More Notes on a Well-Hung Parliament

The LibDems are noisily declaring that if Labour wins fewer votes nationally than the Tories (and perhaps also than the LibDems) but emerges as the biggest single party in the House of Commons, Labour — or Gordon Brown (the LibDems are confused about which it is) — will have no right to continue in government.  This is absurd, and misunderstands the constitution which determines how the system works until and unless Parliament changes it.  As a contributor to LabourList has commented:

This is not a popular vote contest. Many votes are tactical, and would deployed differently if the metric was ‘national share’. Suddenly invoking national pluralities in a party constituency vote is like changing 100 metre race into a 100 yard dash a few feet away from the finishing line.”

That is absolutely right.  If our elections are suddenly going to be decided by the national vote totals while we still have First Past the Post in a single-member constituency system, we are in a desperate muddle.  It would put paid to tactical voting — but how many Labour supporters who plan to vote LibDem where the LibDem is the main challenger to the Tory are going to wake up to this in time and vote Labour after all, probably letting the Tory win the seat as a result?  Anyway decisions in parliament are going to continue to be made in accordance with seats held by the parties, not how many votes the parties won at the election.  If Labour wins more seats than any other party, are Labour MPs going to be prevented from voting on legislation and the great issues of the day just because Labour got fewer votes than the Tories?  It’s a nonsense.  Clegg wants us to behave as if we already have PR — because his party benefits from moving the goal-posts at the last moment in his direction.

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One of the most revealing differences between Conservative and Labour policies for dealing with the national debtand the budget deficit is that the Tories‘ plan for rebalancing the national finances relies almost entirely on swingeing cuts in government spending on public services, which — even if you pretend, implausibly, that these can be made simply by “cutting waste” — means massive job losses and higher unemployment, a reduction in the services on which the poorest and most vulnerable most heavily depend, and the risk of killing the recovery from recession in its tracks.  There is no indication that the Tories will temper these blows by raising taxes on the rich, a partial alternative to spending cuts: indeed, they actually promise cuts in some taxes on the rich and on businesses, which will inevitably mean even more savage cuts in public services.  Labour promises a mixture of higher taxes on those well able to afford them and cuts in government spending targeted at lower priority public services, applied so as to protect the services on which the most vulnerable depend.  Where do the LibDems stand on this key issue?  They talk about ‘savage cuts’ in public spending (but don’t specify where they will fall), accompanied not by raising taxes but actually reducing them, promising a huge tax bribe — no income tax liability below a cut-off of £10,000 a year — which will put money in (almost) everybody’s pockets, except those who don’t pay income tax now,i.e. the poorest.  This will have to be paid for by yet more cuts in public services:  a strange position for an allegedly centre-left party to adopt.  No wonder Mr Clegg seems to be moving stealthily and steadily towards a deal with the Tories that would put Cameron into No. 10, even though on present form there may well be fewer Conservative MPs in the next parliament than Labour ones.

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Professor Robert Hazell, head of the University College London Constitution Unit and adviser to the Cabinet Secretary on his new rule-book for hung parliaments, has pointed out in a letter to the Guardian that, contrary to the assumption in a recent Guardian editorial, if there’s a hung parliament there won’t be any question of the Queen having to decide, once the results are in, whom to invite to form a new government:  the existing government, headed by Gordon Brown, remains in office until there’s a cast-iron, documented cross-party consensus that someone else has a better claim to enjoy the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons, or until Gordon Brown’s government is defeated in a vote of confidence in the House of Commons.  (This usefully confirmed the point I had made the day before in my own letter in the Guardian.) Although the Cabinet Secretary, in writing the new rule-book, is supposed to be doing no more than writing down hitherto unwritten conventions and principles of the existing constitution, some of his product is surely new, including the proposition that an incumbent prime minister has not just the right but also the duty to stay in No 10 until he can present a programme to the House of Commons for approval or rejection, even if on most criteria he has just lost an election: and also that it’s for the politicians, not the Queen and her advisers, to negotiate with each other until they reach agreement on who’s going to win the confidence of the House of Commons and thus be invited to form the new government.  It seems a rum sort of way to amend our constitution, but I suppose as long as all the party leaders agree with it….

