Who’s afraid of a hung parliament?

Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats (source David Spender)

The opinion polls are close and getting closer. An election that the Conservatives ought to have had in the bag, given the unpopularity of the Labour government and the depth of the recession, is now up for grabs. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg spent half the weekend denying that the election result might put him in a deciding position and the other half telling us what he would decide.

The prospect is of a hung parliament, where no single party has an overall majority and some kind of agreement will be needed between two or more parties in order to form a government. That agreement might be a coalition, or it might be to permit the creation of a minority government, but unless there is to be another election straightaway, agreement there must be.

Opinions towards the prospect of a hung parliament differ. Labour and the Conservatives, the parties that normally aspire to winning a majority in parliament, claim to fear the idea, predicting chaos and instability as a result (subtext: vote for them and not the Liberal Democrats). The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, think that it would be a good idea, and have even coined the term “balanced parliament” as it is generally considered preferable to be balanced than hung (subtext: it is the best election outcome they can hope for). Is there a dispassionate view of things, given that party political spokespeople are hopelessly compromised on the issue.

First, there is the possibility that what Labour and the Conservatives say is true, that a hung parliament would be unstable and chaotic. Examples such as Israel are quoted, where inter-party deals afford considerable influence to parties that won only a small share of the vote. Given the unprecedented scale of the economic crisis facing Britain at the moment, such instability might be a problem. If there is no clear plan for fixing the nation’s economic problems, the value of sterling might go down on the international markets and the cost of borrowing might go up. (The Liberal Democrats have been careful to argue that they will be on the side of financial rectitude in the event of such an unstable moment, but they would say that, wouldn’t they.)

Secondly, there is the possibility that a hung parliament could be very stable indeed. Examples such as Germany are quoted, where inter-party deals reinforce the areas of consensus between the parties and make it harder to break new policy ground. If one party in a coalition agreement refuses to do a deal, there is another one ready to come in from opposition on pretty much the same terms.

How can the same electoral outcome, a hung parliament, lead to such very different political outcomes in terms of chaos and instability? Why do different democracies behave in different ways?

The answer is that you cannot look just at the electoral outcome, you have to look at the whole democracy.

In Israel, where the country is small, politics can be very personal. Parties form and split on the basis of personality as much as on ideology. Stitching together a coalition depends on keeping a clutch of egos all in the same basket. Such a system might very easily tend towards instability.

Germany, on the other hand is a large country and – crucially – federal, so different political parties have to make deals on very different considerations. In one state within the federation, two parties might be in coalition government, while in another they might be fierce rivals, which means at federal level, whether those two parties work together or not, their relationship has got to remain functional. Such parties cannot declare or treat each other as bitter, mortal enemies. Stability is encouraged.

Coming back to Britain, what should we expect if we get a hung parliament here? Will our politics turn out to be more Israeli or more German? I don’t know the answer to this question and, for the reasons I explained earlier, it is difficult to separate the answer from the broader question of party politics (and this blog isn’t really supposed to be about party politics). We will have to wait and find out.

What I can say, though, is that a decline in the proportion of the vote going to the two largest parties, from more than 95 per cent in the 1950s to less than 70 per cent in 2005, makes hung parliaments in future increasingly likely. Given this, a reform of the overall British system of government will make such occasions easier to deal with. The outcome of the election is too important to leave to the electoral system alone.

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