block of at least 40, but hopefully nearer to 60 Lib Dem’s to completely shore up a workable majorirty. Without any major scandal or a second and unrelated major economic downturn in 5 years, I’d say history…what little there is of it…shows that it could work just fine.

We don’t know exactly what sort of hung parliament there will be, and we cannot know what effect it will have on the Labour Party. There is some possibility that the Labour Party will ask itself what happened to those people who used to vote for it, and realise that they’ve gone away because of the Labour Party’s disdain for international law and basic civil rights. There is also the possibility that the Labour Party will respond by becoming even more illiberal (to try to win back the Sun) and by being aggressive to those who won’t vote for an illiberal Labour Party (accusing them of crimes like letting down Peter Hain’s constituents).

We cannot know how it will pan out, but the chances are that the election result will be close and there is an opportunity there for the liberal-left. They have to make it very clear to the Labour Party what is wrong with it and that they aren’t going to be brow-beaten into putting on a Pollyanna nose-peg. Expect a lot of spluttering and aggression from politicians who think that the liberal-left owe them a vote, but it’s only by threatening to not vote for him/her that you get a politicians attention.

Hung parliament is the new black?

Sounds good for me although pyrrhic victories all around for the two main parties.

Interesting post. I gather that the hung parliaments occurred after proportional representation was brought in, rather than when NZ had a first past the post system.

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