Talking about hung
parliaments is all the rage on the electoral
merry-go-round at the moment. What a shame that so much
of what is said is nonsense.
I find particularly bizarre the assertion that we
need a single party government to tackle the dire
economic problems the country faces.
We only have to look across at Europe to Greece to
see how well a single party government has coped with
the financial storms of recent recent years.
While looking across Europe, you might ponder how
well Germany has done since the war and how rarely it
has ever had a single party government.
I could go on and those fearful of a parliament
where the political parties might actually have to talk
to each other can equally cite countries where they
haven't coped so well when the verdict of their
electors says they don't want to trust one party alone
Then there is the myth being pushed - particularly
hard by the Conservatives at the moment - that the
'first past the post' system allows for quick and
decisive changes of government.
Really? In the UK, we have changed government only
six times since the second world war, less than almost
any other developed country.
In the current UK General Election, we are actually
looking at a system that could produce a result where
the current governing party comes third in terms of
popular votes but wins more seats than any other party
and uses that as a mandate for staying in office.
Decisive? I don't think so.
Our current system is deeply flawed. I have always
believed that it produces bad government because Prime
Ministers walk into the House of Commons and see their
benches packed to overflowing because they have 60% of
the MPs allowing them to forget this was often achieved
on barely 40% of the popular vote.
They run away with the idea that this gives them a
mandate for policies that are actually opposed by
two-thirds of the population.
Take Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Like many incoming
Prime Ministers, she was initially sensitive to the
need to balance her own Cabinet which meant there were
people close to her who understood the need to build
support for difficult policies beyond the narrow base
of the Conservative Party, the so-called 'One Nation'
tradition of Toryism that dates back to Disraeli.
As the over-riding issue at the time was the
excessive power of the trade unions, finding support
beyond the governing party was not difficult.
The Liberals were certainly no fans of over-powerful
unions and there was also support among Labour
supporters dating back a decade when the left wing
minister Barbara Castle proposed sweeping reforms in a
White Paper entitled In Place of
Strife only for her Prime Minister Harold
Wilson to side with the unions and ditch it.
After two more election victories delivering huge
majorities on a minority of the vote, Thatcher lost the
plot, becoming trenchantly anti-Europe and also
proposing the Poll Tax. She was looking at those packed
Tory benches and believed she could do anything.
Pursuing these policies - for which there was not even
unanimous support in her own party, let alone support
outside it - brought her down.
Roll forward to 1997 and the election of Tony Blair.
Initially, he built on a broad anti-Tory consensus of
what the government's priorities were.
Like Thatcher, he won two more elections with large
majorities on a minority of the vote and then forgot
that he was not omnipotent by taking the country into a
war that few wanted.
Even two million people (reportedly) taking to the
streets in London didn't make him realise how little
support he had. It didn't bring about his downfall and
he did go on to win a further election with a much
smaller majority, but it has cost him his reputation,
although history may eventually judge his premiership
more positively overall.
Those are two examples of how the first past the
post system has led to blatantly poor government.
Beyond those arguments there is the debate about
fairness where the main points are well rehearsed.
In simple terms, at the last election it took 28,000
votes to elect a Labour MP, 51,000 votes to elect a
Conservative MP and 101,000 votes to elect a Liberal
Democrat MP. By what measures of fairness and democracy
is it right that a vote for one party is worth only a
quarter of a vote for another party?
Finally, you have to stand back and look at the
bigger picture of our election results since the war
and it is clear the country as a whole has rarely been
keen on trusting one party with the sole responsibility
of governing the country.
You have to look back to the Conservative victories
in 1951 and 1955 to find General Elections where one
party was on or around 50% of the popular vote.
Those are arguments in favour of electoral reform
which I have always supported but today we are looking
forward to a little over a week when the present system
could deliver a hung parliament and the challenge is
The responsibility of political leaders is to accept
the challenge given to them by the British people
through the ballot box.
If that responsibility - even under a fair voting
system - is to govern as a single party having secured
the majority of the votes, then fine. If it is to
govern by co-operating with one or more other parties
then they should be capable of rising to that
In a time of crisis, co-operation could have its
benefits, bringing a greater range of talents to bear
on the problems we face.
So we shouldn't fear a hung parliament and we should
certainly stop talking such nonsense about it.
David Worsfold is group editorial services
director at Incisive Media, publishers of IFAonline and