More on a hung parliament: some intriguing implications

In a recent post I wondered aloud just how Clare Short intended to carry out her threat, or promise, to 'campaign for a hung parliament' at the next election.  A comment contributor on this agreed that it was difficult to imagine campaigning for a hung parliament, but went on to ask whether I was —

assuming that the pact would be between Lib Dem and winner because of the power balance. i.e. a game theory analysis would be that if you are the winner then you make a pact with the weakest partner who can deliver a reasonable majority? If alliances were on policy alone, then Lib Dems would surely be further from the Tories than Labour. That’s not just my opinion – but apparently also of the majority of voters  [citing a Times report of recent polls].

I think we're all agreed about the logical impossibility of 'campaigning for a hung parliament'.  Martin Kettle's stimulating and mostly spot-on article in today's (16.ix.06) Guardian starts, splendidly:

Clare Short's decision to stand down as an MP in order to campaign for a hung parliament lacks nothing in ambition. But one wonders how she intends to carry out a task of such fiendish complexity. Her one-woman crusade to overturn the pattern of the last eight British general elections brings to mind the Python sketch about Ron Obvious, who was set on being the first man to jump across the English Channel.

and finishes:

I started by wondering how Clare Short intends to campaign for a hung parliament. I end by wondering why.

Where I venture to question Kettle's thesis is over his expectation that the LibDems would be unable to do a deal with either Labour or the Tories in a hung parliament because of being split down the middle on which of the two would be their preferred partner, the parliamentary party being on the whole left-leaning and reluctant to contemplate a deal with the Tories, while much of the LibDem party in the country is right of centre and would view with great distaste the idea of a deal with Labour.  I'm inclined to suspect that —

(a) the decision would rest with the LibDems at Westminster who could safely ignore sentiment out in the sticks if either Labour or the Tories were to offer a sufficiently attractive carrot, including a promise of PR, to justify a deal (probably an understanding on policies rather than a formal coalition, although Sir Menzies Campbell would surely love a seat in a coalition Cabinet as Foreign Secretary!);

(b) Cameron is already making such dramatic changes to the personality and outward appearances of the Conservative Party, and both Blair and Brown have so tarnished the image of Labour in LibDem eyes by their policies on Iraq and civil liberties, that it's no longer obvious that by the time of the next election even left-leaning LibDem MPs would instinctively prefer to be in bed with Labour than with the Tories;  and

(c) an enormous amount will depend on which of the two big parties has the most seats in the new parliament, and in what proportions, as Kettle rightly points out.

Procedural issues might well be decisive in determining which of the Labour or Tory leaders would get into No. 10.  There's a general assumption that the Queen, faced with a hung parliament, and after taking informal advice from her own principal private secretary, the secretary to the cabinet and the pre-election prime minister's principal private secretary, would probably first invite the leader of the party with the most seats in the house of commons to try to form a government.  But supposing that Ming Campbell, either shortly before or immediately after the election, had privately (or even publicly) indicated to the three wise men (and hence to the Queen) that regardless of which of the bigger parties won the most seats, he would be very ready to work with (say) the Cameron Tories and sustain them in government, but that he couldn't see enough common ground with (e.g.) Gordon Brown as Labour leader to be able to work with him in a way that would permit government to be effectively conducted?  If Labour then emerged as the biggest party, to which of Cameron and Brown would the Queen give the first chance of trying to form a government?  Without LibDem support, Brown might be unable to form a government with the confidence of a majority in the house of commons:  yet there would be outrage if Labour emerged as the biggest party yet the Queen failed to give him a shot at putting together a grouping of smaller parties capable of giving him a majority.  The same things would apply if the positions were reversed, mutatis mutandis.

Moreover, whatever their preferences, the LibDems might find it very difficult to refuse their support to whichever big party leader, Cameron or (?) Brown, was given the first commission to try to form a government: to do so might appear unpatriotic and obstructive, making the LibDems responsible for a constitutional crisis that might continue for weeks or even months.  If the first leader to be invited to try to form a government was also prepared to concede the crucial promise of PR (whatever he might have said before the election), that might clinch it for the LibDems.

