Hung Parliament or Strong Parliament?

The Tory Party’s media ‘Agents of Doom’ (the right-wing press) are currently peddling the line that the ‘threat’ of a hung parliament will send the markets and the economy into a terrifying downward spiral of chaos and that the only way to avoid this nightmare scenario is to vote Conservative. Er, no thanks.

It is, of course, a complete load of nonsense. The British electoral system is a bizarre throwback to an era when the Whigs and Tories were the only two shows in town, and first-past-the-post provided the simplest method of choosing between them. Things have moved on a little since then.

Although Britain still likes to think of itself as the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, the bringer of democracy to the world outside, most of the rest of the world left our model behind some time ago. Yet we are still stuck with a system that nearly always rewards a single party with a parliamentary majority even if (as in 2005) their share of the vote is as meagre as 36%. Maybe not this time though.

The opinion polls (I know, I know, only one poll matters) are currently painting a picture of an ever-tightening race, particularly in the marginal constituencies, and it’s beginning to look as though David Cameron may have something of a job on his hands winning the seats he needs to form a majority administration. And so we have the possibility of a hung parliament.

Would that really be such a bad thing? Would a minority or coalition government really be a catastrophic threat to our economic well-being? Some of our nearest neighbours (Germany and Sweden, for example) seem to manage economic stability while governing through consensus – why should we be any different?

Of course, it’s fair to point out that British politics isn’t terribly good at consensus, but I would suggest that that’s probably because the voting system doesn’t easily lend itself to co-operation. If everyone knows the rule is winner-takes-all then why would anyone bother to try to find common ground with their opponents? A hung parliament this time around may very well lead to a change in the system and therefore the rules of engagement. Labour has already indicated a willingness to at least entertain the possibility of proportional representation and one wonders how long the Conservative Party can continue to bury its head in the sand over the issue of a fair voting system.

It won’t always work. Sometimes the differences of philosophy will be just too great. But does a system which delivers up to five years of ‘elective dictatorship‘ tell a story of unbridled success and stability?

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2 comments

  1. Yes, I’ve always been sceptical of the Tories’ demand for “strong government” whilst purporting to be the party of “small government”. It seems to me that all the evidence (especially in the US) is that when governments have to rely on others’ support they are more, well, conservative. The years when you have a President from one party and a Congress with a majority from the other are years in which the growth is psending is kept down and so on. So if you want “small government” there’s nothing wrong with “weak government”.

    Also, it’s quite instructive to note just how frequently governments in this country have had to rely on votes from other parties in parliament to get their program done. I saw a statistic somewhere – perhaps at the Electoral Reform Society – once that seemed to be saying that in only sixty of the last 130 years have we lived under a government that was able to govern alone. This includes, for example, Major having to rely on Ulster Unionists in a ew votes.

    I think our aversion probably comes from the seventies.

  2. Got to agree with all of this. The only consensus between the parties is that they’ve all got to compromise any ideology they have in order to appeal to a very small number of marginal voters. The other consequence of our “first past the post” system is that more and more people on the marginsof society feel disenfranchised. The consequence of this for a vast number of people is that they don’t vote. If they don’t vote, then their patronage isn’t sought. Therefore, no party needs to have an agenda that deals with genuinely deprived areas.

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