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Parliament Hanging in the Balance

The campaigning season has begun today, as Prime Minister Gordon Brown has requested that the Queen dissolve Parliament in preparation for a general election to be held on May 6th. However, with the possibility of a hung parliament very much on the cards, Mark Stuart writes about the historical impact of this electoral phenomenon, and the implications for any government formed in the aftermath of the 2010 General Election.

On the face of it, David Cameron’s Conservative Party seems to be heading for victory in the general election. After all, his party has been consistently polling around 40% for a couple of years now. But as the in vogue journalist Andrew Rawnsley sagely predicted last year, the Conservatives are still “one wobble away from a hung Parliament.”

The possibility of a hung parliament – a situation where no political party has overall control of the House of Commons – has become much more likely because the gap between the Conservatives being the largest party and having an outright majority is huge: Cameron needs 118 seats to gain an overall majority of just one. That requires a bigger shift in popular opinion than any opposition party has achieved since 1945, apart from Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997.

Hung Parliaments in Britain are rare in recent times, but not uncommon if we cast our net further back in history: there were two inconclusive elections in 1910, one in December 1923 and one in May 1929. But we haven’t had a hung Parliament since February 1974, when Edward Heath’s Conservatives won fractionally more votes, but Harold Wilson’s Labour Party won four more seats – 17 short of an overall majority.

So what lessons can we learn from previous experience? The first thing is to expect a delay before a government is formed. It may surprise you to know that if no party wins overall control, then the incumbent party – which may well have lost the election – can continue to govern until it is defeated in the House of Commons. So, in December 1923, Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative Government stayed on for a full six weeks before losing a vote of confidence. And, in early March 1974, Edward Heath spent four days in negotiations with Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberal Party to see if a coalition government could be formed. In the end, those talks broke down because Heath refused to accept proportional representation for Westminster elections. The Queen then asked Harold Wilson, as the leader of the largest party, to form a minority government.

It is a common misconception that a hung Parliament automatically leads to a coalition government. That hasn’t happened in any of the British cases in the last hundred years. Instead, a minority government has followed. Coalitions have emerged only as a result of international crises, such as war (1915, 1940) or financial disaster (1931). So, if the Conservatives emerge as the largest single party, then David Cameron is most likely to govern as a minority government rather than getting into bed with the Liberal Democrats.

Another lesson from 1974 is that the defeated Conservative Party did not immediately seek to bring down Wilson’s minority Government, refraining from opposing his first Queen’s Speech. I cannot imagine that a shattered Labour Party, and moreover one that is completely broke financially, will have the stomach for a second election in 2010 in the same way as Wilson did by holding and narrowly winning at the polls in October 1974. As such, a minority Cameron government is likely to survive in the short-run at least, as long as the other two main parties don’t combine against him on a vote of confidence.

In the longer term, Cameron may have to consider an arrangement with the Liberals, along the lines of the Lib-Lab Pact of 1977. Labour’s tiny overall majority of three disappeared, leading James Callaghan to cut a deal with David Steel, in which the Liberals agreed to support the Government on votes of confidence, without actually taking any seats in the Government. That arrangement was short-lived, and eventually led to Callaghan losing a vote of confidence in 1979.

The jury is out on whether hung parliaments are a good thing. Elections experts like me think they are manna from heaven, but I wonder whether our already broken economy really needs a period of political uncertainty. Come election morning, it might be better for us all if there was a clear winner.

Mark Stuart is a political writer and lecturer at the University of Nottingham, and has written the biographies of Douglas Hurd and John Smith.

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