John Humphrys - What's better, a majority government or hung parliament?

December 10, 2019, 4:15 PM GMT+0

What people want from a general election is usually simple enough. They want the party they support to win a majority and govern on the back of it for the next five years. To some extent that’s obviously true this time too. But now it is complicated by two other factors. One is Brexit, the overarching issue that cuts across party lines. The other is that unless the polls are deceiving us or there is a huge, last-minute shift of opinion, it seems that the choice we face is between a majority Conservative government or a hung Parliament with no party able to command a majority that can see it through five years of government. So there is a question voters now face, irrespective of party affiliation: do you prefer a majority government or another hung parliament?

According to the great elections guru Sir John Curtice, on the basis of last weekend’s polls the Tories enjoy an average lead of ten percentage points which ought to secure them a majority of between forty and fifty seats when the real votes are counted on Thursday night. But it is far from a certain outcome even if public opinion were not to shift by then. That’s because the Conservative strategy relies on their winning a swathe of Labour-held seats where Leave voters are in a majority, in Wales, the west Midlands and the north of England. It depends on traditional Labour voters, who may never have even contemplated voting other than ‘Red’, switching their votes to the Tories to ‘get Brexit done’, the Conservative campaign slogan which has had more traction than any other during the last five weeks.

No one knows how many will be prepared to do it and we won’t know until ten o’clock on Thursday evening when Sir John, like the Oracle at Delphi, will announce what the entrails say, the entrails in this case being the BBC’s exit poll. He may well surprise us, as he surprised very many people in 2017 when, against the expectation of a solidly increased Tory majority, he told us that the party was going to lose seats and would end up merely the largest party in the new parliament but with no overall majority to govern. His prophecy proved right and the very fact that we are having another election, merely two and half years later, is evidence of the consequence of that result.

So between a majority government and a hung parliament, which should we prefer? The answer depends in part on how strongly we feel about Brexit, either for or against. For those who are utterly committed to Brexit beyond all things, a majority Conservative government is essential, to the exclusion of any other consideration. Even the Brexit Party leader, Nigel Farage, agrees with that, much as he may have doubts about whether a victorious Boris Johnson would deliver the sort of Brexit he wants. The point is simply that any other result risks the prospect of Brexit unravelling, of a government coming to power committed to a second referendum on EU membership (as advocated by both Labour and the Liberal Democrats), and of that referendum reversing the decision of 2016.

Conversely, diehard Europhiles who are desperate for Britain to remain in the EU, must prefer a hung parliament and a minority government coming to power, however much they may be aware of the drawbacks, simply because it is the only route to that second referendum.

But many people- perhaps most - don’t feel especially strongly about them so that the issue will not be the determining one in whether they prefer a majority government to a hung parliament. Indeed there may be many voters who backed Remain in the 2016 referendum but who think re-opening the issue in another referendum would be a bad idea and would force a choice between a majority government and a hung parliament on other criteria. And to ‘floating’ voters who feel less and less loyalty to any one particular party (and there has been a huge increase in the number of them over recent decades), it may not be immediately obvious whether they should prefer a majority Conservative government (seemingly the only majority government on offer) to a hung parliament and a minority government. So how should such voters view the choice?

Traditionally, the answer has been simple. Majority government, it’s been argued, is far better for the country because it creates certainty and stability for a period of five years and makes it possible for governments to get things done. This has been the justification for our first-past-the-post electoral system which has tended to produce majority governments. Of course the system also tends to alternate power between the two main parties, meaning that partisans of any one party have to put up, every now and again (actually, roughly half the time) with the ‘wrong’ party having the majority. But this, it’s been argued, is a price worth paying for a system that is biased in favour of single-party, majority government and the stability that it produces.

Against this case, the argument is familiar. It’s that it allows parties to govern the country on the back of substantial majorities of parliamentary seats that do not reflect the actual level of support in the country, still less majority support. To take one example, in 2005 Tony Blair won his third election victory for the Labour Party with a comfortable majority of 66 seats, but with only 35% of those who voted backing him, and of course an even smaller proportion (22%) of those eligible to vote supporting Labour (turnout was 61%). Similar cases exist for past Conservative election ‘victories’. Majority governments may produce stability but, it’s argued, it’s a stability that is not based on proper representation of public opinion and so is not, ultimately, democratic. No single party should have exclusive grip on the reins of power, and especially not if it is on the say-so of a minority of an electorate.

So what is the case in favour of a hung parliament? The first point made by those who advocate it is that is commonplace in other democratic countries where a different electoral system, usually proportional representation, seldom rewards any one party with a majority of seats. Instead, the elected parties have to negotiate with each other to form a coalition government. That, of course, happened here in 2010 even without PR. The hung parliament that emerged then swiftly produced a deal between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition government that survived for five years. Whatever one’s views of the success or otherwise of that government, it would be hard to deny that it both produced stability and was broadly representative of opinion in the country: 59% of voters had backed one or other of the two parties in the 2010 election.

This time, however, no coalition government would seem to be on offer should the election result in a hung parliament. No other party would be prepared to go into coalition with the Conservative Party if it emerged as the biggest party but without a majority, not least because no other party able to offer enough votes in parliament shares the Tory approach to Brexit. Equally, no other party has shown any interest at all in going into coalition with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Indeed Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats have ruled out doing anything that would allow Mr Corbyn into Downing Street, even as prime minister of a minority government, let alone a coalition. The most that he could hope for is being put and kept in power as a minority government by the Scottish Nationalists in return for commitments not only to a second referendum on EU membership but also to another referendum on Scottish independence. In other words, a hung parliament after this election is likely to produce the same sort of unstable gridlock we have seen since the stalemate election of 2017.

Nonetheless, some floating voters may still think this preferable to the only obvious alternative, a majority Conservative government. They might think that a repeat of the gridlock will focus minds on the issue of the electoral system itself. If elections are simply going to produce a string of hung parliaments because support is simply not there for giving either of the main parties a majority of seats, then those parties will be forced to think again about proportional representation. The Lib Dems, the Greens and others have been in favour for years and now Nigel Farage is pondering starting up what will be for him his third new party, a ‘Reform Party’ committed, among other things, to changing the electoral system. Some people will think that another hung parliament and the torture of another minority government that can’t get much done, is preferable to a majority Conservative government.

Of course, come Thursday night and Sir John’s appearance in the BBC studio, this may all turn out to be merely academic. But if his forecast does surprise us once again, then these issues will become central to our politics. Is it better to have majority governments or hung parliaments?

Let us know what you think and why.

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