Canvassing questions #3: Hung parliament

In this series of blog posts I’m looking into the questions I’ve been asked whilst out canvassing.  One that has come up repeatedly has been ‘why would a hung parliament be a bad thing?’.  As I looked online for additional information to answer this, I realised how much debate is happening – from mainstream press to popular online forums such as Mumsnet (http://bit.ly/bACu1B) – most of which has highlighted the confusion around this area.

It’s no secret that the Conservatives believe it would be a bad thing for the country.  With David Cameron recently stating it would be  “damaging for Britain” (see BBC article here).  But why is this? Lets take a look…

What is a hung parliament?

In simple terms, it’s when no single party has an overall majority i.e. which means no party has more than half of MPs in the House of Commons.  In these circumstances it means the government will not be able to win votes to pass laws without the support of members of other parties.

What has happened before?

Some might argue that would be a refreshing thing for democracy, right?  i.e. a perfect scenario where parties work nicely together and come to a common consensus on every decision.  The reality is far from ideal though, as was proven in 1974 during the last (short-lived) hung parliament, as this recent article by BBC Magazine points out.

Lord Donoghue, the Senior Policy Advisor to Harold Wilson during the previous short-lived hung parliament in 1974 pointed out the lack of decision making power can lead to Short-termism. Donoghue pointed out:

“You are aware, as you go through the front door of Number 10 Downing Street every morning, that the government might fall by the evening”.  Right now, with the economic crisis alone, where we need to be making the right long term decisions (never mind the war in Afghanistan etc)  having a short-term hand-to-mouth focus on policy could lead to poor decision making.  Lord Norton explains it even better “You can govern but you can’t govern proactively”.  Surely something we require from the government we vote for.

The article also highlights that this causes the bigger decisions to get delayed, because the parties enter into a process of ‘perpetual electioneering’. With Lord Donoghue pointing out “Many policy announcements were being seen as potential general election manifesto promises”.  Alwyn Turner, an author who has written books about that period pointed out the budget of that 1974 was a “giveaway Budget to sweeten people up”.  Something we really can’t afford right now.

What are the concerns for a hung parliament in 2010?

The Conservatives have clearly stated they see a hung parliament scenario as dangerous for the Country.  David Cameron echoes the views from above in a recent interview with the BBC stating “We are fighting for an overall majority, we think that would be best for Britain. We think a hung parliament would be damaging, the uncertainty would be bad for Britain”.  Judging by 1974 this is a very realistic scenario too, which is likely to irritate the general public, as pointed out by Dave Haslam (author of ‘The Real Story of the 1970’s) when he explained that in 1974 “People were frustrated that whoever was governing hadn’t got a clear mandate. As always what you want from a government is a government that can deal with long-term problems, if you have in effect a hung Parliament… everything is this week.”

The Economy

When it comes the economic recovery, Ken Clarke believes it would be “An economic distaster”.  He explained to the London Evening Standard that “Markets are very fragile. Once people stop shorting (betting against) the euro they are quite ready to short sterling. Bond markets could easily go up again, with the result that UK interest rates are driven up.”, he continued “The electorate will bring upon themselves the consequences of financial panic if they produce a hung parliament or a Labour minority government. It would be catastrophic.”

What are others saying?

It isn’t just the Conservatives who are pointing out the risks to the Economy.  Throughout March there were lots of articles about concerns in the City of a hung parliament.  From The Guardian (on March 2nd)  which led with the headline “Fears of hung parliament put pressure on pound” to The Spectator (on 31st March) with the (rather long) headline “Whitehall’s hung parliament contingency plans vindicate Tory alarm over the economy”.

A recent survey (summarised here) of financial services practitioners carried out by the Chartered Institute for Securities & Investments also found 59 per cent of respondents believe a parliament where no political party has an outright majority will hamper progress in this area.  In fact, one in five (21 per cent) of respondents said such as situation would cause the country to fall into a ‘prolonged recession’.  Echoing the points above, one person was quoted saying that “Barely any legislation would be passed because of an ongoing blood bath created by warring political parties”.

What is the risk of a hung parliament really happening?

It is a reality and the current media coverage of the election shows there is still a real risk of a hung parliament.  This is something Gordon Brown seems to be coming to terms with, and just this week has urged voters to “Vote Lib Dem where Labour can’t win” as reported on Politics.co.uk.  No doubt this would work in Labour’s favour, or rather Gordon Brown’s as he has made it clear that he would stay on as leader for another 5 years if Labour stay in power.

The Choice

If you don’t want another 5 years of Gordon Brown at the helm, then the choice is clear for the electorate.  If you vote for the Conservatives you can help ensure a majority government who can act decisively and make long term decisions, or vote for Labour or LibDems (or other fringe parties) and risk a hung parliament and the potential undesirable side effects or 5 more years of the same.

Visit the ‘Canvassing questions’ for more questions and answers by clicking here

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