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Who’s Afraid of a Hung Parliament?

27 April 2010

12:06 AM

27 April 2010

12:06 AM

So it seems you have to vote Conservative to accept the party’s invitation to join the government of Great Britain? Who knew? Tory warnings of the dire consequences of a hung parliament are understandable but, I suspect, unfortunate. There is little evidence that the electorate believes that a hung parliament will be a disaster, far less than they can be cajoled into thinking that they’re letting Britain down if they don’t vote Conservative.

And that, my friends, is the underlying message sent by the Tories’ blitz against a hung parliament.

A hung election might not be ideal but it might also be a fitting end to this exhausted, depressing parliament. But it need not be the disaster the Tories claim. The PDF they released today – and the advert – is thin gruel. Essentially they argue that 1974 was a disaster and this proves that hung parliaments are and always must be a terrible thing. Secondly, they say that many city types worry about financial uncertainty if no party wins overall control. Thirdly, the Tories warn that anything that moves Britain down the road to proportional representation is a bad thing because it’s a bad thing that always ends badly.

To take these in turn:

1. This is not 1974. The country faces severe difficulties and cobbling together a government will not be easy. Nevertheless, doing so may also provide a measure of political cover for some of the awkward and painful decisions that must be taken. In this sense, a coalition might actually, if organised properly, find it easier to tackle the deficit and national debt than might a Tory party that commanded a single-digit majority.

2. The logic of the Tory argument vis a vis the City is actually that a Labour majority might be preferable to a hung parliament or a minority Conservative ministry. No uncertainty there! I assume, however, that this is not what the Tories mean to suggest.

But asking an electorate thoroughly scunnered by the City to pause before voting to think of the poor chaps in the City does not seem a tactic likely to persuade many voters to endorse the Conservatives. In any case, given how up-for-grabs the Conservatives’ own plans are, I’m not sure that the markets are going to be happy or calm anyway.  


3. The countries the Tories use as examples of the horrors of Proportional Representation run amok are: Belgium, Italy, Israel and Germany. Of these Belgium and, for different reasons, Israel are special cases. The former being essentially two countries in one and so liable to political stalemate regardless of the electoral system; the latter uses one of the most proportional voting methods combined with a very low threshold for parliamentary representation that gives an unusual amount of influence to tiny parties. 

It’s true that there have been many changes of government in Italy since 1944 and that this is always ripe for good sport. It’s a myth, however, that Italian politics has been "unstable". Sure, governments came and went every couple of years but the largest party in the country – the Christian Democrats – remained in power for nearly fifty years. You can’t get much more stable than that. (This stability, mind you, caused other problems.) Then again, in 1994 the voting system was modified to award 75% of seats on a FPTP basis and the result was Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. His victory, of course, no more proves the intrinsic flaws of FPTP than Andreotti’s longevity does the hopelessness of PR. It depends on the system and the particulars of the country involved.

Finally, on this part of the matter, the notion that PR has been a disaster for Germany seems a trifle far-fetched. What works for Germany might not work for Britain but the idea that PR in Germany has made the country impossible to govern these past five decades is, well, eccentric. At its simplest: Germany can just about afford to bail-out Greece. We couldn’t. Again, this doesn’t prove the German election system "better" than ours but the Germans seem to have survived the curse of endless hung parliaments.

Now you might say that the Italian example shows another problem of PR – namely that it’s dificult to throw out incumbents. And sometimes that can be the case. But even Scotland, albeit narrowly, managed to unseat the incumbent Labour-Lib Dem coalition in 2007 so change, or some facsimile of change anyway, can happen even in the least promising environment.

Alternatively you could look to Ireland where they use multi-member constituencies elected by STV. The 2002 election in Ireland was unusual: it was the first contest since 1969 in which the governing coalition was returned to power. In every other case the electorate demanded and received at least some measure of change. (And only once in the history of the Free State Republic has a government changed without there being an election.)

Then there are our friends in the colonies. It’s six years since Canada’s four party system (elected by FPTP)  produced a government capable of commanding a majority but despite the threat of permanent crisis Canada continues along on its quiet, well-behaved, successful way.

Meanwhile, despite PR employing AV* Australia has a system that contrives to produce governments capable of forming a majority. In part, true, this reflects their more-or-less two-party system but in the British context just because the Liberals (or Labour!) do "well" in this election it doesn’t mean they will always be in a king-making position. And across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand switched to PR in 1996 and every parliament since then has been hung. Despite this handicap it does not seem as though the government has ceased to function.

In other words systems matter but not as much as outcomes. And good "mainstream" politicians will probably thrive regardless of the system. There is no perfect system. All that may be said is that the gains you make in one area are often almost exactly matched by the losses you make elsewhere.

However, just because hung parliaments and/or proportional representation can lead to messy, weak government in which everything is always up for grabs does not mean that this has to be the case. Indeed one could argue the point the other way: the supposed instability of coalition government may make prudent government more, not less, probable. At the very least it may also protect one from parliamentary dictatorship.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t decent arguments in favour of FPTP. Custom being not the least of them while one may also think it imprudent to embark on major constitutional reform on the back of a single, unusual, election result.

But the Tories’ arguments – or at least the ones they are choosing to deploy – suggest that calamity is the inevitable consequence of a hung parliament and/or proportional representation. This, unfortunately, is poppycock.

I’d like David Cameron to be the next Prime Minister but I’d prefer it if he became so without insulting everyone’s intelligence along the way.

*Edited for clarity: strictly speaking, AV or preferential voting is a majoritarian system, not a proportional one.

UPDATE: Sunder Katwala makes a good point too: Cameron’s argument that FTPT works because it allows you to throw governments out would be better if a) other systems weren’t also capable of producing such a result and b) the British system didn’t actually reward incumbency as strongly as it does. Looked at the other way, an unpopular British government can survive…


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