Perils of a hung parliament — and of PR
With the opinion polls momentarily suggesting a narrow gap between the Conservatives and Labour, the chattering classes’ newspapers and current affairs programmes on television are full of pundits agonising about the dangerous implications of a hung parliament after the impending general election — i.e. a result in which no single party has an overall majority in the house of commons.
The main anxiety arises from the uncertainties implicit in a hung parliament and a minority government dependent on other parties for its survival. There could be no certainty that such a government could survive for more than a few months or even weeks, although it might — Alex Salmond’s minority Scottish National Party government in Edinburgh, elected by PR (proportional representation), has proved remarkably durable; but there are few party leaders on the political scene at the moment who can match Salmond in agility. Many commentators fear the effects of uncertainties like these on the markets, and especially on the willingness of investors to continue to lend money to the government (essentially by buying government bonds). It’s even suggested that the uncertainty implicit in a hung parliament could cause a collapse in the value of sterling against other currencies, with no-one able to predict with any confidence what kind of government would be in power in Britain in a year’s time, or less, or what kind of fiscal and economic policies to deal with the national debt would be in place in a few months’ time, or whether those policies would be continued over even the medium term. The devaluation of sterling (by the markets, not by any specific action of government) since the banking crisis and the recession has of course been good for Britain, making us more competitive and restoring sterling to a more realistic exchange rate — at the expense, be it said, of our trading partners. Beggar-your-neighbour is a game that more than one can play. But a real collapse of sterling’s value could be catastrophic. Markets don’t like uncertainty, and uncertainty is the inevitable companion of a hung parliament, at any rate in our system (not necessarily in other countries’ systems, however, for various historical and other reasons, especially in places where power-sharing is a political requirement).
There’s also much speculation about the procedural and political intricacies of a hung parliament. Could Gordon Brown hang on as prime minister even if the Conservatives had won more seats than Labour, relying on smaller left-of-centre minority parties to support him in a vote of confidence? (In principle, yes: there’d be no need for a formal coalition and unless Brown were to go to the Palace and resign, no need or even opportunity for any decision by the Queen to appoint a new prime minister.)
One recent commentator speculated that in such a situation, Brown would have to resign and would advise the Queen to invite David Cameron, as leader of the biggest party in parliament, to try to form the new government. (Wrong: this is one situation in which an outgoing prime minister is not required to tender advice on who should succeed him, and even if he or she does offer such advice, the Queen is not obliged to act on it. It’s entirely up to her to decide whom to invite to try to form a government, although in real life she would almost certainly call on the leader of the biggest party in parliament to have the first go.)
What if the Liberal Democrats, likely to have the next largest representation in the house of commons after the Conservatives and Labour, were to announce — as strongly hinted by their leader, Nick Clegg — that as the Tories had won more votes nationally (or more seats in the house of commons, or both) than any other party, the LibDems would give conditional support to a Tory government under Cameron but not to a continuing minority Labour government under Brown? Would that force Brown to resign and the Queen to call on Cameron to succeed him? (Probably not; Brown might hope to survive in No. 10 Downing Street with the support of other small parties and dare the Lib Dems to bring him down in favour of the Tories.)
What if the LibDems offered to support a minority Labour government on condition that Brown stepped down and was replaced by a new Labour leader and therefore as the new prime minister? (Very risky. Brown would have no way of ensuring that once he resigned, the Queen would automatically invite the new Labour leader to form a government, however strongly Brown might have advised her to do so. Depending on the relative strengths of the parties in parliament, the Queen might well accept Brown’s resignation but then invite Cameron to form a government.)
More uncertainties, then. Grist for the mills of the political and constitutional pundits, but not for many of the rest of us. The general view is that such uncertainties and their consequences for sterling, the government’s ability to borrow, and the whole political system, would not be tolerable for more than a few months, and that sooner rather than later the leader of the minority government (whether Brown, Cameron, or, say, David Miliband) would be virtually forced to resign — even if still not defeated in a vote of confidence — and ask the Queen to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election, in the hope that this time the result would give one party or the other an overall majority, thus ending the uncertainties. (It’s worth remembering however that this is another situation where the Queen is under no constitutional obligation to grant a prime minister’s request for a dissolution and fresh elections: she would be perfectly entitled to invite someone else to try to form a government capable of winning the support of a majority of MPs if she judged that another election so soon after the last would not be in the national interest. Unlikely, of course: but not inconceivable. Another potential uncertainty.)
There’s one important but rather neglected lesson to be learned from all these anxieties and uncertainties arising from the prospect of a hung parliament. If, as the Liberal Democrats have long demanded (for pretty obvious reasons) and as increasing numbers of other left-of-centre activists and commentators are apparently beginning to agree, Britain were to adopt a system of proportional representation for elections to the house of commons, a certain and necessary consequence would be that there would be a hung parliament after every single election, and not just very occasionally as is the case under our present system of First Past the Post. We would have to endure these dangers and unavoidable adverse consequences after every election — and there would be no available escape route, as we have now, via the holding of a fresh election in the hope of getting a party with an overall majority out of it, for PR would make such a result impossible. No UK political party since the 1930s has ever won as much as 50 per cent of the votes cast, so in a proportional system no party could win an overall majority in the house of commons.
It’s a point that the zealous advocates of PR ought perhaps to ponder. There are plenty of other objections to PR — I have tried to set out some of the more cogent ones in the past, for example here, here and (especially) here (including in my responses to many comments on them). But the uncertainties surrounding minority government in a hung parliament constitute a significant objection to PR that the current state of the opinion polls should force us to confront honestly and frankly. Another ritual recitation of the unfairness of First Past the Post is not an acceptable or adequate response: no electoral system is without its drawbacks and injustices, and those advocating PR have an obligation to show that an endless succession of hung parliaments has fewer bad consequences for sound and predictable government than continuing to live with FPTP, warts and all. Myself, I think they’ll have their work cut out.
Having said all this, I continue to believe that the Tories will win the forthcoming election with a reasonably workable overall majority, and that all the current fever and panic over a hung parliament will turn out to have been strictly for the media birds — at least until and unless we adopt PR. But that’s just my very tentative forecast for this week. I may well change my mind twenty times or more between now and the election, so please don’t hold me to it. Anyway, predicting the future is a mug’s game, especially when you can’t begin to know how long an unpopular, even if not a minority, government and its policies are going to be able to survive.