There's yet another intriguing possibility, not considered by Martin Kettle.  Assuming that Brown (or whoever else had succeeded Blair) was prime minister up to and including the election, and if Labour then emerged as the biggest party but without an overall majority, it would be open to him to defer his visit to the Palace to offer his resignation until he had conducted talks with the LibDems and other smaller party leaders to see if he could put together a partnership capable of winning a vote of confidence in the House, whereupon he would be entitled to inform the Palace that he proposed to continue in office.  In principle this could give Labour a significant advantage in the hung parliament stakes.  The incumbent prime minister, who will by definition be Labour, could even try to hang on without resigning  in the effort to  construct a majority even if the Tories had won more seats than Labour: this is after all what Ted Heath tried to do in a highly complex situation in 1974.  To quote the Wikipedia account, — 

Heath called an election for February 28, 1974. The result was inconclusive: the Conservative Party received a plurality of votes cast, but the Labour Party gained a plurality of seats due to the Ulster Unionist MPs refusing to support the Conservatives. Heath began coalition negotiations with leaders of the Liberal Party, but, when these failed, on March 4, 1974 he resigned as Prime Minister and was replaced by Harold Wilson and a minority Labour government. Wilson was eventually confirmed with a wafer-thin majority in a second election in October of the same year.

Those such as Clare Short who are attracted by the idea of a hung parliament can't, surely, have thought through all these possible permutations and their widely differing implications.  Two potentially contentious conclusions may be drawn. 

First, regardless of the numbers of votes cast and seats won by the various parties, including the smallest,  the outcome will be unlikely to bear any relationship to 'the will of the electorate' since it will be determined by mainly subjective advice given to the Queen by unelected, unrepresentative and unaccountable officials, the Queen's equally subjective decisions on how to act, and the result of private bargaining between the various party leaders. Not a single voter, not even Clare Short, will have been able to cast his or her vote for whatever comes out of that horse-trading process, since it will all happen after the votes have been cast and counted. 

Secondly, the enthusiasts for proportional representation ought to ponder the implications of introducing an electoral system that would ensure a hung parliament, and the unpredictable consequences of that, after virtually every election, not just the very rare ones produced by First Past the Post.  The constitutional niceties will give wonderful scope for the pundits — Peter Hennessy, Alan Watkins, Vernon Bogdanor and the rest — but the heart sinks at the thought of being put through it all more than once in every 20 years or so.


3 Responses

  1. james says:

    Stephen Pollard had something to say on this matter. It seems extraordinary, if that's indeed what she's angling for.

    Brian notes:  I take it that this is a reference to Clare's announcement isn't going down too well.

  2. Rob says:

    The 'it leads to post-voting horsetrading' line against PR and hung parliaments strikes me as not particularly convincing, mainly because exactly the same sort of thing goes on within parties in a FPTP system. Every time a cabinet reshuffle happens, certain parts of the coalition which makes up any FPTP political party lose, and others gain. Voters never determine, through voting, who gains or loses in those exercises in the redistribution of political power, so it's not clear to me that FPTP (and, implicitly, single party government) has an advantage over PR (and, implicitly, hung parliaments) here.

    Brian comments:  The kind of bargaining and jockeying for position that goes on between elections is an intrinsic feature of politics and really has nothing to do with the electoral system (except that there'll always be much more of it after a PR election which forces the governing parties into formal or informal coalitions).  By contrast, the bargaining and jockeying for position which the parties are forced to engage in after a PR election and the resulting hung parliament have far greater and graver consequences for the whole country, because their outcome(and not the will of the electorate expressed in election votes) determines which of the two main parties takes office and governs the country for the next four or five years — or possibly just a few months, because these forced coalitions are notoriously unstable and impermanent.

  3. Rob says:

    That reply assumes that the party system is the same under FPTP and PR. Because PR does not reward coalition building within parties to the same extent, because it doesn’t reward larger parties disproportionately, the costs of exiting any given party are much smaller, and so you would expect much less of that kind of coalition building under PR. To put it another way, under FPTP you typically get two at most three large parties whereas under PR you typically get four or five without any change to the electorate’s preferences. There is coalition building which is involved in creating a winning coalition under either system, because creating larger parties involves creating coalitions in the first place: it’s just when it happens.