That hoary old Hung Parliament chestnut

by Stephen Tall on March 17, 2009

There’s an interesting article by The Independent’s Steve Richards today, focusing – as the media does every three months or so – on the prospect of a ‘Hung Parliament’, and what the Lib Dems would do in such an eventuality.

Actually the article’s a bit broader than that, and I can’t let the opportunity pass without briefly digressing to agree wholeheartedly with his snipe at the Tories’ two key initiatives of the past week: David Cameron’s ‘apology’ for failing to anticipate the economic crisis until way too late (Steve accuses the Tories of “still playing student-like games”); and yesterday’s gimmicky announcement of a freeze in the BBC licence fee (“in the economic context the proposal is puny, suggesting that Cameron thinks in New Labour-like incremental terms when he leads in an era far removed from the mid 1990s.”).

It’s not even smart opposition tactics, let alone good government-in-waiting strategy. By apologising for the Tories’ recent economic incompetence, Mr Cameron has allowed the Prime Minister to blur his culpability (I’m sure No. 10 has prepared the ‘we all bear some responsibility, as even the Leader of the Opposition admits’ line). And as for the BBC licence fee – well, it’s such a token gesture even that uber-populist Tony Blair would have rejected it as too small for him to be associated with.

But back to ‘Hung Parliaments’, and Steve’s contention that therefore Lib Dems matter now (leaving to one side that we actually do matter now, as almost sx million folk voted for the party at the last election). For some perverse reason, Steve reckons:

For perverse reasons senior Lib Dems never seemed to relish the prospects of a hung parliament, as if doing so would somehow challenge the purity of their uncompromising policy commitments, a purity of impotence.

Surely it’s not so very hard to see why the party and its leadership approaches the prospect with caution rather than relish? After all, last time the third party propped up the government of the day under a first-past-the-post system (the Liberals in 1977-79), it didn’t exactly do wonders for our electoral standing. That’s not to say we shouldn’t as a party be anxious to get our hands dirty pulling the levers of power; but let’s be realistic about the risks, eh? The fear is a simple and potent one: seem to favour either Tories or Labour, and we split our own party and antagonise the voters of the party we didn’t pick. Net result to the Lib Dems: the exercise of a little power for a limited time with the ever-present danger of annihilation at the next election.

More significant is Steve’s confirmation of the party leadership’s policy of equidistance:

For the first time in years the party leadership is genuinely “equidistant” between Labour and the Conservatives. Nick Clegg cannot see how he props up a Brown government, but he is no fan of Cameron’s either. Copying the Tony Blair rule book, Cameron sought to form a relationship with Clegg early on. But Clegg was not interested in playing Paddy Ashdown to Cameron’s Blair and the two of them have little contact.

And, as Steve notes, even if Nick Clegg was determined on a coalition with either Mr Brown or Mr Cameron, he knows the party membership is unlikely to sanction it – as we would have to:

The leadership of the Lib Dems is committed to what is called a triple lock before entering any form of arrangement with another party. The leadership must get the support of its parliamentary party, the executive of the party and the membership. That is quite a lock.

Like Steve, I have little doubt that party members would vote down any deal, unless it came with the promise of propertional representation as a package of reform measures – and that’s not going to be offered by either Labour or the Tories.

But unfortunately that’s where Steve’s article stops – unfortunate because the really interesting hung Parliament scenario is not ‘who will the Lib Dems do a deal with’ (because the answer is no-one). No, the really interesting question is ‘what happens when the Lib Dems refuse to do a deal with anyone?’. And to answer this, can I commend The Times’s Sam Coates’ excellent analysis of last week, which moves us much further along the hypotheticals:

There is an assumption that should the Tories be the largest party in a minority Parliament, the Lib Dems will probably support them in some form. This seems unlikely, at this stage, to be a formal coalition. But they recognise it would be electoral “suicide” to do the reverse and prop up Gordon Brown to keep him in Number 10 if the Tories are the largest party.

What really interests them is what happens next, in the event of a rapid second general election. A Tory minority government will probably only be a short term affair. The Conservatives would govern for a few months, but then go to the country to “seal the deal” like Harold Wilson in 1974. Labour, possible fearing the consequences, will be much more willing to negotiate at this stage. If they do begin private or public talks, this would put pressure on the Tories to enter negotiations too. Having engaged both parties in negotiations, it will be in the words of one Lib Dem, “game on”.

