So if you were following the election results flood (or should I say trickle) in on Friday morning, you’ll know that the Tories won the most seats, but not enough to have a majority, the Labour party lost out big time, coming a comfortable second and the Liberal Democrats had a poor night as well, winning fewer seats than last time, despite getting more votes. This means that we have a Hung Parliament for the first time in 36 years.
The last one was in 1974, when Harold Wilson’s Labour won most seats, despite polling fewer votes than Edward Heath’s Conservative party, who had been in power since 1970, when Heath won power from Wilson. As is constitutional, Heath tried to form a coalition with Jeremy Thorp, the leader of the Liberal Party, who has polled a lot of votes, but typically not many seats. Thorp demanded electoral reform, which Heath was unwilling to grant, so resigned. Wilson became Prime Minister, but at the head of a minority government. The Liberals did not even have enough seats to form a coalition with either party and guarantee a majority, so any government was inevitably unstable. On this occasion Harold Wilson battled on in a minority government until October, when he called another election and won an outright majority.
This is one of the only occasions in British history in which we’ve had a hung parliament because of the nature of our electoral system, the others are even less like the current situation. In 1929 the Labour Party again won most seats with fewer votes than the Conservatives. Wikipedia is sadly silent on what happened as a result of this election however.
Nevertheless the current situation is unique in British electoral history. With the LibDems doing relatively poorly however it is not as complex as it could have been. If we leave aside the 20 or so seats which belong to small parties and look at the three main parties, we have a situation whereby any coalition would have to contain the Conservatives because a Liberal Democrat/Labour coalition would not have enough seats to form a majority. They would then have to scrounge around for votes from the other parties and maybe even a few errant Tories. This would inevitably be very unstable and deeply unpopular with a public who resoundingly voted against Labour. For Brown to go on a Prime Minister have lost an election would be an affront to democracy. Just as in 1974 the incumbent Prime Minister cannot realistically form a coalition. Had the LibDems done slightly better and won enough seats for a Lib/Lab coalition to work, Clegg would be faced with a very difficult decision. As it stands he has only to decide whether to leave the Tories high and dry, or to form a coalition with them.
A Conservative/Liberal Democrat alliance looks most likely at this point; however there is the option that Cameron could try to go it alone as a minority Government, as Wilson did in 1974. They would be left with trying to scramble around for enough votes from Labour, LibDem and smaller parties to get legislation through. Most likely this would be a temporary solution with another General Election very soon. Indeed if the two previous examples of a Hung Parliament teach us anything, it’s that another election is sure to follow soon enough; it is almost a certainty if Cameron tries to go alone it will. The problem he faces is that, with the recession and the massive budget deficit, he will have to make major cuts in spending without corresponding cuts in taxes. This is likely to be unpopular with people, so he may not get the support he wants to be able to call and election. It would be better for him to form a coalition and so spread the blame for the cuts, rather than taking it all on himself and making his party unelectable for a generation.
This leaves us with a Con/Lib coalition, unless the Labour Party wants to form an alliance with the Tories, but I find that unlikely. The trouble is that there is a lot of differences of opinion between them; the LibDems will insist on electoral reform, which the Tories don’t want, their views on the economy are very different, as are their views on immigration. They will have trouble reconciling their differences, but if they do it will mean that the government will not only have a majority of the seats, but also the majority of the votes if you add together the Tories and the LibDems. That’s not something that has happened in a very long time.
One of the major reasons for Clegg agreeing to a coalition with the Tories is that (if it works) it will show that a coalition can be made to work. One of the major arguments against PR is that coalitions do not work and will lead to indecision and political horse-trading. A Con/Lib coalition could create a socially liberal, economically conservative party in line with the old fashioned Liberal party, which actually forms a good and decisive government. This would show the country that a coalition can work. It would take some of the best politicians in Westminster to make such an alliance work, indeed I don’t even think the best politicians in Westminster could make it work, but it would be lovely if it could happen.
Most likely we will see a loose, sketchy Con/Lib coalition which would struggle with indecision and political horse-trading for 18 months or so until the Tories feel comfortable enough calling another election, by which time the Labour Party will have imploded and the Tories will gain a decent majority. It will be back to more of the same old politics with no hope of electoral reform and no real change. Despite all the excitement the status quo will be restored within 18 months and Politics will become dull again. Then again we can but hope that our politicians aren’t lying to us and we’ll end up with some real change this time, we could also hope that the sun doesn’t rise tomorrow morning.