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Monday, February 15, 2010 

The hung parliament hypotheticals.

There seems to be a distinctly strange air to politics at the moment. Despite parliament likely rising in around two months for the dreaded general election campaign, it's still as though it's an incredibly long time away, even though business itself is hardly bustling. Only the Tories seem to be keeping themselves visibly busy, and in doing so keep making more and more gaffes. If the David Cameron personal poster campaign was disastrous, or at least it was with the Twitterati (ugh) and the chattering classes, while the policy flip-flops on marriage tax and public spending cuts were more expected but no less damaging, then the almost radio silence from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the former only seemingly making any noise when the Tories make such execrable (if not deliberate) mistakes as miscalculating 54% for 5.4%, is not doing much to capitalise on it.

On the Lib Dem front, part of this reticence might be due to the strategising going on behind the scenes in the event of a hung parliament. With the polls either predicting one or a slight Tory majority, even if one suspects that come the day the Tories will get a large enough share of the vote to be able to comfortably govern, it is nonetheless the closest the party is likely to come to grabbing some semblance of nationwide power since David Steel infamously told the party to return to their constituencies and prepare for government. Even if similar plans were made prior to 1997, the polls leading up to the election, although narrowing at one point, never suggested anything other than a significant Labour victory.

The apparent insight into the party's thinking that we're given in today's Graun is suitably significant. Rather than seeking a coalition, Nick Clegg is instead mulling over propping up a minority government through supporting a party's program of legislation, as long as certain Liberal Democrat policies are incorporated in it. Just how many will be needed to be implemented is seemingly elastic, with four policies up for immediate discussion, although just two might also be considered. While you could imagine that Labour would be open to debate on any of the four mentioned, the "pupil premium", tax reform, a greener economy and constitutional reform, it's difficult to imagine that the Tories would be malleable on the proposal for capital gains and income tax to be levied at the same rate, or on electoral reform, which they have consistently opposed.

You can see why they're thinking in this way: propping up a defeated Labour party through a coalition is likely to breed only resentment and disdain, even if say, Vince Cable or Clegg became chancellor and the deal involved Gordon Brown stepping down, although another "unelected" prime minister would hardly help matters either. At the same time however it's difficult to see just how much difference there would be in not getting fully into bed with Labour; is the public really going to live with a minority Labour government passing its legislation with Lib Dem support if it's the same old party rejected at the ballot box with a very slight yellow tinge? At the same time you can't see a minority Tory administration being prepared to give way on proportional representation in exchange only for short-term support; why not simply force a second election or, if Labour and the Lib Dems then attempt to from some sort of alliance, simply stand completely against and preach about its illegitimacy and wait for the inevitable breakdown in relations to take full advantage?

The disheartening thing about the likely manoeuvring in the event of an inconclusive election is that this is probably the only way in which the four stated policies on which the Lib Dems would negotiate, all of which are worthy of support, would ever be implemented. Those voting for the third party are always aware that while their vote is all important on a constituency level, it's not going to change much on a national level, even if they would like to see a Lib Dem government. The irony here is that were the hung parliament to become reality, with a Labour-Lib Dem deal, the party itself would almost certainly lose support as a result. While it would be worth it were some form of PR to be introduced as a result, it could also end the possibility of the party holding any rein of power for another generation. While all of this is based upon multiple hypotheticals, there is just as much to be lost from a hung parliament as there is to be gained. We may want a weaker government after 13 years of the opposite, but our system as it stands with the politics we are currently blessed with seems determined to destroy any possibility of it.

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Distinguished economist Robert Skidelsky suggests, in an article for www.charter2010.co.uk, that an electoral system that encourages politicians to put party advantage before the national interest cannot be right. "Under first past the post, parties struggle for absolute victory, not shared power. This tempts the party hoping to take over the government into blackening the policies of the party in power."

"Our adversarial system provides almost no impediment to the subordination of the national interest to party advantage. It forces parties to sound more extreme than they actually are, and this undermines effective government in times of crisis."

If your interested you can read the full article here: www.charter2010.co.uk/public-interest

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