The Lib Dems will not, initially, insist on PR as part of any deal because this automatically gives Labour a huge advantage. However senior Lib Dems are intrigued by the personal position of David Cameron. He is instinctively hostile to PR. But in evidence to the Power Commission on democracy a few years ago, Cameron apparently told the committee that while the First Past the Post system should remain, he believed that of different types of PR, the Single Transferable Vote system was fairer to AV, which Labour would offer. Lib Dems would prefer STV because it’s more proportionate than AV.

They believe there could be constitutional chaos of there is a Hung Parliament. The Standing Orders which govern what happens are complex, contradictory and out of date. Some Lib Dem legal experts think the confusion could even be exploited by Gordon Brown to try and cling on to power even if Labour is not the largest party.

Before we all get too carried away with our game theories, though, I still reckon the Tories will win a (slim) majority at the next election. And let’s hope if and when they do, Messrs Camero and Osborne have put a bit more thought into what they’ll actually do than their recent pronouncements seem to suggest.

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I fundamentally disagree with you about the Cameron apology ( Tomorrows Guardian has Con 42 Lab 30 both no change and LD 20 +2 by the way).

While undoubtably there is a lot of “doom porn” about at the moment the hard economic data really does suggest we are at the beginning of a once in 60 years slump. The effect of that on any society let along a consumerist one is going to be profound and the level of anger will be directed somewhere.

As part of the establishment I think a little contrition from cameron can’t do him any harm. By getting it in first it looks unforced, it highlights the fact that Brown won’t use the S word and anything that makes him look ever so slightly different from a traditional politican will help in this climate.

I suppose its all intuitive rather than objective but when we have collosal system failure i don’t see how a guy at the top showing a bit of (superficially) unforced contrition is harmful to him at all.

by David Morton on March 17, 2009 at 9:29 pm. Reply #

David – I think you are right to say that sounding contrite won’t do Cameron any harm, but it doesn’t get away from the fact that it was a highly cynical move.

by James Graham on March 17, 2009 at 9:54 pm. Reply #

Cameron wants to keep First Past the Post (FPTP), but prefer STV to ATV because “it is farier!”
What on earth is the logic to that? If STV is fairer to ATV – which it is – to then prefer FPTP is absurd.
Still it would be good to see the other parties compete with each other for a fairer voting system.
Curious how electoral reform has completely disappeared from the agenda after Brown was said to support AVT after he was elected leader of the Labour party.

by Geoffrey Payne on March 17, 2009 at 10:17 pm. Reply #

Every time someone says a ‘Hung Parliament’ this vision of 635 lamp posts floats into my head….

by Martin Land on March 17, 2009 at 10:23 pm. Reply #

Sam Coates makes two points which, in a fascinating way, completely contradict each other. They are:

“3. … Senior (Lib Dem) figures believe it is vital that the party remains “equidistant” between Labour and the Tories …. They believe negotiations can only be effective if both Labour and the Tories credibly believe there is a chance of a deal.”

and:

“4. There is an assumption that should the Tories be the largest party in a minority Parliament, the Lib Dems will probably support them in some form. …They recognise it would be electoral “suicide” to do the reverse and prop up Gordon Brown to keep him in Number 10 if the Tories are the largest party.”

What Mr Coates has not done is to consider the possibility that Labour might be the largest party in a minority parliament. I have no idea whether that’s his error or that of his Lib Dem informants. But we can’t talk about “equidistance”, and then discuss propping up only one possible party!

Now, a hung parliament will only happen if Labour suddenly regain a lot of popular trust somehow, or the Tories do something disastrous, or both. It follows that when we discuss this issue, we must not assume that Labour are in the doghouse, just because that’s where they are right now. If things stay that way, we won’t have to worry about a hung parliament! If things change, then it might just as well be a Labour-largest-party as a Tory-largest-party kind of hung parliament we get.

That’s why we should talk about an objective and unbiased criterion, such as the suggestion that we should first open discussion with whichever of our two main opponents wins the most seats. If we only put forward Coates’s point 4, we will appear to be biased toward the Tories. Hopefully we don’t want that?

by David Allen on March 17, 2009 at 10:47 pm. Reply #

“Every time someone says a ‘Hung Parliament’ this vision of 635 lamp posts floats into my head….”

