British Politics Hung Out To Dry
Sunday Mail, March 29th 2015
A House of Commons where no one party gains an overall majority looks an increasingly likely outcome of the May election.
This has happened before, most recently in 2010, but also in February 1974; similarly, in the late 1970s and post-1992 Labour and Tory administrations respectively elected with majorities, lost them, and had to govern without them.
The outcome of the May election and the parliamentary landscape looks likely to resemble the dog days of the Callaghan and Major governments, rather than 2010 when the Tories and Lib Dems formed a coalition to have a secure majority.
A House of Commons notional majority is 326 seats. In reality 323 seats produce a majority due to Sinn Fein abstention. When no party wins an overall majority a number of scenarios are possible.
The first as we have had for the past five years is a coalition between two or more parties. The Cameron-Clegg administration is the first Westminster peacetime coalition since the 1930s. Then there is a formal agreement short of a coalition such as the Lib-Lab pact in the late 1970s – which doesn’t involve a joint government or ministers, but some shared legislative goals. Finally, there is an informal agreement between two or more parties.
If Conservatives and Labour each fail to get an overall majority one of them needs to be able to put together a parliamentary majority. This can happen by agreement with other parties, what is called a confidence and supply motion, or even abstention from opponents on key votes.
It is not automatic that the largest party in seats forms a government. As Gus O’Donnell, former head of the UK civil service said last week, what is critical is being able to secure a parliamentary majority.
For example, the 1924 Labour Government of Ramsay MacDonald had less seats than the Tories but governed with Liberal support. More recently, in February 1974, Tory Edward Heath remained in Downing Street for six days after the election trying to do a deal with the Liberals despite having fewer seats than Labour. And in 2010, Gordon Brown remained in office for five days after the election hoping something would turn up despite having less seats than the Tories.
In a hung Parliament the role of the so-called ‘kingmakers’ is crucial. In 2010 this was the Lib Dems and they could only do this in 2015 if they were returned with enough seats and the parliamentary arithmetic was favourable to them. More likely, the SNP and even the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will be pushed into the spotlight.
How the SNP respond to such a role would be illuminating. The party has already said that they will not countenance a deal with the Tories, which would aid Labour. Alex Salmond has taken obvious delight in his possible post-election role. Yet while much of his comment has been what Nationalists have long said, his tone has been a little too self-congratulatory and belligerent.
Voters don’t like politicians getting too far ahead of themselves and assuming that votes have already been counted. This can be seen in David Cameron’s bizarre observation before he has won a second term, ruling out the prospect of a third.
A minority Tory Government is said to be SNP strategists dream scenario. But it is also true that a minority Labour administration entails the Nationalists walking a political tightrope – not giving it a complete blank cheque (on public spending and Trident for example), while not being seen to bring it down.
There is the complication of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (passed by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition). This separates votes on a Budget and Queen’s Speech from a vote of confidence. It means a government could lose one of the first two and remain in office. Or it could make it more likely that after an administration lost a vote of confidence an alternative government could emerge without an election. Such things happen in many European countries, but would be a shock to the British public.
This brings us to what the voters will make of all this uncertainty and what they will make of the instability which may ensue from a hung Parliament. Before that part of the election campaign will be dominated by politicians and media talking about process and parliamentary number crunching, not policies and issues.
Even more fundamentally, the coming campaign and election will witness a clash between the old absolutes of the First Past the Post system and two party politics, and a country increasingly shaped by a multi-party, unpredictable politics. The Labour and Conservative parties still inhabit that older world of big tribes and majority governments, but increasingly British politics looks set to be one of many different alliances, deals and uncertainties. Maybe its time politics caught up with the voters’ sensibilities.