musings > politics

On the Election, and Hung Parliaments

27 Apr, 2010 · 7 min read

So the general election is nearly upon us, and for the first time in years there is a strong possibility that we cannot predict the outcome 4 million years in advance. Not only that, but there is a strong possibility that on 7th May, the UK will have what’s called a ‘hung parliament’.

The term has been banded about quite a bit during this election campaign, and as such it has been explain in various ways by different sources. That however, is not going to stop me from throwing in my two cents.

Because of the way our election process works, it is possible for a party to lose a general election, and yet remain in power. This arises because the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to decide elections. I won’t go into how and why this is a stupid way of deciding, or even why it is a good way. Suffice to say that one of the benefits is that it usually provides a decisive winner of the election, particularly in a two-party state, and has thus stuck around long after some have called for its removal.

But as I have mentioned, even though the election winner can clearly be decided, they do not necessarily win Number 10. The only comparison I find myself drawing is a Harry Potter analogy. In the game of Quidditch (I still can’t believe I’m writing this…), catching the Snitch awards that team 150 points. Because the reward is so large, that team nearly always wins the game. However, if the other team is more than 150 points ahead, then the team that catches the Snitch would still lose. (In government, things are a little more complex than that, as more votes for a party do not automatically equate to more seats in government. Another delightful quirk of the first past the post system.)

Let’s bring it back to the muggle world. The House of Commons has 650 seats, and in order to take power a political party needs to hold an absolute majority of those seats. In other words, 326 seats or more.

When an election is called, the voting process ‘redistributes’ the seats based on the results. The issue is that Labour currently has a 24 seat majority, so they can afford to lose 23 of those seats and still retain an absolute majority, thus remaining in power (it makes no difference who those 23 seats go to). The Conservatives need to gain 116 seats to gain the required majority, and take power. So conceivably, the Tories can win the election, but if Labour only loses 23 seats in the process, Gordon Brown gets to wake up on May the 7th behind the door of Number 10.

Perhaps more interestingly, if Labour loses 24 or more seats, but the Conservatives don’t win their required 116, there arises a situation whereby no party has an absolute majority. This is what is known as a ‘hung parliament’.

Several things are interesting about a hung parliament. Perhaps most interesting, is that we don’t really know what will happen. The joys of not having a codified constitution is that there is no direction on exactly what to do should such an event occur. There are only a small number of ways a hung parliament can work however, so I’ll briefly go through those.

Option 1: Labour stays in power

In the event of a hung parliament, the incumbent Prime Minister remains in power until such time as he/she resigns (an idea I imagine Mr Brown is not partial to). The current government can stay in power even if losing the majority in the House of Commons in one of two ways.

  1. They can forge an alliance with smaller parties, thus bringing the combined number of seats to the magic 326 (or, preferably, higher). The smaller party will obviously want some part of this deal, so certain policy concessions would need to be agreed on (i.e. where the two parties differ, they would need to arrive at some sort of compromise), and no doubt some of the smaller party’s MPs would want to be admitted into the Cabinet.
  2. Alternatively, Labour could stay in power with less than the 326 majority (assuming the Tories don’t gain more seats than them without themselves securing an absolute majority) and form a ‘minority government’. In this case, majority votes would need to be formed for each individual bill — potentially making it much hard to pass them through the Commons.

Option 2: Another group of parties form a coalition

Essentially, this is the same as Labour’s second option above — only with different parties. If the Tories put up a more attractive offer than Labour, they could in theory create a coalition of parties that together hold the 326 majority.

In any case, the idea that a hung parliament is a possibility has worried quite a few people. While no one can say for definite what will happen, general consensus is that it will be bad.

One eventuality that springs to mind is that the pound will most probably plummet in value. The value of currency on in the global market is decided in the same way that the price of any good is decided: supply and demand (in this case, demand is probably the greater factor). The pound will increase in value if more people want it. In other words, if countries want to buy British goods (and that includes using our services, such as our banking) then they need to have pounds with which to trade. The greater the demand for said goods, the greater the demand for the pound, and thus the higher its value (if I was writing this for an economics essay, I would chuck in the Latin phrase ceteris paribus, meaning ‘all else being held equal’ — in other words, there are other factors that influence this, but for simplicity’s sake I am ignoring them). Foreign direct investment, the involvement of foreign companies in the UK’s economy, it is predicted, will fall due to a lack in confidence with this somewhat ad-hoc government.

This lack of confidence, some would say, would be well founded. Let us for the moment assume that hung parliaments are not an issue, and Labour retains power for another term. But, let us assume that their absolute majority is greatly diminished. Let’s say that there are only a handful of seats separating Labours majority from the Opposition. If the government want to pass new legislature, they will have to put it through the House of Commons. If the Opposition disagrees with the proposed legislature, then it is going to be very hard for the government to push it through. It may have to rely on the smaller parties for support — a position that will severely weaken the stance of the party in power.

To return back to our hung parliament scenario, imagine the above situation but instead of having a government with only a slight absolute majority, imagine one with no absolute majority and only a marginal ‘actual’ majority. In the event of a hung parliament, any new piece of legislation may well have to be agreed on by a mess of differing parties.

Not all is doom and gloom however. There are other countries who have hung parliaments and/or combined governments, and who don’t seem to suffer for it. In many ways, a combined government could be a good thing. Individual issues would be debated and voted on, not based on whoever has the highest majority, but on which party can garner the most support (incidentally, an argument for proportional representation as a means of deciding an election). There are many reasons why this could also just turn out as a disgraceful mess, but it could also turn out well.

Also, there is a chance that a hung parliament may not even happen. Labour may well retain enough seats to stay in power — albeit with a potentially drastic loss of majority. Whatever happens, it’s impossible to deny that this years election has been (and will continue to be right up until May the 6th, at least) the most interesting one for a very, very long time.