Opinion A UK Minority Government Would Not Last Long

If the British Conservatives are unable to form a rare coalition government, a second UK general election within a matter of months is the likely outcome, says Oxford University professor of government Vernon Bogdanor.

UK citizens could be headed to the polls for a second time later this year.

UK citizens could be headed to the polls for a second time later this year.

The outcome of the general election shows what a phlegmatic and conservative people the British are. They faced, after all, in the last parliament, two huge crises. The first was an economic crisis, the credit crunch. The second was a political crisis, the revelation, as a result of Freedom of Information legislation, that a large number of MPs, from all parties, had abused the expenses system. Three MPs now face criminal prosecution. Amongst the worse claims were those for second houses by MPs living less than 30 miles (48 kilometers) from London, claims for duck-houses and for cleaning a moat surrounding a stately home.

The expenses crisis caused the resignation of the Speaker of the House of Commons, who had tried to prevent freedom of information legislation from being applied to MPs expenses; and it was widely thought to have been a defining moment in the relationship between parliament and the people. Some predicted that, in consequence, turnout in the general election would fall, while others suggested that new and even extremist parties would profit -- the Greens, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and even the neo-fascist British National Party (BNP). At the very least, so it was thought, the Liberal Democrats, who had not been in government since World War I, would benefit.

In the event, none of this happened. Turnout rose from 61 to 65 percent. The new parties failed completely, except for the Greens, who won one seat. The Liberal Democrats lost seats rather than winning them. Voters stuck with the traditional parties.

Electoral System Works Against the Conservatives

But the election produced a hung parliament, the first since 1974. Despite the unpopularity of Gordon Brown's Labour government, and the large lead enjoyed in the opinion polls by David Cameron's Conservatives for much of the previous parliament, the Conservatives ended up 20 seats short of an overall majority. In Germany, of course, under the proportional representation system, hung parliaments are the norm, and stable coalitions result. In the more adversarial political culture of Britain, however, coalitions are seen as exceptional; the parties are not accustomed to the compromises involved in coalition government.

In the general election, the Conservatives secured 36 percent of the vote, Labour 29 percent and the Liberal Democrats 23 percent. One might think that a hung parliament is the right outcome in such a situation, since no party had won a majority of the vote. But, in the 2005 election, Labour won 35 percent of the vote, the Conservatives 32 percent and the Liberal Democrats 22 percent, and this produced a comfortable majority for Labour of 66 seats. If the figures of 2010 were reversed, and Labour secured 36 percent with the Conservatives on 30 percent, Labour would have had a majority of around 100!

The electoral system is biased against the Conservatives not because of gerrymandering, but because the Labour vote is more efficiently distributed in marginal constituencies, while much of the Conservative vote is wasted in building up large majorities in safe seats. It is particularly remarkable, therefore, that the Conservatives are the strongest defenders of the first-past-the-post system which in 2005 produced a majority government opposed by nearly two-thirds of the voters.

The Conservatives won 306 seats out of 650, Labour 258 and the Liberal Democrats 57. Others secured 29 seats. In Germany, for example, there would be a vote on the investiture of a chancellor after an election, but in Britain, the prime minister remains in power until either he resigns, or is defeated in the Queen's Speech debate on May 25.

Another 2010 General Election?

At present, however, the Liberal Democrats are in discussion with the largest party, the Conservatives, who have offered a coalition. But it would be difficult for the Liberal Democrats to accept unless the Conservatives promised a referendum on proportional representation, which they are unwilling to do. But there are other policy differences. The Conservatives are euroskeptic, the Liberal Democrats europhile; the Conservatives favor the Trident nuclear deterrent, the Liberal Democrats do not. The Conservatives favor immediate measures to deal with the large budgetary deficit. The Liberal Democrats, like Labour, believe that expenditure cuts should wait until recovery from the recession is assured.

Gordon Brown, unlike the Conservatives, has offered a referendum on proportional representation. The trouble is, however, that a Labour/Liberal Democrat combination could achieve only 315 seats, 10 short of an overall majority. It would have to depend upon nationalists from Scotland and Wales to secure majority support.

The most likely outcome is a Conservative minority government. But minority governments do not last long in Britain. The last one, in 1974, was dissolved after just seven months. It would be difficult for Cameron to introduce policies of fiscal retrenchment without a majority. The outcome, therefore, will probably be a dissolution and a second election in a few months time at which the British people will be asked to make up their minds.

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