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 www.electoralcalculus.co.uk , 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 www.politicalbetting.com. 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.