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Another misconception that keeps popping up concerns the possible demand by the LibDems that as a condition for them ‘supporting’ a minority Labour government, Gordon Brown will have to step down as prime minister and be replaced by, for example, David Miliband.   This prompts indignant protests in some Labour quarters: who do these LibDems think they are,  telling us who our party leader should be?  Others point to the inordinate amount of time that it takes the Labour Party to get rid of one leader and elect a new one, with special party conferences and who knows what else:  how long could the country be expected to wait, they enquire, while all this is going on?  All this overlooks the potentially useful fact that in order to become prime minister, D Miliband (or Alan Johnson or, heaven help us, Ed Balls, or whoever) doesn’t need to become the leader of the Labour Party as well.  Gordon Brown can constitutionally continue as Labour Party leader while handing over No. 10 Downing Street to Miliband/Johnson/Balls. (Churchill was not leader of the Conservative Party when he became prime minister in 1940, and there are other precedents too for splitting the jobs.)  So much for David Cameron’s super wheeze of a rule that when a new prime minister takes over without having won an election as his party’s leader (could he be thinking of Gordon Brown? or John Major?), there must be an election within six months.  An election six months after Churchill became prime minister in 1940 would have been a trifle inconvenient.  According to the Tories, the country is in almost as deep a crisis now as it was in 1940, although to those few of us still around (just) who were alive in 1940 it doesn’t feel quite as alarming.  At least we don’t have to dive into air raid shelters night after night to avoid the bombs being rained down on us by the bond markets or the IMF.

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By what criteria will Nick Clegg decide which of Labour or the Conservatives he can live with in government?   “It’s not for me to second-guess the electorate.”   And if the election result is a hung parliament? “Whichever party has a mandate to govern.”   In terms of votes cast, or seats won? “Both.”   What if one party has more votes, and the other more seats? “Um: seats.  No, votes.  I mean it would be intolerable for a party which came third in terms of votes to form the government.”   So if Labour comes third in votes but first in seats, you won’t work with them? “I couldn’t work with Labour in that situation, no.”  But if Labour is offering a referendum on electoral reform, and the Tories remain strongly opposed? “We will work with whichever party has policies that coincide most closely with ours, especially our four top priorities: one, electoral reform–”   Yes, yes.  So if Labour offers electoral reform and the Conservatives don’t, you’ll work with Labour? “Not if they come third in votes.”   Then who will you work with? “Not with Labour if Labour is led by Gordon Brown.  I couldn’t work with him.”   But you could work with Labour if the prime minister was not Gordon Brown? “I’ll work with anyone, the man on the moon, anyone who has got the right policies.”   So your decision will be by reference to policies, not votes or seats won? “It would be obscene to work with Gordon Brown if he has come third in votes.”    But you just said — “It’s not for me to double-guess the electorate.  The people will decide.”    Thank you very much for being with us.  That was Nick Clegg.


8 Responses

  1. Ah, the wonders of the unwritten British Constitution. You make it up as you go along and he who shouts loudest wins.

  2. AnneJGP says:

    I didn’t hear the interview; I read about it afterwards. I wondered whether Mr Clegg was speculating that, as the leader of the party who came 2nd (or even 1st) in votes, he himself would be the people’s choice of Prime Minister, and would be prepared to work with Labour on that basis.

    As you say, however, this election is based on seats won. If Labour win the most seats, I see no reason why Mr Brown should be expected to stand down, and compelling reason (to me) why he ought not to stand down.

    Brian writes: Thank you, Anne. I have to admit that my version of the Clegg ‘interview’ was a not-too-serious montage of various positions adopted by Mr Clegg over recent days, not a transcript of a single interview. Your speculation that the poor chap may actually be expecting to be prime minister himself is entrancing. Perhaps he also thinks, after all the adulation, that he can fly and walk on water. Let’s hope he won’t try it out.

    I agree entirely with what you say about what should happen if Labour win the most seats, which is also consistent with what the new Cabinet Office rule-book says, of course. But, especially if Labour comes third in votes, a lot of people will go bananas if it happens, under the impression that the widespread (but not necessarily majority) enthusiasm for Proportional Representation has already superseded the constitution and it’s now share of the vote that wins elections.

  3. AnneJGP says:

    With a GE outcome of Labour most seats, will it be possible for the government to set in motion the Comprehensive Spending Review that was postponed? Or can’t that be started until after the Queen’s Speech debate has been won?

    Brian writes: Thanks again. The new Cabinet Office rule-book codifies the existing convention that a minority government still awaiting its vote of confidence on the Queen’s Speech is a kind of caretaker government which is debarred from taking controversial decisions, or adopting new policies which might create difficulties for a different successor government if the caretaker doesn’t make it. This would I think apply to a spending review as to any major policy act. In any case, until the votes on the Queen’s Speech I would expect the party leaders to be preoccupied with the debates on the Speech and on trying to round up enough support to win them.

