Votes or seats? Why Nick Clegg won’t, can’t and shouldn’t answer that hung Parliament question

by Stephen Tall on April 14, 2010

Ever since Nick Clegg launched his line on a hung Parliament – that he would talk to the party that won the “strongest mandate” and was keeping all options open – the question has been asked (though not by the public): does that mean the party with most votes or the party with most seats?

And ever since Nick has been asked that question, he has studiously refused to answer it. He stonewalled Paxman on Monday, and at the Lib Dem manifesto launch today.

And you know what? He’s absolutely right to refuse to be drawn. Here’s why: the crazy British electoral system throws up so many possible permutations, it is impossible to give a definite answer. Let’s just take one example of a plausible election result to show why Nick Clegg should decline the kind invitation of the media to tie himself in pointless knots of speculation.

    Conservatives 36%, Labour 34%, Lib Dems 22%
    This scenario would see the Tories win most votes, yet emerge with perhaps only 255 MPs to Labour’s 310 – which would mean that even with the Lib Dems’ c.60 seats, any kind of Lib Dem-Tory deal would lack a majority in the House of Commons. Labour certainly wouldn’t have the strongest mandate in that case – but the Tories wouldn’t have enough seats either.

I could go on all night working through the various psephelogical possibilities … and that’s fine because I’m just a blogger on the internet. But the idea that Nick Clegg, as leader of the UK’s third largest political party, should waste time in interviews setting out how he might respond according to each and every result is ludicrous.

I have my disagreements with the Lib Dem leadership on the question of a hung Parliament: I think the party should have ruled out a coalition in advance. But Nick is 100% right not to take the media bait, and bog himself down in unknown unknowables on an issue which means diddly squat to the public.