Hang it all, whatever happened to democracy?
Contrary to the claims on either side in the UK election campaign, a hung parliament would be neither the real problem nor the solution.
The UK election campaign has become so indecisive that not only is a hung parliament – in which no party commands a majority of MPs – widely seen as the most likely result, but also nobody seems sure what that will mean in political terms. Is a hung parliament a mortal threat to Britain’s future, as claimed by the Tories and the Labour leadership? Or would it be a great step forwards towards democratic reform and political renewal, as claimed by the Liberal Democrats and constitutional campaigners?
I vote for neither of the above. Not for the first time in this campaign, both sides of the debate have missed the point. A hung parliament is neither the problem nor the solution. It would merely be a statistical reflection of a more profound political stagnation, in a deadlocked (with the emphasis on dead) election where no party stands for any clear principles or has any real dynamic of public support behind them. That political hole in the heart of the campaign is a far bigger problem for democracy than the exact arithmetic of the results, and will not go away regardless of which unpopular party scrapes together how many votes and seats.
As well as ranking the three parties closer together than ever before, most opinion polls indicate that the largest section of voters now favour a hung parliament as their preferred outcome in this election – an unprecedented state of affairs in British politics. This is a symbol of how disaffected people have become with the political system. Why else would voters champion the idea of nobody winning? What they are effectively saying is that anything novel, any sort of change, must surely be better than the old ways of party politics and one-party government.
The more traditional wing of the political class has reacted to these polls in barely-suppressed horror. The Conservatives under David Cameron, having long enjoyed a clear – if never runaway – lead in the polls, now find themselves facing the prospect of winning the largest share of the vote but nowhere near enough to form a majority government. Indeed given the vagaries of the electoral system, many polls suggest they could end up with more votes but fewer seats than the Labour Party.
Cameron’s leadership has responded by stressing the dangers of a hung parliament to Britain’s political and economic future. In a spoof TV broadcast for the ‘Hung Parliament Party’, the Tories warn that such an outcome will guarantee only ‘indecision’ and ‘dithering’ in government at a time when decisive action is required to tackle the economic and financial crisis. To which voters are surely entitled to respond: ‘Yeah, what else is new?’
The Tories might have a point, were it not for the fact that all of the parties’ campaigns have been marked by an absence of clear principles and decisive proposals. We appear to be on course for a fumbling, mumbling government without firm political foundations regardless of the precise result, even if the Conservatives were somehow to conjure up a clear majority. That is why, as argued before on spiked, whatever the outcome the UK seems set to have a ‘hung’ parliament in political terms.
Against this background, Cameron’s attempt to mobilise his own version of the politics of fear, using the hung parliament as a bogeyman to scare people into voting Tory, seems unlikely to galvanise the nation. It ignores the basic reason why people say they favour a hung parliament – as a way of telling all the old parties to go hang themselves. That is why one of the few things that are certain about this election is that far more potential voters will abstain than vote for any one of the parties. The support for a hung parliament is simply the extension of this attitude.
Those getting over-excited about the prospect of a hung – or as they would have it, ‘balanced’ – parliament are if anything even more misguided than the scaremongers. They claim that it will lead to more effective government, and will force the parties to work together to reform the system particularly through the type of electoral reforms favoured by the Lib Dems. These are the sort of campaigners who generally complain about divisive ‘yah-boo politics’ in parliament, and want to see more power given to committees and experts. It is basically an anti-politics response to the political crisis – which is why the misnamed Liberal Democrats, the anti-politics party, appear to be the main beneficiaries of the backlash. Typically Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg and his alleged man-of-the-people sidekick Vice Cable want to set up a committee of the great and the good to run the UK economy so as to satisfy the demands of the international bankers, without any interference from pesky politics.
These are the sorts of technocratic solutions to political and social problems favoured by the illiberal, undemocratic elite. In the name of creating a ‘new politics’ they are seeking to institutionalise indecision and an absence of clarity.
But the more fundamental problem with the British system of government today is not that there is too much party politics. It is that there is too little. We have political parties only in name, without either defining political visions or deep party roots in any section of society. The cynical shrug of public ‘support’ for a hung parliament is the result. The screaming need today is not for ‘balance’ but for more clear-cut debate of big issues, a clash of ideas to clarify the options and allow us to decide the best way forward out of the crisis and towards the good society. For all the Tory and Labour leaders’ insistence that the debate should be about policy and ‘values’ rather than process, that is what is so starkly absent from the election campaign. It is surely a bad sign when the question that has most animated the party leaders has been whether or not old-age pensioners should pay for eyesight tests.
Of course we should not be in favour of ‘Big Government’ and state power, and we all know that the British electoral system is a farce. That is why some sort of alternative system of proportional representation (PR), which could create a closer correlation between the number of votes cast for a party and the number of seats won, would indeed be more democratic, even if it meant fewer majority governments and more coalitions. However, to listen to many of the hung parliament enthusiasts today, one might imagine that winning PR is an end in itself, and that preventing any party winning a majority is somehow a victory for democracy.
But PR should only ever be seen as means to an end. It is simply a technical system of electing representatives. What really matters is not how they are elected, but what they are elected for. Democracy must be about more than the way we tick a box. It has to involve a choice between alternative visions of running society. The absence of any such choice in the current election means we are being denied meaningful democracy, effectively disenfranchised, regardless of which voting system is in operation. A hung parliament will simply reflect that depressing state of affairs, and is unlikely to represent a real change for the better or the worse.
As the election campaign staggers towards its singularly uninspiring conclusion, spiked’s call to Vote for Politics – Re-enfranchise the Electorate seems more pressing by the day. The obsession with the daily opinion polls and the exact arithmetic of how parliament might stack up, rather than with the ideas allegedly being fought over, reveals the technocratic instincts of an elite that lacks a big Political bone in its collective body.
The arbitrary and shallow character of support in this election without politics makes it harder than ever before to predict the precise outcome. But one thing we can be certain of is that, contrary to the nonsense being spouted around the television debates, ‘we the people’ will not be the winners, reduced as we are to the status of that studio audience, forced to watch in silence while the leaders who stand for little more than their own re-election preen before the cameras – and prepare to wheel and deal behind closed doors.
It is understandable that many people are so disenchanted with the empty political choices on offer that they might say they favour a hung parliament, or just about anything else that is new and a slap in the face for the old parties. The trouble is, with our future in the balance, if we fail to recognise the need for Politics and leave the elite to govern by committee, we are the ones who are likely to be hung out to dry.
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