  4. Stuart Brown says:

    “Many” votes are tactical (your quote from LabourList)? I personally doubt it. I would like to see this evidence of a huge number of people  voting tactically.

    Brian writes: Thank you. I don’t know of any evidence on this either way, and in any case ‘many’ is an imprecise term. (I didn’t use the word ‘huge’ which you seem to be attributing to me.) Whether the number is huge, many, modest or small, there are obviously some, and in closely-fought seats some may be enough to swing it. Anyway, it doesn’t affect the main point: under the system now in force, whether people like it or not, the determining factor in the house of commons is not numbers of votes but numbers of seats won. You may say, as ‘many’ (or some) do, that this is grossly unfair, and that the system should be changed, but unless and until it is changed, seats are what matter. And seats, not share of the vote, are what will determine what the next (or this) government can or can’t get through parliament — budgets, legislation, votes of confidence and the rest. If the LibDems insist on allocating their support to Labour or the Conservatives by reference to numbers of votes cast, without reference to seats won or compatibility of policies, we may end up with a fundamentally untenable parliamentary situation, prolonged uncertainty, government paralysis, a fresh financial crisis and fresh elections that may deliver basically the same result.

  5. amk says:

    “This is not a popular vote contest. Many votes are tactical, and would deployed differently if the metric was ‘national share’. Suddenly invoking national pluralities in a party constituency vote is like changing 100 metre race into a 100 yard dash a few feet away from the finishing line.”

    Do you think tactical voting is a net gain or loss for Labour and the Lib Dems? Given the old warning of “a vote for a Lib Dem could let the Tories back in!”, the perception that only Labour can beat the Tories nationally (a self-fulfilling prophecy) and Tory/Murdoch scare mongering about the calamity that a hung parliament would bring I expect Labour has a net gain and the Lib Dems a net loss. If it were a PR election Labour would be adrift in distant third.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I doubt if it’s possible to calculate whether tactical votes are a net benefit or disbenefit to Labour. But the point surely is that it’s wrong to introduce, barely a month before an election, an entirely new criterion for deciding which party should have the main responsibility for forming a government, or trying to do so. Our entire parliamentary system as it exists at present is based on the number of seats won, with the house of commons acting as an electoral college and each MP having one vote, regardless of how many votes each MP won when he or she was elected. (The same thing applies of course to US presidential elections.) It’s perverse for the LibDems to impose on us, using their possible clout from holding the balance of power in the new parliament, the main feature of a PR system when we haven’t yet adopted PR and it’s by no means certain that we ever will.

    You say that “If it were a PR election Labour would be adrift in distant third”, but (a) it isn’t, (b) you make the assumption — which may or may not be correct — that the distribution of votes on 6 May will correspond to one or other of the current opinion polls (which?) and that’s not necessarily a safe assumption to make, and (c) until we change our electoral system, following a referendum and a government decision to hold one, the criterion is which party leader or other MP can form a government that commands the confidence of a majority of MPs. Share of votes doesn’t come into it any more than it did in 1951 or twice in 1974. My guess is that we’ll have either a majority Conservative government or a minority Conservative government, God help us. And in either case, a change in the electoral system any time soon is extremely improbable. A LibDem threat to vote a Cameron government out of office unless it agreed to a referendum on electoral ‘reform’ would be a bluff, and my guess is that Cameron would call it.

  6. AnneJGP says:

    Brian, thank you for your response on the Comprehensive Spending Review. The evidence to the Select Committee stated, I think, that larger issues could be dealt with given all-party support. I don’t think there is any doubt that all parties want to see a CSR as soon as possible. It seems to boil down, then, to a question of whether the initiation of a CSR sets a framework which is politically orientated, making all-party support unlikely. On this, I am ignorant.

    Brian writes: Sorry: so am I. But it’s academic now.

