Perils of a hung parliament — and of PR

With the opinion polls momentarily suggesting a narrow gap between the Conservatives and Labour, the chattering classes’ newspapers and current affairs programmes on television are full of pundits agonising about the dangerous implications of a hung parliament after the impending general election — i.e. a result in which no single party has an overall majority in the house of commons.

The main anxiety arises from the uncertainties implicit in a hung parliament and a minority government dependent on other parties for its survival.  There could be no certainty that such a government could survive for more than a few months or even weeks, although it might — Alex Salmond’s minority Scottish National Party government in Edinburgh, elected by PR (proportional representation), has proved remarkably durable;  but there are few party leaders on the political scene at the moment who can match Salmond in agility.  Many commentators fear the effects of uncertainties like these on the markets, and especially on the willingness of investors to continue to lend money to the government (essentially by buying government bonds).  It’s even suggested that the uncertainty implicit in a hung parliament could cause a collapse in the value of sterling against other currencies, with no-one able to predict with any confidence what kind of government would be in power in Britain in a year’s time, or less, or what kind of fiscal and economic policies to deal with the national debt would be in place in a few months’ time, or whether those policies would be continued over even the medium term.  The devaluation of sterling (by the markets, not by any specific action of government) since the banking crisis and the recession has of course been good for Britain, making us more competitive and restoring sterling to a more realistic exchange rate — at the expense, be it said, of our trading partners.  Beggar-your-neighbour is a game that more than one can play.  But a real collapse of sterling’s value could be catastrophic.   Markets don’t like uncertainty, and uncertainty is the inevitable companion of a hung parliament, at any rate in our system (not necessarily in other countries’ systems, however, for various historical and other reasons, especially in places where power-sharing is a political requirement).

There’s also much speculation about the procedural and political intricacies of a hung parliament.  Could Gordon Brown hang on as prime minister even if the Conservatives had won more seats than Labour, relying on smaller  left-of-centre minority parties to support him in a vote of confidence?  (In principle, yes: there’d be no need for a formal coalition and unless Brown were to go to the Palace and resign, no need or even opportunity for any decision by the Queen to appoint a new prime minister.)

One recent commentator speculated that in such a situation, Brown would have to resign and would advise the Queen to invite David Cameron, as leader of the biggest party in parliament, to try to form the new government.  (Wrong:  this is one situation in which an outgoing prime minister is not required to tender advice on who should succeed him, and even if he or she does offer such advice, the Queen is not obliged to act on it.  It’s entirely up to her to decide whom to invite to try to form a government, although in real life she would almost certainly call on the leader of the biggest party in parliament to have the first go.)

What if the Liberal Democrats, likely to have the next largest representation in the house of commons after the Conservatives and Labour, were to announce — as strongly hinted by their leader, Nick Clegg — that as the Tories had won more votes nationally (or more seats in the house of commons, or both) than any other party, the LibDems would give conditional support to a Tory government under Cameron but not to a continuing minority Labour government under Brown?  Would that force Brown to resign and the Queen to call on Cameron to succeed him?  (Probably not;  Brown might hope to survive in No. 10 Downing Street with the support of other small parties and dare the Lib Dems to bring him down in favour of the Tories.)

What if the LibDems offered to support a minority Labour government on condition that Brown stepped down and was replaced by a new Labour leader and therefore as the new prime minister?  (Very risky.  Brown would have no way of ensuring that once he resigned, the Queen would automatically invite the new Labour leader to form a government, however strongly Brown might have advised her to do so.  Depending on the relative strengths of the parties in parliament, the Queen might well accept Brown’s resignation but then invite Cameron to form a government.)

