Alan Watkins: A hung parliament is a red herring

Just because the winning party has a tiny majority, it doesn't mean it cannot govern
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The Independent Online

We are now stuck with the phrase "hung parliament". Everyone knows what is meant by it, though in our politics it goes back only to 1974. The phenomenon itself goes back for centuries. All it means is that no party holds an absolute majority in the legislature.

In the past few weeks I have seen the figure for an absolute majority given as 322, just below the halfway mark for a chamber of 650. This allows for the Speaker and his deputies, who do not vote, and for various intransigent Irishmen, who pocket the cash but refuse to take any further part in the proceedings.

According to my sums, this brings the figure down further. No matter. The magic number is 326. When the last turnip-tosser has filed the return from Norfolk on Friday 7 May, it is the figure that David Cameron will have in front of him.

Something very similar happened in 1964. The leader of the opposition, Harold Wilson, won by four. On that occasion, there was no speculation about a hung parliament. The term had not been invented then. Wilson had started the campaign as lord of the estate he would shortly inherit. The Labour Party did not seem to realise that it had a 90-seat Conservative majority to crack first.

The Conservatives today have no such false expectations. Indeed, the lesson that is absorbed at the candidates' school is not so much that Wilson nearly lost in 1964 as that Neil Kinnock really did lose in 1992.

In the past couple of months, ever since the Tories became less confident, and this was reflected in the polls, the political nation has been obsessed by the hung parliament. The concept, whether by this or another name, makes periodical though unpredictable appearances.

In 1950-51, for instance, the Labour government had a majority of five. Ministers were old or ill; King George VI was not in the best of health, and was to die in 1952; Clement Attlee decided to cut and run. There was no constitutional crisis. But the Conservative Party and the Palace, for reasons of their own, decided to turn it into one.

There was no crisis of any kind when Wilson secured his narrow majority 13 years later. Most observers had expected him to go to the country sooner rather than later. In fact, he chose the moment giving him the greatest advantage in March 1966. The youthful editor of The Spectator, at that time Nigel Lawson, wrote the leading article before the result of the election and predicted a Labour landslide, as duly happened.

In 1974, the hung parliament formed no part of the well-equipped crystal-ball gazer's apparatus. Everyone assumed that Edward Heath would win. Turning to BBC4 the other day, I came across a highly informative programme on the February election of 1974. I was shocked by my youthful appearance. I remember making the still valid point that any offer of support was quite different from joining a coalition.

The hung parliament lasted until Wilson called the second election of 1974. This resulted in a Labour majority of three. The history of 1974-79 has now become falsified. In February-October 1974 there was a hung parliament. There was then a short spell with a tiny Labour majority. In April 1976, Labour lost Walsall North; in July 1976, Labour lost both South Ayrshire and Paisley; in October 1977, Labour lost Newham North-east.

James Callaghan lost his majority almost as soon as he became leader. He had lost it before the formation of the Lib-Lab pact in 1977. That, after all, was one of the reasons for the agreement in the first place. In 1974-79 accordingly, we really did have a hung parliament for most of the time.

In the 1980s, we had several periods of phantom hung parliaments. The first followed the creation of the SDP in 1981. Four parties (those were the days when the Liberals and the Social Democrats pursued separate existances) were, or were supposed to be, in competition. Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War soon resolved matters in typically brutalist fashion.

But the speculation was revived with the dual leadership of David Owen and David Steel. At the 1987 election, Lord Owen and Lord Steel (as they are today) performed their double act. As Lord Steel had perfected his impression of Scottish taciturnity, so Lord Owen would give full rein to Celtic exuberance.

Lord Owen would refuse to write things down beforehand – a failing he shared with the late Michael Foot, though in Foot's case he had more excuse, because he could not see properly. The time I expended on hung parliaments, when it was quite evident that the Conservatives were going to form the next government is now, in retrospect, quite extraordinary.

It is a paradox that hung parliaments come about, before our very eyes, and nobody notices at the time. After the 1992 election, John Major had a majority of 21. At the dissolution of 1997, he had a deficit of three. For much of this period, the Government was trying to govern without a majority.

The great temptation for a leader of the Liberal Democrats is to lay down all sorts of terms and conditions. Lord Owen was bad enough; Lord Ashdown was much worse. Lord Ashdown trusted Tony Blair, partly out of a simplicity of nature, and partly out of personal ambition. If Mr Blair could take in such a figure wise in the ways of the political world as Roy Jenkins – as Mr Blair did over electoral reform – what chance was there for poor Paddy Ashdown?

When Charles Kennedy became leader of his party in 1999 (he was the most successful leader of modern times) he decided not to waste any more time on demanding six impossible things before breakfast. He stuck to his resolution, as far as I could see.

When Sir Menzies Campbell succeeded Mr Kennedy, he maintained his promise. Alas, he could not keep it up. In a speech at Perth, he weakened. Perhaps fortunately, no one could remember the exact demands he had made. There was a minor row because he had omitted any call for electoral reform. Abashed, Sir Menzies replied that electoral reform was so obvious – so much part of policy – that it was scarcely worth mentioning.

My advice to Nick Clegg would be to have as little as possible to do with lists. Something is left out, or something is included that ought not to have been there in the first place. The political conventions are fairly well established by now. The party holding the largest number of seats forms the government, unless the existing government can form an arrangement with a smaller party.

However, if the Conservatives, say, came top, with Labour second, and the Liberal Democrats third, Labour would not be justified in forming an alliance to keep out the Tories. The same would be true if Labour came top and the Tories and the Liberals combined together to defeat Labour.

Constitutional doctrine would not be allowed to overcome the will of the majority. The true precedent is Ramsay MacDonald in 1929, when the Conservatives and the Liberals could have combined to defeat Labour, but we had a Labour government instead. And on 7 May we shall wake up to find ourselves with a new government.