Steve Richards: Bring on a hung parliament – and the drama that goes with it

Labour's 1997 landslide turned out tobeacurse on the Government

Wednesday 25 November 2009 01:00

Let's hear it for hung parliaments. At the moment they are as fashionable as Wigan Athletic, the football team that managed to concede nine goals to Spurs at the weekend. The former Chancellor and current shadow Business Secretary, Ken Clarke, has warned that a hung parliament would be a disaster. Writing with the authority of a cabinet minister who served in the 1970s minority Labour government, Roy Hattersley warns of unpredictable, darkly comic chaos. Some of my favourite columnists who reported on that particular parliament between 1974-1979 echo Hattersley's warnings. Those who have lived through hung parliaments would not want to do so again, they write, with shaking hands. Hung parliaments have few friends.

They deserve a few more. The veterans from the 1970s blame the lack of a governing majority for the travails of that decade. But Ted Heath was Prime Minister for the first tempestuous three and a half years and his secure majority offered him little comfort. Heath's traumas were as great as those faced by Wilson and Callaghan, from the three-day week to incomes policies that never worked. Arguably he would have performed more effectively in a hung parliament and would still have achieved his historic act of joining the Common Market. The 1970s were doomed to be turbulent because of factors well beyond the political arithmetic in the Commons. As it is the minority Labour government managed to introduce some significant social reforms, and by May 1979 showed a few signs of getting the economy under control.

An argument in favour of hung parliaments now arises directly from those days of never ending parliamentary drama. The House of Commons became the centre of attention as a matter of course in the 1970s, not because of an expenses scandal or contrived reforms in an attempt to make the legislative arena more "relevant". Landslides make the Commons a place of peripheral interest because governments and the rest of us know it will win virtually every vote.

In the 1970s the unpredictable nature of many key votes propelled it to the centre of all attention. I remember as a young teenager visiting the Commons' public gallery and witnessing Harold Wilson lose a key vote on industrial policy. It was as gripping as watching any great theatrical drama in the West End or a football match in which the outcome is decided on penalties. I was hooked on politics from that moment on and have always had problems when reading or hearing that the Commons is a pathetic irrelevance. It does not have to be.

The same applies to John Major's administration after 1992. The great moments of heightened drama did not occur in a television studio, but in the knife-edge votes on the Maastricht Treaty. At a point when politics is viewed with such disdain, and the place where elected politicians are supposed to make a difference is viewed hardly at all, there could be no better time for a hung parliament to provide a focus on the make-or-break votes and debates.

Of greater importance of course is whether an administration can govern effectively. There is little benefit to be had marvelling at the drama in the Commons if the country is falling apart as a result of the highly charged unpredictability.

On this the evidence is more subjective. In my view the early landslide majorities were a curse for this government, raising expectations and leading it to form unhealthy alliances with various media moguls in the hope of sustaining wide but shallow support. It would have been a better government if parliamentary arithmetic had forced it to pay more attention to its own MPs and the Liberal Democrats, and less to Rupert Murdoch's newspapers. Such a government would have introduced the necessary social reforms and increased public spending as this one did, but it would have been more daring in its constitutional revolution and in its approach towards Europe. At the very least Tony Blair's position on Iraq would have been subjected to more internal scrutiny. Its indiscriminate approach to civil liberties, although nowhere near as sinister or threatening as some believe, would have been challenged even more effectively than it has been. (Let us not forget Tony Blair was defeated in the Commons for the first time in his attempt to introduce detention without charge for 90 days).

If there had been a hung parliament in 1997 a revolution of sorts would have followed. Almost certainly Blair would have introduced electoral reform if he had not won a landslide, a move that might have brought together the progressive forces in British politics in a more coherent and sustainable way than under the auspices of a single party. When William Hague was the Conservatives' leader he told me that he thought Blair had a wicked plan to destroy the Conservatives by introducing electoral reform and then he discovered to his relief that the new Prime Minister had no such cunning intention. As a counter argument Blair told me he thought it would be "quixotic" to make the change when Labour had won a big majority. He was right. But that is a case for hung parliaments and not against electoral reform.

What of the future? If there is a hung parliament there will almost certainly be no formal coalition government, even if Nick Clegg and Vince Cable would like to join one. Clegg is trapped by what is known as his party's "triple lock", a hidden rule that might become of vital relevance. Before entering a coalition he is bound to secure the agreement of his MPs, other national representatives and the membership. Such an assertive set of bodies is unlikely to give the go ahead to a coalition with a Labour party that had lost its overall majority, or a Conservative party in just about any circumstance.

There are some wild cards after the forthcoming election, the most potent being Labour's commitment to a referendum on electoral reform. In February 1974 Heath's attempt to stay in power with the Liberals was scuppered by his refusal to offer a change in the voting system. Now Gordon Brown is committed to a position in which he must state repeatedly that he wants this to be the last election to be fought under first past the post.

The most likely scenario would be a minority Conservative government, a more attractive proposition than one with a big majority where its mistaken policies on Europe and the economy could be pursued without any obstacles and with the support of certain influential newspapers, an ominously familiar dynamic.

Party leaders affect indifference to opinion polls. Whenever questioned they declare with a dismissive wave of the hand that polls come and go, implying they can hardly be bothered to read them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Polls determine the political mood in a way that is extraordinary and overwhelming.

A poll at the weekend, showing a significant narrowing of the Tory lead, has slightly challenged the settled mood. Another one yesterday suggesting that Labour was gaining ground in Scotland makes another nudge against the consensus that the Conservatives are marching towards a solid majority. In truth no one knows whether there will be a hung parliament. The more relevant question for now is whether such an outcome would be good or bad for the country.

If there were a close result there would not be the euphoria that greeted Labour's landslide in 1997, but there would be grounds for mild relief and optimism. In politics mild optimism is a safer emotion than euphoria.

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