Saturday, 10 March 2007

Nothing to Get "Hung" Up About..

One of the subjects to get political “anoraks” or young activists hot under the hood is the prospect of a House of Commons in which no one party has an overall majority. Such an instance, known as a “Hung” Parliament, is a rarity in modern politics though it happened in December 1923 and February 1974. On the first occasion, a minority Labour Government, led by Ramsay MacDonald, governed on the basis of an “understanding” with a rather naïve Liberal Party. After less a year, the arrangement collapsed and the subsequent General Election saw the Conservatives win a majority and the Liberals decimated, losing three quarters of their Parliamentary seats.

In February 1974 (and, as a 13-year old at the time, I vividly remember the “Three Day Week”, the power cuts and the dwindling coal reserves), Edward Heath’s Conservatives won 297 seats against 301 for Harold Wilson’s Labour party. Heath attempted to form a coalition with Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberal party but failed leaving Wilson to form a minority Labour Government which became a majority after a further 2.1% swing from the Tories in October 1974.

Since then, elections have, with the exception of April 1992, been pretty easy to call. In May 2005, Tony Blair won his third General Election with a majority of over 60. However, with the continuing collapse in Labour support and a substantial opinion poll recovery by the Conservatives – the latest Populus poll puts the Conservatives on 38%, eight points ahead of Labour with the Liberal Democrats on 18%. According to , such a poll would result in an overall Conservative majority of 20.

However, that is widely disputed by most analysts and the general consensus is that unless the Conservatives establish an even larger lead, they will not win enough seats on boundaries, which are advantageous to Labour to be able to command a majority in the next House of Commons.

So journalists and others are starting to ask the same question they asked of the Alliance in the 1980s: - “who would you support in the event of a Hung Parliament?” This has already been the subject of fevered and often-febrile speculation on Tory activists used last Sunday’s speech by Sir Menzies Campbell to assert all Liberal Democrats are “lefties” and would naturally support Labour. This is of course an attempt to lure anti-Labour Liberal Democrats into the Tory camp. Of course, the nightmare for Conservatives is that a successful Labour-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government might introduce proportional representation and in effect permanently exclude the Conservatives from Government.

The issue of "who will we support in the event of a Hung Parliament" befuddled the Alliance in the 1980s and it seems some Liberal Democrat activists have learnt absolutely nothing and are determined to repeat the mistakes of David Owen/David Steel. How then should the Liberal Democrats deal with this issue between now and the next General Election? First: there's no point in trying to second-guess the electorate and what they may or may not do. The party’s sole task is to maximise their own votes and above all seats at the next election. Even if either Cameron or Brown (presumably) win an overall majority at the next GE, an increased vote and seat share for the Liberal Democrats will represent progress and greater influence in the future.
Two: it doesn't matter what the Liberal Democrats think will happen in the event of a Hung Parliament. They are entirely dependent on whether and on what terms Messrs Cameron and Brown decide to talk to us and of course they may choose not to talk to us at all. Three: the Party needs to be clear in its mind the terms on which they would enter into a Governing partnership with another party. They should be thinking of nothing less than an agreed programme of legislation of a four-year Parliament. PR may or may not be part of it. Cabinet positions may or may not be part of it. The former is important but shouldn't be a deal-breaker, the latter is trivial. They should know the legislation they want to see enacted - it will be in the Manifesto - and they should know what measures from the other parties are completely unacceptable (ID cards). Between that are areas for negotiation and compromise. Four: it' isn’t just a question for the Liberal Democrats. When journalists ask the party what they will do in the event of a Hung Parliament the response would be "why don't you ask David Cameron or Gordon Brown what they are going to do?" It's as big a question for the Labour and Conservative parties as it is for the Liberal Democrats. How much does David Cameron want to be Prime Minister? How much will Gordon Brown want to remain Prime Minister? Five: the Liberal Democrats must at all costs avoid sounding split or uncertain. They must maintain the policy of equidistance i.e.: not be seen to be favouring Labour or the Tories. To be honest, they should treat both with disdain and even contempt. They must make it appear that they don't actively seek partnership with either but are prepared to discuss a programme of legislation for the stable continuation of governance. They won’t want two or three elections within eighteen months and I suspect the country won't either. Six: the Liberal Democrats cannot afford to spend the next two years talking about an eventuality that may not happen. They have to spend the time building organisations, talking to voters and spelling out their distinctive values and policies.

I think it will take two inconclusive elections before we see a radical change in thinking in the other two main parties. The Conservatives believe they can win under the present system. If they fail to win an overall majority at the two elections that will be five successive elections where they have failed. Even the most slow-witted creatures finally get the message if it’s repeated often enough.


Peter the Punter said...

That's about right, Stodge.

It beats me why the LD leadersip bothers to explain what it would do in the event of an HP. Common sense tells you it would all depend on the exact number of seats each Party had and what the attitudes of their Leaders was in the event of the reality of no overall majority. There are so many hypothetical scenarios that it is pointless indicating what may or may not happen.

The simple and correct answer on any Politicain, LD or otherwise, should be 'We are Politicains and will do what Politicians do - make the best of the circumstances we find ourselves in and get the best deal possible."

Who would expect anything else?

Barnesian said...


Benedict White said...

Stodge, your problem is that for the purposes of an election campaign your cat is out of the bag.

He need not have said anything, instead he allowed himself to be portrayed as closer to Labour and never with the Conservatives.

That is and was a massive mistake leading me to publish this:
followed by this:

Alas what frank Luntz says is true, it is not what you say it is what people here.

Gladstone said...

You correctly observed that ". . .the nightmare for Conservatives is that a successful Labour-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government might introduce proportional representation and in effect permanently exclude the Conservatives from Government."
I can understand this fear, though I don't agree with it. And I think that the Liberals should also be worried.

Eventually, the more and more voters will get tired of the same old cosy coalition between the Labour and Liberal parties, and switch their votes to other parties - mainly (but not exclusively) to the Conservatives. If they are unlucky, the Liberals may get more harshly treated by the voters for keeping Labour in office. If they are lucky, the voters will punish (if that is the right word) both Labour and Liberal parties equally.

Here are just a couple of possibilities that could follow on from this:-
1) Those Liberals who don't feel that they are getting quite what they want out of the Labour coalition will start to find the prospect of working with the Conservatives more appealing, especially as they will be able to act as a brake on their more right-wing policies. Given a General Election result where the Tories are clearly the largest party (for example, having a lead of 10+ percent in the popular vote over Labour), it would be difficult to argue against giving them a chance - especially if the Lab-Lib coalition itself cannot command an overall majority in the HofC anyway.
In the worst case, the Liberals may split into right and left factions. The Liberals DO have a historical precedent of losing sizeable chunks of people to the Conservatives after a split!

2) The Liberals cling to Labour to the bitter end, and voters percieve that the only way to get rid of the governement is to vote for the Tories. The Conservatives would have to probably get a plurality of the popular vote (or mighty close to it) to achieve this. Of course, gaining office in such a 'legitimate' way would give the Conservatives a mandate for radical change which may be welcomed by their supporters and dreaded by their opponents.

The problem for the Liberals with PR is that it forces them to take part in Government, rather than just adding their voice to the opposition. If they really want PR to become accepted by the voters over time, they have to behave as an impartial power-broker, there to protect the country from the wilder extremes of the other parties. If they continually act as a prop to Labour, they simply become indistinguishable from them in voters minds.

loadofoldstodge said...

Thanks for the comments.

Benedict: I understand what you are saying and I'm sure the Conservatives will use every opportunity to put that spin on it.

I also think that three years down the track, things may look very different and what Sir Menzies said will be largely forgotten.