All parliaments are hung (this one included)

The media loves nothing more than debating the prospects for a hung parliament, often implying that all sorts of let’s-frighten-the-children style doom and destruction will result; the reality is that all parliaments are hung in a very real sense.  To win an effective majority under our first-past-the-post system usually around requires about 40% of the vote depending on how it’s dispersed around the country.  But to achieve that a party must be a broad church somehow combining pretty disparate strands of political thought not to mention some giant egos so any winning party is inevitably a coalition, but an undeclared and opaque one. 

Thus in recent years Labour has been a coalition of Old Labour and New Labour, of Blairites and Brownites, of progressives and died-in-the-wool conservatives and goodness knows what other factions.  Similarly Conservatives are a coalition of Europhiles and Europhobes, of Cameronian semi-liberals and backwoodsmen, of libertarians and One Nation Tories.  Some Europhobes have even formally split (except where they judge that it’s better to support the Conservative candidate) to form UKIP .

Naturally the dominant faction has to watch its Ps and Qs to some extent; they may have to toss a few crumbs to the others to keep them from getting too restless but if they really are in a strong position they can even ride roughshod over their nominal colleagues.  Given the immense powers of patronage that our Prime Ministers have this heavily biases the system towards an elective dictatorship.  That is not a good plan although it can work moderately well provided the party of power itself has internal rules that enable it to depose a strong leader who is ‘loosing it’ – which, far from being unusual, is typical of leaders who have done about 10 years.  On the evidence the Conservative do (or at least did when they deposed Margaret Thatcher), and Labour doesn’t – as the protracted and very messy ejection of Blair showed.  I stand to be corrected, but I think that Lib Dems have no constitutional mechanism to depose the leader short of a vote (triggered how?) of the whole membership who may not be in possession of the facts.  This is not good.

For a democrat another big difficulty with the undeclared and opaque coalitions that are the main parties is that most voters have no idea whose is calling the shots, which faction is riding high and which is weak and they have little or no say in which factions are up and which are down.  Except for the tiny minority who follow politics obsessively (1%?), voters just don’t know; all they see of a party is its public face carefully crafted by the marketing men to have maximum appeal irrespective of the internal party dynamics.  Talk about the proverbial deals in smoke-filled rooms (except they are presumably now smokeless)!   At least in a ‘hung parliament’ the factions are plain for all to see and people have had the opportunity to vote for the one they prefer.  Other things being equal, the best supported parties will have the upper hand in negotiations about a programme for government.

So it’s total nonsense to argue that a ‘hung parliament’ is in any way a problem for the country, quite the reverse in fact.

Footnote 1: Just because overt and transparent coalitions are potentially a ‘Good Thing’ does not mean that they are invariably so.  Where the electoral system encourages a multiplicity of small parties (Italy for many years, Israel now) it can be difficult to put together a stable coalition (especially one strong enough to take tough decisions) and extremist factions with little support can wag the political dog.  As in most things, there is a happy medium.

Footnote 2:  While a coalition may be good for the country I’m much less convinced that it’s good for its junior partners.  They risk being tarred with the failures of their senior partner and may lack the freedom that opposition confers to develop their thinking.

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