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What happens next?

Back in November 2009 we commissioned a special issue of New Statesman to look at the possible outcome of a hung parliament in 2010. Having noted a shift in public opinion away from an outright victory for the Conservative Party, this seemed a pressing question to address.

Using the image above, our cover line read: "Left hanging: What a hung parliament would mean for Britain".

Now that the talk of last November has become the reality of this May, what happens next? If you read only two things, I suggest you revisit Geoffrey Wheatcroft's essay and Vernon Bogdanor's constitutional overview. Here's an extract from both:

Doing deals in Downing Street

by Geoffrey Wheatcroft

"Who governs Britain?" Aspiring barristers are taught that you should never ask a question in court to which you don't know the answer. Edward Heath forgot that rule in February 1974 when, after months of industrial turmoil culminating in the three-day week, he called an election and, by way of challenging the unions, asked that question.

And the electorate replied: Not you, chum. Or at least, so far from being returned to power with a healthy majority, Heath found that he had no majority at all. On St David's Day, the day after the election, the fun and games began.

The story of Friday 1 March 1974 is riveting enough anyway, but might soon become acutely relevant. It is quite possible that on the morning of Friday 7 May 2010 - which will probably be the day after our next general election - David Cameron and the Tories will find themselves with a plurality, or more seats than any other party, but without an absolute majority over all others: in the modern jargon, a hung parliament.

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1974 and all that - the constitutional position

by Vernon Bogdanor

Were the 2010 general election to yield a hung parliament, Gordon Brown, like Heath, would be constitutionally entitled to seek coalition; or he could meet parliament as the head of a minority government and challenge the other parties to vote him down. But he might then seem a bad loser. Even if Labour were to win more seats than any other party, Brown would be thought to have "lost".

The imprint of first-past-the-post is so strong that voters see general elections as football matches in which a side has either "won" or "lost". Nuances such as which party has the most seats or which party has the most votes are hardly noticed in the post-election melee.

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