  7. ANS says:

    I feel I have to take issue with some of your assumptions and approach about the negotiation.
    I agree that the FPTP vote system will absolutely be the starting point for any negotiations – and MUST finally deliver the correct total of seats to hold a majority.
    BUT I do not agree that the total vote count will not play – because that is the single largest weight Nick Clegg has, it is also his confirmed policy to make it count more in the future.
    Despite many things that have been said, one of the reasons the electorate is angry with politicians has to do with representation, the last Labour government fundamentally only represented the will of a minority of voters, and the electorate is expressing a clear desire for greater say in how government behaves, and more control over misbehaviour. The desire for a hung parlaiment is simply a desire to reduce the freedom of politicians to make decisions without recourse to the people.
    There has been comment that the next government may become the most hated  because of the hard decisions it will need to make, and all leaders will bear this in mind by ensuring they have brought in a large mandate as part of any coalition, so that there is a weaker opposition to credibility to colour them evil.
    All of the parties will be picking up a poisoned chalice after this election, so I believe there will be a surprising willingness to share and dilute it’s contents in the short term, but of course to grab the credit alone as soon as any stability or positive outcomes emerge, as it must to some degree.
    So Clegg will bring a far greater percentage of popular votes to any negotiation than he brings seats, and both Labour and Conservative will know this. Clegg may only win concessions in proportion to his number of seats in terms of cabinet posts etc, but on policy he will wield much more influence, and the next government will need this popular support to carry through to any later election, even one in the short term.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. You say that “the last [sic] Labour government fundamentally only represented the will of a minority of voters” (I take it you mean the current government), but that is true of every single government since 1935 and reflects the unalterable fact that no political party since then has been supported by as much as half the electorate. The present situation, in which according to the opinion polls our three biggest parties each has the support of around a third of the electorate, makes this truer than ever, and explains why even under First Past the Post it’s likely to be impossible for any one party to form a government on its own, or anyway to govern on its own without the support or acquiescence of one or more other parties. Supporters of Proportional Representation think this is a good thing; I’m not nearly so sure, especially at a time when extremely difficult and unpopular decisions are going to be needed. However, I of course don’t dispute your main point, namely that if the LibDems get anything like the proportion of the national vote suggested by the polls, that will give them much more political clout in and out of parliament than they have had for many years, even though it’s very unlikely to be mirrored in the number of seats they will win in the house of commons.

    I also take your point that a government forced to make controversial and unpopular decisions in the context of the recession and the national debt will want a mandate from as wide a cross-section of the electorate as possible. On the other hand, though, we shall also need a strong and confident opposition, with broad popular support, that will be willing to challenge the received wisdom according to which the brunt of the cost of recovery from recession and paying down of the debt should be borne by the poorest and most vuilnerable people in society through the slashing of the public services on which they depend, rather than by sharply increased progressive taxation on the mega-rich individuals, banks and other corporations who can best afford it, and many of whom bear the main responsibility for the near-collapse of our economy. A large proportion of the cost of the recovery should also come from renewed growth in the economy, fuelled as long as necessary by more, not less, carefully targeted government expenditure.

    At the time of writing (5.30pm on election day) it looks as if Cameron will win enough seats in parliament to give him an overall majority when you add to them the seats that will go to the Ulster Unionists and the DUP, and subtract the ones that Sinn Fein will win but (stupidly) won’t occupy. If so, Gordon Brown will resign tomorrow and Cameron will be prime minister by bed-time. It’s a truly alarming prospect. I predict that this Tory government, if it materialises, will be at least as reactionary as Thatcher’s and quite possibly more so. They’ll systematically dismantle the welfare state and govern in the interests of the plutocracy which finances the Conservative Party and which controls its policies. The new clout of the LibDems won’t make much difference, either. Still, if the Tories don’t quite get over that magic line, and if the Labour Party comes a respectable second in votes and if Labour commands an overall majority in the house of commons in combination with the LibDems….

  8. Phil says:

    I voted Lib dems but will never vote for them again if they join the toffy nosed conservatives. I think Labour may benefit very long out of this in the long run. Labour should just let them get on with it and let them self destruct. I predict this could be the end of the Lib dems.

    Brian writes: Thanks, Phil, for this refreshingly robust response. Actually I’m afraid Labour has no choice but to let the Tories and the LibDems get on with it, whether they eventually self-destruct or not. And I’m not too sure that they will. This could be a very tough and determined government under Cameron, dismantling the welfare state, the NHS and state schools, piling regressive taxes on the poor while cutting taxes on the rich, and blaming it all on “Labour’s structural deficit” and “Labour’s mountain of debt”. The markets will love it. The LibDem junior partners will kick and scream very quietly but they won’t be able to do a damn thing about it: they won’t dare to bring down the government in the middle of a huge international economic and financial crisis, precipitating an election in which they would very likely be wiped out. Meanwhile Labour will while away the time arguing ferociously about who should succeed Gordon Brown.