More uncertainties, then.  Grist for the mills of the political and constitutional pundits, but not for many of the rest of us.  The general view is that such uncertainties and their consequences for sterling, the government’s ability to borrow, and the whole political system, would not be tolerable for more than a few months, and that sooner rather than later the leader of the minority government (whether Brown, Cameron, or, say, David Miliband) would be virtually forced to resign — even if still not defeated in a vote of confidence — and ask the Queen to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election, in the hope that this time the result would give one party or the other an overall majority, thus ending the uncertainties.   (It’s worth remembering however that this is another situation where the Queen is under no constitutional obligation to grant a prime minister’s request for a dissolution and fresh elections:  she would be perfectly entitled to invite someone else to try to form a government capable of winning the support of a majority of MPs if she judged that another election so soon after the last would not be in the national interest.  Unlikely, of course: but not inconceivable.  Another potential uncertainty.)

There’s one important but rather neglected lesson to be learned from all these anxieties and uncertainties arising from the prospect of a hung parliament.  If, as the Liberal Democrats have long demanded (for pretty obvious reasons) and as increasing numbers of other left-of-centre activists and commentators are apparently beginning to agree, Britain were to adopt a system of proportional representation for elections to the house of commons, a certain and necessary consequence would be that there would be a hung parliament after every single election, and not just very occasionally as is the case under our present system of First Past the Post.   We would have to endure these dangers and unavoidable adverse consequences after every election — and there would be no available escape route, as we have now, via the holding of a fresh election in the hope of getting a party with an overall majority out of it, for PR would make such a result impossible.  No UK political party since the 1930s has ever won as much as 50 per cent of the votes cast, so in a proportional system no party could win an overall majority in the house of commons.

It’s a point that the zealous advocates of PR ought perhaps to ponder.  There are plenty of other objections to PR — I have tried to set out some of the more cogent ones in the past, for example here, here and (especially) here (including in my responses to many comments on them).  But the uncertainties surrounding minority government in a hung parliament constitute a significant objection to PR that the current state of the opinion polls should force us to confront honestly and frankly.  Another ritual recitation of the unfairness of First Past the Post is not an acceptable or adequate response: no electoral system is without its drawbacks and injustices, and those advocating PR have an obligation to show that an endless succession of hung parliaments has fewer bad consequences for sound and predictable government than continuing to live with FPTP, warts and all.   Myself, I think they’ll have their work cut out.

Having said all this, I continue to believe that the Tories will win the forthcoming election with a reasonably workable overall majority, and that all the current fever and panic over a hung parliament will turn out to have been strictly for the media birds — at least until and unless we adopt PR.  But that’s just my very tentative forecast for this week.  I may well change my mind twenty times or more between now and the election, so please don’t hold me to it.  Anyway, predicting the future is a mug’s game, especially when you can’t begin to know how long an unpopular, even if not a minority, government and its policies are going to be able to survive.


7 Responses

  1. And Always Keep Ahold of Nurse, For Fear of Finding Something Worse.
    Somehow, other countries, including Wales and Scotland, have got beyond that and have prospered.

    Brian writes: I don’t think it’s a question of being excessively risk-averse, Peter, as you seem to imply. It’s a matter of choosing the system that is likeliest to work best and most fairly for our particular situation — which is different in many obvious ways from that of the devolved governments in Wales and Scotland. Moreover a good case can be made for arguing that Wales and Scotland have prospered, to the extent that they have actually prospered, in spite of the considerable problems both have experienced with their minority governments and PR, not because of it.

  2. Well, I live in and among countries that are governed pretty well, better than the UK in fact, under PR and I don’t accept any British exceptionalism. But I know that we won’t agree on this one.

  3. Wayne Smith says:

    Proportional representation, and minority/coalition government, are the norm in almost all developed countries, and have been for most of the last century.

  4. David Ratford says:

    Sweden has been my second home for 50 years and half our family live there. I also served more than 4 years at the Embassy in Denmark and a further 4 in  Norway. All of this experience has taught me, among a number of other things, that coalition or minority Government has been instrumental in creating in Scandinavia societies that are more open, less class-ridden, more egalitarian, less centralised, with a better balance between the opportunities of the two sexes, overall more prosperous and with narrower income disparities than has our own elective dictatorship. If the two major parties in the UK would only relinquish their grip on Parliamentary control as an end in itself, and enter into a constructive collective endeavour to create a system more appropriate to our contemporary needs, they would do us (and perhaps even themselves) a service.

