Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Why we should not be afraid of a hung parliament

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.


Anonymous said...

And you would be prepared to accept the word of the current government, that they would later keep their word ?

I would suggest you are in a minority of 1 outside the Labour Party.


Mark Thompson said...

Disorganised1 - Ordinarily no. They have proven in the past that they cannot be trusted on commitments like this. However in the situation posulated the consequence of not doing it would be for the coalition government to collapse followed by a likely vote of no confidence that they would lose. Therefore it would be very difficult for them to not honour the promise.

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

Scenario 1 (propping up this rotten New Labour government to get electoral reform) - What profit a party that it gains the whole world but loses its soul?

Scenario 2 - the Conservatives need for power (especially if shared) is less than their desire for electoral reform.

Scenario 3 - the Conservatives would always take this over Scenario 2. Dave might or might not be astute enough to out- manoeuvre Clegg as to timing of it coming asunder: he would, however, hold the better hand.

The trick with Scenario 3 for the government (whichever it is) is to show the electorate some success, enough to indicate things “can only get better” such that support at a fresh poll can be reasonably demanded (and received). The “clear majority/strong government” argument, deliverable thought the present election system, would play very well.

The Lib-Lab pact was also a chance for the Liberals to show what they were capable of - which was mainly propping up a discredited and discreditable government, alas.

If you still had Wee Charlie, the Scenario 4 would be possible - announce a willingness to form and lead a National Coalition (for the economic crisis may well be worse by next May). It might not last long - but that would not matter provided always that Lib Dem ministers showed themselves to be competent and independent of the other parties - and hence give the whole party the credibility of being able to govern. Granted it would be hard to bring this outcome into being - yet there is a chance as Conservatives and Labour would not eagerly serve under one another. Against that, they would neither eagerly allow the Lib Dems such a boost - it would have to be presented as a “saving the nation” move. But without Wee Charlie.....

patently said...

The prospect of a Government calling a referendum and then immeidately campaigning against it is, I think, unlikely. So we can dismiss the idea of a Lib/Con pact.

Scenario 3 requires the Lib Dem leadership to turn down a pact with Labour. This requires them to turn down the opportunity for power, to give up possible Ministerial positions. It requires them to say, in effect, "It is better for the country that we remain on the back benches". Ask yourself, Mark, how many politicians will do that?

So, we are left with the Lib/Lab pact. Let's think about that. A nation that has grown to hate Labour and its leader and which, in a popular vote, has given a clear preference for the Tories over Labour - admittedly by only 6%, but still a clear preference - see the Lib Dems resuscitate Labour and keep it in power for (potentially) another five years despite the clear will of the electorate.

Just one question; where does that leave the Lib Dems in the following general election?

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

"Mr Clegg also signalled that in the event of a hung parliament, his party would support the party which won the largest number of seats.

"Whichever party have the strongest mandate from the British people, it seems to me that they have the first right to try and govern, either on their own or with others," he said." - quotes from A Marr's BBC1 show today, apparently

Stu said...

Let us not forget that last time the Lib Dems held a genuine casting vote, where their policy decision was the one which would decide the issue once and for all, was...

Well, it was the Lisbon Treaty bill. And if memory serves, they abstained.

I wouldn't put too much faith in Scenario 3, if I were you.

patently said...

CR - the quote says the "first" right to govern, not the "sole".

So, assuming a hung Parliament with a Conservative lead in the popular vote, the Lib Dems would have to accept a coalition with a party with whom they disagree on what is (to them) a cornerstone, or see themselves on the backbenches when the offer of power is there, on the table.

Or join with Labour, who (let's face it) are closer to the Lib Dem position on most issues.

Find me an altruistic, principled politician and I'll believe s/he might stand back and go for scenario 3. The Lib Dems are the arch-pragmatists of Westminster, though.

Anonymous said...


this article from the Guardian suggests that the Lib Dem view on who to support will not be based upon policy but upon mathematics. Actly a bit like Simon Cowell in X-factor Clegg will go back to the public vote for a decision.

Paul Smith Vote Lib Dem and get a Tory Government

Anonymous said...

I think Cleggs absurd comments have killed all prospects of a useful role for the Lib dems in a hung parliament.

Letters From A Tory said...

The Lib Dems will be rubbing their hands with glee at this latest poll, but I suspect that horrible reality of what another five years of Labour means will help turn the tide in favour of the Conservatives when it comes to polling day.