How will Westminster change in the likely event of a hung parliament after the next election?by Mark Bell / October 27, 2007 / Leave a comment
Gordon Brown’s attempt to erect his “big tent” in the centre of British politics continues. From sipping tea with Margaret Thatcher to taking on Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs as advisers, Brown has worked hard to further his “post-party” politics. Yet the prime minister, and his unhappy opponents, may be forced to take more radical steps to forge cross-party co-operation after the next election. Opinion polls suggest a hung parliament is more likely than at any point in the last 25 years. Long-term electoral trends also point in this direction—the total share of the vote received by Labour and the Conservatives has fallen in every general election since 1992. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats have steadily increased their presence in Westminster, reaching 62 MPs in 2005.
But Westminster remains unprepared for a hung parliament. There is little agreement on the political or institutional implications, and only limited historical precedent. On the other hand, all three parties have acquired experience of coalition and minority government away from Westminster. The experiences of the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly provide clues as to how politics would change if the next election proved indecisive.
A hung parliament could result in even greater political promiscuity. When circumstances demand, parties find it easy to set aside tribalism. Following the 2007 Welsh election, previously unthinkable coalition options emerged—the “rainbow coalition” of Plaid Cymru, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, or the “red-green alliance” of Labour and Plaid Cymru. The implication for Westminster is that a Lib-Lab coalition is not necessarily the only—or even the most likely—response to a hung parliament.
The electorate’s perceptions of the result could be critical to the make-up of the new government. In Wales in 2007, many parties were disinclined to negotiate coalitions with Labour because it was felt that Labour had “lost” the election—despite remaining the largest party. The fact that the legitimate “winner” in Cardiff Bay, unlike in Holyrood, was disputed goes a long way to explaining the prolonged uncertainty that followed polling day. In the aftermath of the next general election, it is entirely possible that Labour will remain the largest party in parliament having secured fewer votes than the Conservatives. In such a scenario, many Liberal Democrats would be loath to prop up a “dying” Labour administration (at least without a very high price, such as full-scale electoral reform for Westminster).
Given this, and the political…