The virtues and inevitability of a hung Parliament

By Jonathan Bartley
April 7, 2010

It was good to see a few people making the case for a hung Parliament yesterday. Amongst them on BBC news 24 were the Green Party's deputy chair and candidate in Norwich South, Adrian Ramsay, and the Labour Minister Ben Bradshaw, who was a little more restrained for obvious reasons. It makes a change from many who bury their heads in the sand, and hope it will all go away.

The big argument/ evidence against a hung Parliament so far, has not been fear of instability per se. It has been fear in the currency markets (not the stock market) that there would be insufficient fiscal prudence. As John Rentoul has pointed out, the concern is that Nick Clegg and Vince Cable say cutting too deep and too early will put the recovery at risk. This is essentially an issue of party policy.

A fact-check on the claims being made about a hung Parliament has been produced which suggests that the fear in the markets has also been overplayed. Firstly, it is far from clear that falls in Sterling can be ascribed to expectations of a hung Parliament. It also suggests that any fears may already be ‘priced in’ and so, as they say, the only way is up.

But there is a sense in which the more the polls point toward a hung Parliament, and people get used to the idea that it might happen, the more it is likely to take place. There is an element of the self-fulfilling prophesy. It is not so much that people will deliberately go out and vote for it. It is rather that people realise their votes for Lib Dems and ‘others’ (a combined total of over 30 per cent in the latest polling) might have an effect after all. One of the big arguments against such parties is of course "well you will never be in Government so why bother?".

As voters think about the idea, and it settles, they will also begin to hear the benefits, as well as the downsides which have only been highlighted thus far.

Liberal Conspiracy has pointed out a number of benefits, particularly looking at examples around the world (and in the UK) of coalition Government:

- Coalition governments generally have no problems tackling massive budget deficits

- Sharing power has hardly been a disaster in Scotland, Germany and numerous other countries, and often been a success

- It can deliver a more representative Government

- It can produce greater accountability which large majorities do not deliver

- It can be fairer. Lib Dems for example with 20 per cent of the vote, in coalition with Labour on 30 per cent (total 50 per cent) would carry more authority than a Tory Government on 40 per cent. It would also be right for the Lib Dems to have a say in a significant proportion of the decisions.

It is true that an adversarial two-party system hasn’t been habituated towards coalitions and alliances. But the Parliamentary wash-up, far from ideal and with many faults, shows that parties can work together when they need to. There are already cross-party groups and committees all over the place, and cross-party work that goes on behind the scenes continually.

All this needs to be made more accountable and open, but shows that it can be done here, as well as abroad.

A hung Parliament could in fact challenge the system to change, for good, in many ways. It might lead to significant constitutional reform which we desperately need (if the Lib Dems can get their way). It would give a greater voice to smaller parties, and even perhaps the occasional independent. It would also help us prepare far more effectively for what is to come.

1974 seems far enough away now, and of course, that was just one example of a hung Parliament. All scenarios have their bad points. The nightmare scenario might in fact be a narrow Tory majority which could allow a small number of far-right politicians so far kept out of the spotlight, to call the shots in a Cameron administration.

But the greatest argument is inevitability. We need to adapt and change, because this is what is going to happen with greater frequency in the future if current trends continue. The question is how we are going to adapt and change to deal with it.

The old two party system is fading. With the emergence of a strong third party with a significant vote and numbers of seats, we need to get used to more scenarios like this. In 1974, the Liberals only had 14 seats. The total number of MPs from other parties was 37. But in the last Parliament,the Lib Dems had 63 seats with a total of 104 MPs who weren’t Labour or Tory.

The party landscape is fragmenting and the system needs to adapt and change to deal with it. It's a question of not "if" but "when". The prospect of hung Parliaments will be hanging around for years to come.

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