Whoever wins, Britain will have a hung parliament
Size isn’t everything – history shows that it takes more than a majority of members of parliament to make a strong and purposeful government.
It is said that nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of being hanged in the morning, but the prospect of waking up to a hung parliament after the coming UK General Election appears to be having the opposite effect.
As opinion polls indicate the growing possibility of no party winning an overall majority of parliamentary seats, something approaching panic has spread across the political and media class. The spectre of a hung parliament – leading to either a coalition or minority government – is being blamed in particular for the declining value of the pound and the rising concern over the UK’s massive public debt. Fears are reportedly growing that a weak government without a parliamentary majority will be unable to take the decisive action required to put things right. (Some might suspect that the problems of the pound and the UK’s credit rating have more to do with the underlying weakness of British capitalism, as confirmed in disastrous trade figures this week, than with any passing opinion poll numbers, but that is another argument…)
It is true that the inability of any party to sustain a political dynamic and galvanise public support today makes the prospect of some sort of a hung parliament more likely. The Conservatives are still well ahead, but the vagaries of the UK election system mean that it is predicted the Tories could need a lead of around 10 per cent over New Labour in the election to guarantee a working majority of MPs – and David Cameron is finding it hard to sustain such an advantage in the polls. A few polls have even suggested that New Labour could lose the election in terms of votes yet still be left with more seats (though well short of a majority).
But remember, size isn’t everything – it’s what you do with what you have got. Whether or not a government is strong and effective has never simply been a matter of the numbers of MPs the ruling party commands. History shows that large parliamentary majorities can be useless, and that coalition or minority governments can do the business. It all depends on the political will and clarity of those in office, and the balance of political forces outside parliament – the degree of public opposition to, or support for, the government.
By these standards, it ought to be clear that the UK is set for a weak and ineffectual government after the election, whatever the precise make-up of parliament may be and whether we have a majority, minority or coalition in power. The parties are all in a dire state, lacking political vision or practical measures to tackle the crisis. This means that in practice, whatever the results, we are likely to be left with a politically ‘hung’ parliament where nobody has the authority or capacity to rule.
It is very rare for a UK election not to produce a parliamentary majority. The only occasions in modern history were in 1929 and February 1974. No doubt this helps explain why the idea is viewed with such consternation by many. However, in many other countries which use a form of proportional representation to choose a government, outright one-party majorities are rare and coalition governments are the norm. How effective or stable those coalitions prove depends not just on numbers, but on the political climate in which they operate. The experience of coalition governments has thus been very different in, say, a relatively strong state such as Germany and a fragile one such as Italy.
The British political tradition abhors the idea of a hung parliament, equating as it does a strong government with a large parliamentary majority. Yet history suggests that matters are slightly more complicated than that.
Back in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Britain was one of the world’s greatest economic and military powers, some of its most famous statesmen – including Liberal leaders William Gladstone, Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George – were prime minister in parliaments where their own party was heavily outnumbered. Yet that did not prevent them building a powerful state or running an Empire in an age when the British ruling class had a coherent imperial worldview and didn’t worry too much about small matters such as democracy.
Things have been very different in the modern age of course, yet there is still no direct correlation between the number of MPs and the authority of a government. Since the Second World War, UK General Elections have often created quite large parliamentary majorities either for the Tories or Labour. These have proved important moments in consolidating a new political culture. But those big majorities have not necessarily translated into purposeful government – at least not for long. And as British politics has decayed in recent decades, so the authority of governments to achieve real change has declined.
Back in 1945 the first majority Labour government was elected with a 146-seat lead over all of the other parties. Labour came to power with a programme of major reforms, from the founding of the National Health Service to the nationalisation of the coal mines, and laid the basis for a national postwar political consensus, forcing the Tories to abandon many of their outdated policies to keep up with the changing times. Yet within five years Labour’s state socialist programme seemed exhausted, along with its ageing and ailing leaders, while public bitterness grew at the grim experience of postwar rationing and austerity. In the 1950 election Labour’s majority was slashed to a handful of seats, forcing another election in 1951 that returned the Tories to power.
In the 1983 election, Margaret Thatcher’s Tories won a big parliamentary majority for its programme of breaking with the postwar era of consensus politics and going on the offensive against the trade unions. First elected in 1979 with a majority of 43, in 1983 Thatcher used the ‘Falklands Factor’ to hammer Labour and win a majority of 102 seats. The Tories wielded their new authority against the working-class movement, most notably in the bitter Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, and changed the political landscape. After the 1987 election Thatcher still commanded a majority of 102, yet that (as some of us noted at the time) was the ‘high tide of Thatcherism’. Having won her war against the unions Thatcher had nowhere to go but down. She was deposed by her party in 1990, although the neutered Tories bumbled on in office under John Major until 1997.
In that 1997 General Election, Tony Blair’s New Labour was swept to power on a wave of public hope and anti-Tory feeling such as any party leader can only dream of riding today, winning an overall majority of 179 seats – and maintaining a majority of 167 after the 2001 election. Yet what did Blair and Co. achieve of any note with those massive working majorities of MPs? New Labour was a product of the death of the old ideologies of left and right, yet with nothing of political substance to put in their place. Blair was thus left in a unique situation, as a prime minister who appeared to have the status and authority of a dominant national leader, yet who struggled to get important things done like some weak head of a shaky coalition. His successor Gordon Brown, who inherited the 66-seat majority Blair retained at the 2005 election, has been even more ineffectual.
The empty parties and Lilliputian leaders and policies on offer in the 2010 election make Blair seem like a political giant by comparison. The absence of principles or politics with a capital P is clearest in relation to the economy, where an historic crisis of capitalism that should raise big questions about the future of our society is being reduced to a narrow, bean-counters’ debate about when and how much to cut public spending. Meanwhile the New Labour government seeks to galvanise the electorate with a headline-grabbing proposal for compulsory dog insurance, which looks like the Dangerous Dogs Act which marked the death knell of Toryism repeated as farce.
With politics-free purposeless parties and accountant-style leaders such as Brown and Cameron, any combination of seats is likely to lead to an effectively ‘hung’ parliament in terms of their inability to take decisive action to change things for the better. Yet the absence of opposition outside parliament means they will be able to carry on in isolation. It is a sign of the times that some commentators now even suggest that a hung parliament could be a good thing, since it will force them to work together in a managerial fashion and cut out the divisive ‘political stuff’.
In reality the prospect of a paralysed parliament in the midst of the crisis only highlights the pressing need to inject some Politics and challenge the status quo, using the election campaign to raise the big questions about the sort of society in which we want to live – even if it is tempting simply to turn away with a shout of ‘hang the lot of ’em’.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.
Previously on spiked
Mick Hume saw Cameron’s Tories as being full of New Labourite nonsense, and argued that the election may be up for grabs but there is nothing to play for. He also asked could this be the worst election ever? Brendan O’Neill saw in the backlash against MPs expenses the self-destruction of the House of Commons, and discerned tyranny in the ‘clean politics’ agenda. Or read more at spiked issues British politics and MPs’ expenses and the political crisis.