That makes me wonder who the lucky 11 would be …

by Anonymous1 on March 17, 2009 at 10:53 pm. Reply #

That makes me wonder who the lucky 11 would be …

Well, Nicholas Soames would be one – a lamp post wouldn’t be strong enough.

by Andrew on March 17, 2009 at 11:03 pm. Reply #

I’d encourage people to follow the link and read the steve richards article if only because its central theme is completely missing from Stephens write up and analysis.

– the conclusion of the article is summed up from the Head line. That a hung parliament may “hang” the Tories because of a Lib/Lab deal

– that such a senario is the subject of “intense” discussions between some Labour MP’s and “senior Lib Dem MP’s” about just such a senario.

I’m not saying thats good or bad. I’m not saying its true. In fact from previous experience its probably complete B*****ks. It is however the main subject of the article and the slant that the sub eds wanted because of the head line.

James: I agree its entirely cynical. But if he can fake the sincerity then the rest will be easy. The primary question isn’t IMHO whether he means it its wether it will sell. I think it might.

Stehphen: My real grouse with this is that its a platinium plated and highly eloquent version of a familar refrain.

“Yeah, but the Tories have no policies”

This response to the Cameron phenomenom has only one flaw. Its demonstrably untrue. The Tories have loads of policies. Some of them are very frightening. Others are pure Love Bomb.

The current situation reminds me of one of those scenes where the Borg drone has “adapted” and phasers start bouncing off the shielding. Your two plausible options are to (a) run away (b) reset your phaser to a difference frequency.

However just standing there keeping on with the same old failed strategy will lead to wide spread assimilation.

by David Morton on March 17, 2009 at 11:06 pm. Reply #

Resistance is futile? Or should that be useless?

by Anonymous1 on March 17, 2009 at 11:11 pm. Reply #

On a serious note, we always get hung up on this at every election. The worst response is the usual, ‘but we intend to win’ which I suppose at least proves we have a sense of humour.

I wonder why we never try the democratic route? ‘In the event of a hung parliament, we would immediately commission a series of opinion polls to establish which issues would be those that the people who had just supported us, and the electorate in general, would see as our priorities in any negociations.’

‘Having established popular priorities in the context of a hung parliament, we would consult at every stage to ensure that a government was in place that was truly reflecting the priorities of the British people.’

by Martin Land on March 18, 2009 at 7:23 am. Reply #

David – I think the main trouble with Steve Richard’s piece is that its missing the real central issue. He spends most of the article pondering the ‘will Lib Dems support the Tories or Labour?’ before concluding, correctly I think, that we will do neither because the party membership won’t sign up to a deal. And then his article pretty much stops. Which is a strange dead-end of a conclusion. That’s why I think Sam Coates’ article – which looks beyond a first Hung Parliament election – is a much more realistic and grown-up analysis of what actually might happen.

I don’t by the way think the Tories have no policies – I approvingly highlighted last week on LDV an editorial in the FT which sums up my view:

It is a cliché to say that Britain’s Conservative party has no policies. It is also untrue; the Tories have views on issues as diverse as why a bottlenose whale starved to death in the Thames and the rate at which British museums buy new pieces for their collections. They have a complex foreign policy of alternately hissing at the work of the European Union and forlornly reaching for the hem of Barack Obama’s cloak. The problem is that the Tory party still lacks overarching strategies – especially when it comes to tackling the global economic crisis.

by Stephen Tall on March 18, 2009 at 9:10 am. Reply #

Is it ever realistic to think that Steve Richards understands what he is writing about?

That apart, have we taken in what our leaders have said? They are preparing, and preparing pretty professionally, for negotiation to get as much as they can of our LibDem agenda. In that case, it simply does not matter whether we dislike and/or distrust the whole Tory Party more or less than the whole Labour Party. It does matter that people in both those parties are beginning to think how to use a deal with the LibDems to swing their party towards their own individual stance. We want that possibility to be crossing the minds of – restricting examples to a few individuals whom I respect in their different ways – Ken Clarke, Jon Cruddas, Frank Field, and David Davis, don’t we?.

by David Heigham on March 18, 2009 at 12:43 pm. Reply #

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