With the latest Ipsos MORI poll for The Observer showing a reduced Conservative lead to only 6% (Con 37%, Labour 31%, LD 17%) talk of a potential hung parliament has reared its head again.
Indeed if these figures are put into the UK Polling Report swing calculator then we get the following:
So, the Conservatives would be only 2 seats ahead of Labour as the largest party but 38 seats short of an overall majority.
Before I continue I will just caveat that this is the narrowest lead for the Tories for almost a year and it could turn out to be a blip or an outlier. It is possible that Labour got a fillip from its recent by-election victory and that the polling numbers will return to within the range of the more typical recent trend in the next week or two (i.e. over a 10% gap).
However, for the purposes of the rest of this blogpost I want to discuss the practicalities of a hung parliament and what that might mean for the Lib Dems, seeing as various other bloggers, pundits and commentators are speculating on this today following this poll.
I have seen comment along the lines of "Lib Dems have most to fear from a hung parliament". Indeed Andrew Rawnsley writing in the Observer today on this subject says:
The prospect induces a jostle of emotions: a rare sensation of hope for Labour people, a creeping dread within Tories and a combination of both thrill and terror among Lib Dems.
Later in the same article he says:
For the Liberal Democrats, a hung parliament is usually seen as a dream scenario which would elevate Nick Clegg from also-ran to kingmaker with the power to choose the government with a twitch of his thumb. It would not work out like that. A hung parliament could as easily be a total nightmare for the Lib Dems. Imagine that the Conservatives have the most seats. Even if the Tories were interested in a coalition with the Lib Dems, the Conservatives are implacably opposed to electoral reform, the sine qua non if Mr Clegg were to try to sell a Lib-Con pact to his party. It is most likely that David Cameron would form a minority government, produce a Queen's Speech and a first budget, probably one full of cuts suggested by Vince Cable, and then dare the Lib Dems to defy the will of the electorate and look "irresponsible" by voting it down. This approach to governing without a majority has worked well for Alex Salmond's SNP government in Edinburgh. Cameron would likely try to copy Harold Wilson. He governed for a short period after 1964, when Labour got a very small majority, and after February 1974, when Labour did not have a majority at all, and then went for a second election to seek a stronger position.
I'm afraid I don't buy this "nightmare scenario" for the Lib Dems. A hung parliament is the sort of scenario that the Lib Dems been waiting for for years. It would finally give us a chance to wield some real power and exert our influence on policy and politics in a way that had been denied to us previously.
Let's have a quick rattle through the scenarios and see how they could all result in a "win" for us. I am going to assume for the purposes of this that the votes and seats are as outlined above.
1) In this scenario the combination of the Lib Dems with either of the two main parties would produce a workable majority. This would be the point of maximum leverage as we could negotiate with both Labour and the Conservatives. For me and I suspect many of my party colleagues the sticking point would be a commitment to a referendum on electoral reform. Labour may go for this, (although I am sure Brown would have to go as Rawnsley suggests elsewhere in his article as a pre-condition) although I accept that propping up a Labour administration would be very fraught. However if this was the price of getting the holy grail of a referendum on electoral reform then it may be that my party considered it worthwhile.
2) Another option is to go with trying to forge a coalition with the Conservatives. It may be very difficult to get them to accept the price of a referendum on electoral reform as part of the deal given their implacable opposition to this. However it is not impossible. The referendum could be proposed with the agreement that the different parties could campaign for or against it. Just declaring a referendum need not imply that they wish for the change to be implemented. It would simply be giving the people the option and allowing the debate to take place. Even this might be too much for the Conservatives of course but it is at least an option that could be explored.
3) If neither of the above scenarios come to pass then the other option is for the largest party (in this case the Conservatives) to form a minority government. In this situation they would require the support of at least another 38 MPs each time they wanted to pass a bill so the Lib Dems would be well placed to provide this voting block and would likely have their views taken into account as part of the legislative drafting process. The idea that Cameron could try to corner the Lib Dems as Rawnsley suggests above I do not think is likely to work. It would be perfectly reasonable for us to support the things we agree with and oppose those we do not. If that meant voting down a Queen's Speech (if we were forced into that position) then so be it.
I think scenario 3 is most likely and I do just want to finally explore a potential unintended consequence of it that I have not seen discussed anywhere else.
If Cameron was to form a minority government and then have to use all his political and diplomatic skills to try and govern like this by convincing enough non-Conservative MPs each time he wanted to pass a piece of legislation then he could find he begins to undermine his own case against electoral reform. One of the major arguments against a proportional system is that "First Past the Post" produces "strong government", i.e. big majorities which seem to be seen by default as a good thing. However in this situation, not only will FPTP have thrown up a hung parliament (proving that even FPTP does not always prevent this as its proponents often imply) but its primary cheerleaders, the Conservatives will find themselves having to disprove their own case in order to be a successful government. If they are successful in doing this then one of their key planks against a more proportional system is kicked out from under them, by themselves.
Any of thse scenarios would also of course give the Lib Dems the chance to show what we are capable of when we are in a position to wield some real power and influence on the executive either from inside or outside the government. It would be up to us to seize this opportunity and prove to the electorate that we can do a good job in this position and hence that it is worth voting for us. That is an opportunity to relish, not be afraid of.
I think we can derive significant "wins" from any of the situations described. All it would take is the will to do so.