Would a hung Parliament have made any difference?

Martin Pugh

  • Governing without a Majority by David Butler
    Collins, 156 pp, £4.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 00 217071 X
  • Multi-Party Politics and the Constitution by Vernon Bogdanor
    Cambridge, 207 pp, £18.50, May 1983, ISBN 0 521 25524 4
  • Decade of Dealignment by Bo Särlvik, Ivor Crewe, Neil Day and Robert MacDermid
    Cambridge, 393 pp, £27.50, June 1983, ISBN 0 521 22674 0

But for Britain’s antediluvian electoral system the House of Commons would now comprise around 160 Alliance, 180 Labour and 280 Conservative MPs – and the new books by David Butler and Vernon Bogdanor would have vanished beneath a stampede of eager buyers. As things are, though the distorted election results have robbed them of some of their topicality, they will be very widely and minutely studied by politicians, students of politics and Her Majesty the Queen – or at least by her advisers. All four authors would agree that British politics have entered a new phase which is not simply an ephemeral spasm of protest, and which makes the future uncertain and fascinating; Särlvik and Crewe, as befits men who are operating at the treacherous coalface of voting patterns, show more caution, it is true, but even they see a significant long-term shift among the electorate in the elections of 1970, 1974 and 1979, which 1983 has surely extended still further.

Dr Butler’s book has been written from the assumption that the mould of British politics cracked well before the recent election. Why is he so sure? What he has in mind is that the electoral system which regularly delivered a clear majority to one or other of two parties can no longer be relied upon to do so. For one thing, there are fewer marginal seats, so that fewer change hands for each 1 per cent swing of votes. For another, the combination of Liberal, SDP, Nationalist and 17 Northern Ireland MPs has built up a minimum of 35 members from small parties in the House. This means that, even on 1979 Liberal voting strength, there will be hung Parliaments unless the gap between Conservative and Labour exceeds 3.5 per cent: and in four out of ten elections the gap has in fact been 3.5 per cent or less.

Parliaments without a one-party majority ought to lead inexorably to coalitions involving the Alliance parties and eventually to the introduction of Proportional Representation, which would entrench the new three-party system in Britain. But would they? Past experience casts a good deal of doubt on this. For when coalitions have been formed in Britain they have not usually been necessary in the sense that one party has enjoyed a majority: yet when, in the absence of a majority, coalition has been required, the politicians, perversely, have failed to come up with one. This Alice in Wonderland track record leaves British politicians in an alarming state of unreadiness for the future. Unlike many European countries, we have no very definite constitutional procedures to facilitate the emergence of a government in a hung Parliament; Dr Butler is inclined to favour drawing up a code of conduct in advance, but accepts that this is expecting too much. What we do have is a certain amount of precedent and the monarch to help us through. The much-quoted example of West Germany, where a small third party has formed a coalition first with one major party and then with another over a period of many years, is in fact unlikely to be repeated here. A better guide may well be Canada, which has experienced no fewer than six minority governments since 1957 and, be it noted, is none the worse for that.

What will probably happen when next the Conservative and Labour Parties both fail to win a majority is that the larger will form a minority government, as in 1924, 1929 and 1974, in petulant disregard for their slender popular support. They will then claim the right to a dissolution and a fresh election as soon as it suits them, as Mr Wilson did in October 1974. The calculation, especially for a minority Conservative administration, will be that repeated elections will exhaust the resources of their rivals and perhaps burst the bubble of Alliance support. But surely, the question asks itself, neither a minority Conservative nor a minority Labour government could survive a week? Not so. From February to October 1974, as long as they saw no improvement in their popular support, the Conservatives had no wish to mobilise the opposition parties on a confidence motion against Harold Wilson: the Labour Government was often defeated on matters of detail but carried on cheerfully. Moreover, in the future the only party with an interest in putting pressure on a minority government is the Liberal-SDP Alliance: the others will do all in their power to maintain a two-party monopoly. This, after all, was the situation in 1924, when MacDonald’s first Labour Government refused an agreement with the Liberals and yet survived for nine months although the Conservatives alone could have defeated it. Baldwin launched an anti-Labour campaign in the country while in the Commons sufficient Conservative MPs abstained from voting on critical divisions so as to keep MacDonald in office until the Conservatives thought they were ready for another election. The strong mutual interest of the two main parties has not diminished since then. When Mrs Thatcher made her passionate declaration recently that ‘the Labour Party will never die’ we can be quite sure she was sincere.

In theory all this ought not to be. A minority Prime Minister has no automatic right to a dissolution when it suits him: the Queen can refuse the request. But can she? The problem seems to be that the sovereign’s undoubted discretion in the matter may have lapsed through lack of use in the 20th century. In 1924 the King was unhappy about granting MacDonald’s request, which produced the third general election in three years (perhaps this is a more awful prospect today than it was in the 1920s), but he did not resist, for fear of showing bias against the party of the working class. Similarly in 1974, Mr Wilson was confident of a dissolution if he turned out to be unable to survive in the Commons: but his position had been strengthened by the failure of Edward Heath’s attempt to reach an agreement with the Liberal Leader, which established that there was no alternative government for the Queen to choose. The other aspect of the royal discretion is the right to invite a leader to form a majority administration even though his own party represents a minority in the House. It seems to me that both in 1916 and in 1931 this was a requirement which Lloyd George and MacDonald respectively had to meet. There is no good reason why it should not be invoked again. No doubt there would arise a danger of accusations of partisanship against the Monarchy: but that will occur anyway if the Alliance, with its large and growing share of support, is denied participation in government as a result of decisions which preserve the old monopoly. A monarch who spares the electorate repeated elections by telling the politicians to work together in the national interest is not likely to lose much popularity.