    Brian writes: Thanks for this, David. I certainly lack your immense knowledge and experience of Scandinavia, so I venture to question your comments with genuine diffidence. But as I said in my original post, what works well in one country or group of countries won’t necessarily work well in another country with a quite different political culture, a different political tradition, and different problems needing to be addressed. There’s perhaps a greater justification for PR in a country such as Germany which is a federation of widely differing states, and where a tradition of coalition governments allows different elements within the country to have a share in governing it (cf. Northern Ireland), although I would concede that some of the same considerations could be applied to the UK too. Yet even in Germany PR and the long procession of coalition governments in varying combinations have presented serious problems from time to time, including prolonged paralysis after elections when firm decisions were needed, and the occasion when the main party of the left was thrown out of government by the third and far smaller party transferring its support to the main party of the right, which thereupon became the senior coalition partner in a new right-of-centre government, all without the electorate having anything to say in the matter. And the German electoral system is the closest thing to the one being touted by the PR campaign for Britain. Even the most dedicated fan of PR must surely admit that it can have seriously perverse or negative consequences, just as any other system can.

    I also respectfully question your confident assertion that it’s PR which has been “instrumental” in producing all the superior achievements and features of Scandinavian society which you list, as compared with Britain. These must surely be the result of a whole host of social, political, historical and cultural factors which differentiate Scandinavia from other countries, and not just (or even mainly) the electoral system. Isn’t it likelier that the electoral system reflects and is derived from those wider factors, rather than causing them? I can understand your and many others’ preference for a collaborative political system in which the political parties are compelled by the electoral system to work together, compromise, and make concessions to each other’s interests and policy objectives. But such a system also has its dangers, just as the strong tradition in Britain of adversarial politics (and an adversarial judicial system) has a number of advantages as well as some drawbacks. I don’t think it’s safe to assume that the collaborative Scandinavian system could easily be transplanted to Britain without activating powerful antibodies which are deeply rooted in our long traditions, however flawed you might think them. (Sorry about the mixed metaphors: antibodies don’t, as far as I know, have roots….)

    But in any case, as I tried to make clear, it was not the intention of this blog post to revive a general discussion of the rival merits of PR and FPTP, repeating discussions already on the record on this blog and website — see the links in my original post. I had the narrower purpose of highlighting the implications for the PR campaign of the current warnings about the effects of the prospect of a hung parliament in a few weeks’ time on sterling, Britain’s credit rating, and the possibility of a hung parliament producing a government unable to take, if necessary, urgent, radical and durable decisions. The markets aren’t necessarily wrong to equate a hung parliament, anyway in Britain, with uncertainty and lack of confidence, possibly prolonged. You’ll have seen that under the rule-book being drawn up by the Cabinet Secretary, in a hung parliament a minority government would be required to act in a temporary or caretaker capacity without the authority to take major decisions of any kind. I can’t think of anything more dangerous, especially in our present dire fiscal and economic crisis. And this would be our permanent condition if we were to adopt PR for elections to the house of commons! It’s this relatively narrow issue that seems to me to merit serious debate in our present predicament.

  5. What David Ratford says about Scandinavia has a resounding echo in my 26 years of living in Spain and in my good knowledge of Germany.

    Brian writes: Thanks, Peter. Please see my response to David’s interesting and suggestive comment.

