The latest polls showing that the electoral race between the two main parties is painfully close have sparked numerous debates among politicians and the electorate about the prospect of a hung parliament. Populus report very little gap existing between Labour and the Tories in a hundred marginal seats; YouGov only found a two-point lead in sixty key marginals. The Tories are baffled and panicking, Labour is pleasantly surprised and milking the Ashcroft saga for all it’s worth, and the Liberal Democrats are preparing for their role in a possible coalition government.
All this hype is rather amusing, considering that a ‘hung parliament’ is regarded as a regular parliament in many other European states. Moreover, coalition governments have been formed in the UK before, thanks to devolution. Still, it is a break from the norm for us Brits, and Westminster has little precedent for dealing with a situation in which no party wins an overall majority (only Wilson’s 1974 Labour minority government).
My personal feelings about a hung parliament are mixed. On the one hand, I fear that Gordon Brown might be allowed to stick around. Unlike MPs, ministers retain their roles during an election, which means that Brown could continue to be Prime Minister with a minority government. I think most people find this possible outcome troubling, not least supporters and members of the Labour Party – many of whom would prefer a narrow loss, as it would provide the opportunity to reorganise and rejuvenate (i.e. get rid of Gordon).
Conversely, a coalition government would be a positive development for British politics, regardless of whether the Lib Dems side with Labour or the Conservatives. If Clegg were to have political leverage bestowed upon him by a hung parliament result, he would probably demand a referendum on reforming the electoral system in exchange for his support. FPTP produces a high level of disproportionality in terms of how votes are translated into seats. By disadvantaging smaller parties, it maintains a 3-party system (or 2.5-party, as the Lib Dems don’t fare well under the current electoral system and tactical voters shy away from them) and thus lowers voter choice. To see it changed would be a major plus. Aside from what might be achieved from Lib Dem bargaining, there are other benefits to having the third largeset party included in the executive. In an interview in today’s issue of The Independent, Clegg declares that he will ensure fiscal responsibility if he is to govern alongside Labour, and he will make sure the deficit isn’t cut immediately at the expense of economic recovery if he is to work with the Tories. The Lib Dems could serve as a check on the more misguided policy areas of the two main parties.
Having said all this, I believe that Cameron will still clinch it, if only by a tiny majority. Feel free to point out if I’m wrong in two months’ time!