Readers will not have missed the flaw in the original calculation on which the prediction of hung Parliaments was based: namely, that the two main parties would be divided by less than 3.5 per cent of the popular vote. With the Labour collapse the gap has yawned to 14-15 per cent, thus creating the kind of situation which prevailed for much of the Twenties, when the Conservatives enjoyed large majorities on the basis of approximately 40 per cent of the vote. The two Conservative victories in 1979 and 1983 naturally raise the question whether a kind of realignment has already occurred among the electorate around the idea of a moral, authoritarian, nationalistic, radical-right platform. It is to problems of this sort that Bo Särlvik and Ivor Crewe address themselves in their analysis of a very detailed and comprehensive study of voters’ attitudes during the Seventies. One of their findings is of immediate interest in the light of recent events. They suggest that a high proportion of those who defected from Labour in 1979 were not habitual floaters who had only temporarily drifted to the party in 1974, but had been regular Labour supporters over many general elections. In other words, 1979 was only a harbinger of 1983. The downward drift of Labour’s support is now a long-term fact dating from 1970, sustained in 1974 despite their return to office, continued in 1979 and exacerbated this year. The destinations of these Labour defectors are various. Some used the Liberals as a half-way house in 1974 before moving on to the Conservatives in 1979: but among Liberal supporters newly gained in 1974 those from a Labour background were more likely to stay with their new party in 1979 than those from a Conservative source.

As to the general volatility of the electorate, the authors stress that it is not so much a novel feature as a characteristic of the entire 1959-79 period. And, on the whole, volatility still takes the form, not of switching from one party to another, but of simple abstention from voting. With this qualification, however, they emphasise what many commentators have discerned: a steady decline in the constant support for each of the two main parties. For both Conservative and Labour waverers it is common to vote Liberal and then revert to their old party rather than move on to the opposite side of the spectrum. This makes for a great deal of short-term volatility, yet provides some stability over the long term, except for the fact that in each cycle there seem to be more people shifting their allegiance. The great force for stability in British elections, class voting, declined in 1979, but had done so since 1959, according to the authors. In the three elections in 1974 and 1979 only a bare majority (55 per cent) actually voted along class lines. Doubtless 1983 has seen this fall to a minority. Taken with the attrition of the manual working class as a proportion of the population this heralds the end of the historic role of Labour as the working-class party. During the Twenties and Thirties Labour established itself as a party of government by gradually acquiring over 50 per cent of the working-class vote; this pattern reached a peak in the twenty years after 1945 and is now passing away quite rapidly. The one comforting aspect of 1979 for Labour is that its middle-class support remained relatively stable: indeed, it formed almost a quarter of the party’s total support. Meanwhile the class composition of the Conservative vote stayed fairly constant, and that of the Liberals became somewhat more working-class.

Looking for specific causes of the Conservative triumph in 1979, Särlvik and Crewe raise the question whether Mrs Thatcher’s sex proved a liability. They report that 85 per cent of voters said it made no difference: and that even among those who switched either to the Conservatives or away from them the fact of a woman leader had not had any influence. One is bound to say that this rather pat conclusion, which the authors seem very ready to accept at face value, is totally at odds with the evidence of one’s own ears since Mrs Thatcher’s rise to prominence. Sex prejudice is not unlike race prejudice: when confronted with a straight question on the subject the great majority always emphatically deny any trace of racial feeling. Nor is it wise to assume that a woman of Mrs Thatcher’s type is a liability: provided she does not antagonise too many of her party’s existing supporters, she can easily prove an asset in widening the party’s appeal to women of other parties. There is plenty of evidence that Mrs Thatcher and her advisers carefully exploited female pride in the early days of her leadership, which may explain why the Opposition made no attempt to capitalise on the presumed male prejudice during the 1979 Election. One can well believe that the sex factor made little net difference in 1979, but in failing to probe this problem the authors have neglected one of the most interesting and, in the long run, important aspects of the election.

As far as specific policy issues are concerned, the authors’ findings portray a general collapse of confidence in Labour’s handling of the economy between October 1974 and 1979; they identify an increase of support for cutting back on the social services, a near doubling of the proportion wanting denationalisation, and a desire for curtailment of trade-union power. Mr Benn has lately taken to saying that a left-wing manifesto cannot be held to be a vote-loser because until 1983 such a thing was never put before the voters, and already eight million have been converted to it. Yet the empirical evidence seems to demonstrate that most of the policies favoured by Mr Benn have for some years been associated by the public with the Labour Party and have been highly unpopular. The potential loss of votes only became actual, however, when the Conservatives attacked comprehensively along Labour’s weak front in the Seventies. Now that Labour has formally embraced Mr Benn’s programme it has neatly proved what the Conservatives have been claiming for some time.

Despite the tendency of opinion to shift towards the Conservative position on most major policy issues in the Seventies, Särlvik and Crewe hesitate about suggesting a profound reorientation of the electorate. A large part of the Conservative vote is highly negative and, they feel, loosely and reluctantly attached; they discern a ‘middle ground’ of around 40 per cent of the electorate which is divided between the Liberal-SDP Alliance and the Conservatives and could obviously give the former the final heave it needs. Moreover, the Conservative share of the vote in 1979 was comparatively low in the sense that the swing did not restore them to the level obtained in the Fifties. And despite her majority in the Commons, Mrs Thatcher has continued to lose support in the recent general election, Labour’s problems and her own advantages notwithstanding. In the long run, the tide is going out for her too, however imperiously she may address the waves.