  6. David Ratford says:

    1. It appears to be common ground between us, Brian, that over a broad range of social and economic indicators the Scandinavian countries perform relatively better than we do. But your refusal to accept the instrumentality of our respective political systems in creating their superior performance on the one hand, or our inferior performance on the other, has strange implications. Surely it must be granted that some mechanism is at work – if not, one would be forced to conclude that the native stock of civic virtues and other desirable qualities existing among the Scandinavians is somehow inherently superior to our own. That is certainly not a contention that I could accept. Indeed, my position is rather that if Britain is still a good country in which to live (as I believe it to be, at any rate for those privileged like ourselves) it is to a considerable degree despite our political institutions, rather than thanks to our institutions. In my belief there are to be found in Britain qualities of public generosity, community spirit, inventiveness and industry that fully match any observed in Scandinavia. It is a belief that underlies much of my anger about our electoral system – how much better a country this could be if only we conducted our affairs on a rational and equitable basis enabling us to exploit those qualities more fully.
    2. You imply that it is somehow undemocratic for a party to a coalition to change sides (as has happened in Germany)  Yet consider the electoral arithmetic. In a system of exact PR, as exists in for example  Denmark, i.e. where the percentage of seats held by a given party in the legislature exactly reflects the percentage of votes cast nationwide for that party, any combination of parties that commands a majority in the legislature has by definition the same majority of voters behind it and is therefore  wholly  democratic. The contrary argument, deeply enshrined in the mythology of the advocates of FPTP, is totally bogus and breathtaking in its effrontery, coming as it does from supporters of a system under which no Government ever commands the support of a majority of the electorate.
    3. Lastly, your arguments about the alleged dangers inherent in a hung parliament and the uncertainties of coalition government strike me as self-seeking and, worse, they risk become self-fulfilling prophesies. Other countries manage perfectly well in such circumstances. In a hung parliament all concerned will need to show readiness to join in the search for constructive reform. The greater danger is that the die-hard reactionaries in the pro-FPTP camp will maintain their opposition to the last ditch. Now that would do us all real damage.
    Brian writes: Thanks, David. I shan’t attempt to answer your comment point by point, partly because I agree with quite a lot of it, and partly because to prolong the argument on the rest would involve tedious repetition. I will just observe, as a gloss on your reference to “supporters of a system [First Past the Post] under which no Government ever commands the support of a majority of the electorate” that this is simply another way of saying that no one party ever commands the support of a majority of the electorate: ergo, the only way to produce a government that looks superficially as if it “commands the support of a majority of the electorate” is to force together some combination of parties whose vote scores, added together, come to more than 50 per cent of the votes cast, with a new set of policies representing reluctant compromises between the parties involved: and that even then, the resulting government will not “command the support of a majority of the electorate” because it will not be a government for which any voter voted nor a government for whose policies any voter voted, since both will have been cobbled together in horse-trading between politicians after the polls closed. I shall be voting Labour (on the basis that all the other options are worse) as usual; in doing so, I am definitely not voting for some sort of Lib-Lab pact or coalition, involving heaven knows what concessions to LibDem nostrums; still less am I going to be voting for a German-style Grand Coalition of Labour with the Conservatives which in our circumstances would be a patent conspiracy to castrate effective opposition. Yet if such a result were to flow from the election, you would presumably say that this was a government which enjoyed the support of a majority of the electorate, including me. No, thanks, sir.

    No electoral system is perfect, and all entail paradoxes and defects. The question is very simply: which system, in the British system and in the light of Britain’s political and social history, has the fewer defects? And in the end that’s a matter for subjective judgement.

