For UK governments, hung parliaments may be the new normal

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Vicky Pryce
Vicky Pryce

Joint Head of the UK’s Government’s Economic Service (2007-2010) and lead author of the CEBR study “The economic costs of physical inactivity in Europe”

Britain appears to have finally decided to become European. Not that it is falling deeper in love with the European Union’s project of ever-closer union; quite the contrary. Perhaps the most curious aspect of this election is how small a role Europe has played throughout the campaign despite the emergence of UKIP as a major force.

The Conservatives have, after all, promised an in-or-out referendum on a “reformed” EU to please their euro-sceptic faction and ease pressure from the staunchly anti-Europe UKIP. However, the campaign has focused more on immigration, which all parties say they want to control more tightly, despite the obvious economic benefits migrant workers bring. Remarkably, it was only in the last days of campaigning that the issue of the UK’s continued EU membership surfaced as a substantial point of contention. The possibility and implications of a Brexit featured strongly in the leaders’ televised “question time” event. Latest opinion polls suggest a shift away from satisfaction with Europe, with only 36% of the population seemingly keen to stay in the EU.

It appears Britain’s love/hate relationship with Europe will rumble on, whatever the outcome of the election. British politics, however, has become, by any conventional metric, more European than ever. The running of the country is now dependent on coalitions, minority governments, arrangements cooked up behind closed doors, and deals on government programmes cobbled together by parties after the election and therefore not subject to voter approval. Of course one person has to be prime minister, even without an absolute majority. David Cameron was forced to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010 rather than govern with only Tory ministers, and had to dilute some – though not all – of his manifesto pledges. The parties are announcing red lines, beyond which all insist they won’t budge during coalition talks. Yet everyone knows a compromise will have to be reached, as it was when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats got together to form the current government in 2010.

It appears Britain’s love/hate relationship with Europe will rumble on, whatever the outcome of the election

So after a century of red or blue majority governments headed by either the Conservatives or Labour, Britain is becoming more continental. In Denmark, no single party has won an overall majority since 1909.  The Federal Republic of Germany has always been governed by coalitions, including, of course, the current Grand Coalition between the centre-right Christian Democrats and centre-left Social Democrats. British electors no longer seem to trust any single party to govern well or fairly. The financial crisis and its aftermath have had a role to play here, calling into question the economic competence of all parties.

That readiness of electorates to punish parties that under-perform is something else the British now share with other Europeans. In Greece, for example, the parties which formed a grand coalition in 2012 have all lost huge support. The decades-long dominance of Greece’s two main centre-left and centre-right parties came to a crashing end as voters punished both in January this year for the austerity measures and economic mismanagement which left the country with massive unemployment and a 25% fall in GDP.

The era of absolute Conservative or Labour majorities in Britain is relatively recent. The 19th and early 20th centuries saw frequent minority governments. In January 1910, for example, 274 Liberal MPs were elected along with 272 Conservatives and 71 Irish MPs who fought on a platform of independence for Ireland. In December 1910, another election was held, but it too produced an inconclusive result – 272 Liberal MPs, 271 Conservatives and 74 Irish nationalists. Yet the minority Liberal government that was formed produced some of the most radical reforms in British history – notably the introduction of state pensions. Irish MPs kept the government in power by refusing to support the Conservatives in any vote that threatened the Liberal administration, which was seen as more favourable to Irish independence than the Tories. These days, it is the Scottish National Party that may well tilt the balance of power in the House of Commons. Though it was unable to win the September 2014 independence referendum, the SNP has since gained support for its separatist and anti-austerity policies.

That readiness of electorates to punish parties that under-perform is something else the British now share with other Europeans

Where does Britain go from here? So far, the political establishment has not really adapted to the new electoral realities. Membership of the main parties has been reduced considerably. Single, or narrow, issue parties such as the Greens, the SNP or UKIP have grown in importance. The printed media no longer has the same influence to shape opinion. It was long assumed that Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system delivered stable, solid majority governments able to take tough decisions – until they ran out of steam and were replaced by the other big party. Although the electorate appears to be content that this no longer holds true, the reaction of the markets to the prospect of a hung parliament points to a period of economic uncertainty which may not have been factored into voters’ calculations.

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