“In the absence of facts, myth rushes in”: Considering the consequences of a hung parliament in May 2015

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On 15 April 2015, Professor Robert Hazell, Director of the Constitution Unit, and Peter Riddell, Director of the Institute for Government, spoke at a Constitution Unit seminar entitled ‘Coalition or Minority Government in May?’ Juliet Wells comments on the event.

With a fortnight remaining before polling day, and national polls steadfastly suggesting that neither of the two principal political parties will now succeed in achieving a ‘lift-off’ in popularity, the prospect of another hung parliament looms large. It is a possibility with which pre-election commentary has increasingly been preoccupied: as Jonathan Freedland has noted, ‘the focus is not on the parties so much as the likely ruling blocs’. Against this background, Robert Hazell and Peter Riddell’s seminar on government formation after May 7 shone a welcome light onto the processes by which the ultimate ‘ruling bloc’ might come to be.

From this perspective the utility of the seminar was threefold: first, it represented an opportunity to debunk some commonplace misunderstandings about the consequences, in practical and constitutional terms, of a hung parliament; second, it provided a comparative overview of experiences in forming minority and coalition governments, both within the UK and abroad, and highlighted in particular the likely differences between 2010 and 2015; and third, it touched upon the possible deeper implications for British democracy of yet another equivocal general election result.

Counteracting common assumptions

A startling array of myths and assumptions currently pervade public discussion of government formation in a hung parliament, as Akash Paun has pointed out – from the perception (perpetuated by Nick Clegg in 2010 and, in fact, again this weekend) that the smaller parties are ‘somehow obliged’ to deal first and foremost with the single largest party, to misconceptions surrounding the status and responsibilities of the incumbent Prime Minister in the event that his party does not secure the greatest number of seats. The practical political impact of such misconceptions should not be underestimated: this was demonstrated in 2010, for example, when Nick Clegg proceeded according to the view that the single largest parliamentary party was to have the initiative in forming a government, and negotiated primarily with the Conservatives. The danger that insufficiently nuanced media coverage might compound this issue in 2015 has by no means dissipated.

In fact, there is a general expectation that in the event of a hung parliament the incumbent Prime Minister will remain in office – together with his or her ministers, even if they have lost their seats in the course of the election – until it becomes clear which party leader will be best placed to command the confidence of the House of Commons. Under this principle:

‘it is the responsibility of those involved in the political process, and in particular the parties represented in Parliament, to seek to determine… who is best placed to be able to command the confidence of the House’ (Cabinet Manual, 2.9)

Nevertheless, a number of important ambiguities remain – in particular, whether the incumbent Prime Minister is subject to a duty to remain in office, or merely to an expectation. The Cabinet Manual, in its present incarnation, appears hesitant in committing to a view on this (at 2.10, stating that ‘it remains a matter for the Prime Minister, as the Sovereign’s principal adviser, to judge the appropriate time at which to resign’). Hazell expressed the view that, since the effective functioning of a ‘caretaker’ government must continue even whilst negotiations are carried on, it would be better if the custom of retention of office by the incumbent were to crystallise into a settled constitutional convention. Not only would this have the advantage of clarity, but it would also provide a mechanism to guard against the power vacuum that might potentially result in the event that the incumbent Prime Minister lost the vote on the Queen’s Speech (see here for Catherine Haddon’s extremely useful explanation of how the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 may generate such a power vacuum).

Engaging with experience in the UK and elsewhere

An even wider and more deeply embedded assumption is, perhaps, that the ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system is naturally geared towards the production of single-party majority governments. As Hazell pointed out, however, this ‘norm’ of single-party majority rule is in fact less entrenched than it at first appears. Although Britain had not experienced – until the 2010 parliament – coalition government since 1945, it is notable that Westminster governments in the first half of the 20th century frequently failed to conform to the single-party majority model. In Canada, moreover, where the voting system mirrors ours, there have been thirteen minority governments since 1900 (and three in the 21st century alone).

The UK therefore does not now find itself in wholly uncharted territory: although the process of government formation in 2015 is likely to be distinctive, lessons can certainly be drawn from international experience (perhaps most significantly, that some degree of protraction in the negotiations is not of itself problematic). In addition, the domestic experience of the past century has generated a network of rules and practices, now captured in large part (if imperfectly) in the Cabinet Manual. It is on these that the typically pragmatic political resolution of the procedural uncertainties that remain can be built.

The question of the usefulness of the experiences of 2010 as a guide for 2015 emerged as a key theme. Riddell indicated that the proliferation of possible options for governance, ranging from formal coalition to looser ‘supply and confidence’ agreements, catalysed by greater fragmentation in voting trends, means that negotiations will be lengthier and more complex.

Negotiations will be further complicated not only by enhanced media scrutiny of formation processes, but also by closer political scrutiny. MPs are likely to demand greater transparency and detail in any deal or agreed programme, as well as the opportunity to formally endorse the arrangement ultimately reached (the Conservative 1922 Committee has, for instance, insisted that its representatives should be more closely involved in post-election negotiations, and that all Conservative MPs are to ratify any agreement by a secret ballot). This stands in marked contrast, for instance, to the ‘blanket of secrecy’ (as Riddell put it) imposed by Harold Wilson over negotiations in 1974, and in 2010, when backbenchers were marginalised and Lord O’Donnell’s offer to provide each of the parties with Civil Service note-takers was turned down (on the basis, it was suggested, that the resultant notes would be subject to Freedom of Information requests). Transparency may thus be identified as the underlying theme which marks the 2015 election out as distinctive – from the need for greater clarity in media coverage, to the insistence on greater inclusion and openness within party structures in formulating arrangements for governance.

Another hung parliament in 2015 – but where next for British democracy?

A more subtle consequence of a hung parliament in 2015 may be that deeply-held beliefs about the nature of British democracy will gradually become dislodged. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, in the audience, argued that the systems currently in place for government formation in a hung parliament run counter to democratic principles. He specifically questioned the lack of any pre-election dealing between the parties, which would better enable the electorate to endorse subsequent coalition agreements by facilitating more informed voting choices. Riddell conceded that much does indeed depend on the vicissitudes of the post-election negotiations, and that there is no direct mechanism by which voters can ratify any resultant arrangement. However, he also suggested that this is best seen as a consequence of our ‘majoritarian’ political culture: since the principal parties are reluctant to admit to the possibility that coalition and minority governance may emerge as the norm, sincere and coherent pre-election political transacting becomes near-impossible. If further and successive general elections produce equivocal results, the prevailing political culture in the UK may well be forced to realign itself in order to answer to the demands of democracy, either through the establishment of a custom of pre-election dealing, or through the institution of more formal mechanisms for voter endorsement of coalition agreements.

The seminar coincided neatly with the launch of the Liberal Democrat manifesto, in which Nick Clegg became the first and only leader of the three major parties to explicitly acknowledge the probability that no-one will win an overall majority in May, declaring that: ‘it is obvious once again that neither Labour nor the Conservatives will win a majority; the era of single-party government is over’. It is a statement that illustrates both how far British politics has yet to go as both Labour and the Conservatives continue to cling to the dominant rhetoric of single-party majoritarianism, and also how much the political landscape has changed in recent years.

Watch the full event on our Vimeo page here.

Slides from the presentations are available here.

About the Author

Juliet Wells graduated from Oxford University with a BA in Law in 2014. She is now a Research Volunteer at the Constitution Unit, working on the Judicial Independence Project.

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