  7. David Ratford says:

    It is amusing to see that, impelled by your visceral contempt for coalition politics, you have allowed yourself to be driven into a rejection of the basic principle of representative parliamentary government. Irrespective of whether the electoral system at work is the FPTP that you support or the PR that I advocate, the effect is that at an election we, the voters, are deemed as conferring on those elected authority and responsibility for carrying forward the business of the nation until we call them to account at the next following election. We expect them in so doing to seek to implement, as far as circumstances and events allow, the platform on which they stood. That applies both generally (as regards the underlyng philosophy of each party) and specifically (as regards their election manifesto).
    In this, the prevailing Parliamentary arithmetic must be regarded as a determining circumstance much like any other. Where one party enjoys an overall majority in Parliament it is free to press on largely regardless of the views of others, nationalising or denationalising, invading Suez, invading Iraq, increasing or lowering taxation, selling off Council housing, cutting back or increasing public services, you name it, always in pursuit of what the party leadership perceives to be the currently optimal realisation of its philosophy and programmes and generally claiming to have an electoral mandate behind it (if not of the electorate as a whole, at any rate of its own supporters).
    In the event of a hung parliament the parties must in the same way strive to implement their own individual philosophies and programmes as far as circumstances and events allow. With no party in a position to govern alone it is rational and proper for each of them to seek to maximise and optimise the pursuit of their objectives to the best extent currently possible, by acting in concert with one or more other parties, by forming a minority government relying on ad hoc majorities, or even by standing aloof, Simon Pure, and leaving it to the rest.
    What has to be underlined however is that in making up their minds on what to do in a hung parliament the party leaders must be deemed to be acting on the authority and responsibility conferred upon them by those voting for them, in exactly the same way as after an election producing a single party majority.  Individual supporters may not approve of their decisions in this regard (any more than you, Brian, approved of Blair’s decision to invade Iraq, for example). The available remedy in both cases is the same – i.e. whether to remain a member or supporter of the party in question when the next following election comes round.
    Brian writes: Thank you for this, David. Just two quibbles. (1) As you would expect, I plead not guilty to your charge of “[rejecting] the basic principle of representative parliamentary government.” What I do reject is the idea of plebiscitary government, in which governments and parliament are forced to steer by the vagaries of public opinion between elections, as measured by focus groups and opinion polls, or, even worse, by the tactical manoeuvres of smaller parties on whose support a minority government must rely for its majority. I accept broadly that the parties in parliament should regard themselves as morally bound by the electoral promises in their manifestoes on which their members were elected, inevitably subject to changing circumstances and the realities of political, international, legal and other constraints. Hence one of my many objections to most forms of PR: the necessity of working in coalitions or other partnerships with other parties effectively absolves any party in office, or supporting another party in office, from respecting its manifesto and other electoral commitments and being answerable to the electorate for honouring them, since in the post-election bargaining quite new and different policies and programmes will be bound to emerge — policies and programmes for which no-one can have voted. (2) Your description of a scenario in which once elected with an overall majority in the house of commons a government can do just as it likes without the constraints imposed by having to secure the cooperation of other parties seems to me much too stark. All governments spend a lot of time worrying about their chances of being re-elected and fearing that if they ignore public opinion on important issues — especially if public opinion has been stoked up by tabloid campaigns — they may face back-bench revolts and possible defeats in parliament in the short term, and defeat at the next general election (and in by-elections meanwhile) in the longer term. Individual MPs, especially in marginal seats, are also influenced by the views of their constituents — especially when the constituents in question are members of their own party — and will tend to put pressure on ministers and shadow ministers not to act in ways that will imperil their support. Ministers watch the opinion polls like hawks (or doves). In the cases you quote, the Suez disaster was prepared in secrecy and carried out on a mendacious justification, it aroused huge national outrage (as well as significant jingoist support), and destroyed the career of the prime minister who had been responsible for it. The equally disastrous aggression against Iraq was only possible because Blair and co. were able to persuade a big enough section of public opinion that it was legal, necessary and justified, and secured the endorsement of the house of commons for it. When the justification advanced for it began to be increasingly recognised as hopelessly flawed, Blair was eventually (admittedly belatedly) forced out of office and politically discredited. Neither Suez nor Iraq is likely to encourage future governments to take such insane risks with public opinion or international law. The idea that a government with an overall majority in the house of commons (which means elected by FPTP) can do exactly what it likes for the next four or five years is a myth. What seems to me important for democracy is that governments should honour their electoral commitments, do what they believe is right for the country, seek to persuade public opinion that they are right, and rely on the results of their actions to appeal to the electorate to re-elect them when the time comes. This may be harder to do under PR, but just as desirable, indeed desirable whatever the electoral system.