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.