Voter's guide to engineering a hung parliament
Updated on 16 April 2010
The leaders debates have renewed speculation about a hung parliament, so Channel 4 News thought it would be interesting to find out whether it was possible to vote for one. Independent political analyst Greg Callus reports.
A general election resulting in a hung parliament (where no single party has an overall majority of seats) is not that common in recent times. In the 20th century, only the general elections of 1910, 1923, 1929 and February 1974 failed to give any party more than half the country's MPs.
But 2010 seems like a potential candidate, if not least because since 1945 no government with a working majority has ever lost power to a different government with a working majority. Pundits and pollsters currently suggest a close finish again this year, and oddly, the public seem not to mind.
A Populus poll in the Times on Wednesday found that 32 per cent of voters wanted to see a hung parliament, versus 28 per cent wanting a Tory majority and only 22 per cent wanting a Labour majority. This suggests a massive number of people who will support a party hoping to form a government, and yet not necessarily want it to succeed. Let's call them "voters for a hung parliament", or "VHPs".
So if you are one of these VHPs, how could you wield your vote to improve the chances of the House of Commons having no overall majority? This would be much easier if the law on proxy voting were changed (no-one can be a proxy for more than two people, plus close family members), perhaps a national campaign to get people to donate their votes for a campaign that would instruct proxies in some co-ordinated manner. But fanciful notions of the electoral hivemind aside, what should an VHP do?
Hung parliaments result from two mathematical factors - the difference in seats between the largest two parties being as small as possible, and the size of the delegation of the third (and smaller) parties. The more MPs this latter group commands, the more likely a hung parliament.
This second factor might suggest voting for the Lib Dems or minor parties is therefore always the best approach for the VHPs, but that would be incorrect. In some cases, votes wasted on a minor party incapable of winning a battleground marginal could result in the seat going to the country's largest party, making a hung parliament less likely than if the VHP had supported the country's second largest party. Everything depends on which constituency you live in, and who is in the running there.
So, here is my voter's guide on how to vote if you are a VHP. (Some general notes: "Other" in this case means a minor party or independent candidate, and all estimations are made using the 2005 notional figures produced by Professors Rawlings & Thrasher)
If you live in Northern Ireland, where the major parties do not run, voting for any party except the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force (a coalition of the Tories and the UUP) will help produce a hung parliament. To maximise the effect, though, voting against Sinn Fein (who do not take the seats the win at Westminster) will help raise the bar of seats the Labour or the Tories need for an overall working majority.
For VHPs in Great Britain, the first stage is maximising the Lib Dem/Other seat count:
1)If you live in one of the 74 seats currently held by a Lib Dem/Other, then ensuring their re-election is crucial, so vote for the "incumbent" (although they're not technically your MP after parliament is dissolved).
2) If you live one of the 135 Labour-held and 81 Conservative-held seats where the Lib Dems/Others are in second place (or perhaps third place in one of the three-way marginals, like in Ealing Central & Acton, or Filton & Bradley Stoke), then support the Lib Dem/Plaid/SNP/Other candidate most likely to win.
3) That leaves us with 342 seats which are a straight battle between Labour and the Conservatives. The aim for a VHP should be that these two parties end up with as similar a number of seats as possible. These voters have the most difficult task – who to vote for will depend on the polls (if one party has a clear, majority-giving lead, then vote for the other party), and on how successful Lib Dem voters are in taking seats from the two biggest parties (and from which party they mostly take them).
One general way to split the difference is to look at the swing from Labour-Conservative needed for the Conservatives to get close to an overall majority, and rank the Lab-Con marginals by this figure – Anthony Wells at UK Polling Report keeps track of "target seats" organised by swing.
If the LibDems/Others make no gains, then a VHP would ideally see Labour and the Tories split the 558 seats they already hold more evenly. Thus the "natural" split for a VHP to use would to be to support the Tories in the 279 most Tory-leaning seats, and Labour in their 279 most Labour-leaning seats. If this is the experiment "at rest", then it could be recalibrated depending on how much the polls of the marginals move away from parity of vote share between Labour and the Conservatives.
The difference will all be in the first 150 Labour held-seats of the Tory target list. VHPs want the Conservatives to win at least 34 (to end Labour's overall majority), but less than the 127 they need to win an overall majority themselves. There are 93 seats to split, and VHPs will need to compare polls of the marginals to the swing needed in their constituency to guide them.
(There is an interesting extra question as to whether voting for an "Other" to replace Speaker Bercow would have a one-MP impact on the totals, but it requires more space than I have here).
And if the VHPs are successful, what then? There are four likely options: a Conservative minority government, a Labour minority government, a coalition between Conservatives and Lib Dems/Others, or a coalition between Labour and Lib Dems/Others.
Either of the first two options would see policies not-dissimilar to the almost-unthinkable direction of a Labour-Conservative grand coalition. Legislation restrained to that upon which the two biggest parties broadly agree, though how that might manifest itself with respect to the economy is difficult to envisage.
If either party desires coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the price to be paid would almost certainly include constitutional changes. Perhaps reform of the electoral system (towards proportional representation or alternate vote), probably moves towards a largely or wholly elected senate to replace the House of Lords, and an area that saw all leaders agree at their recent debate: the ability of constituents to recall wayward members of parliament.
The Liberal Democrats would clearly support Conservative plans to scrap the ID card database, and would perhaps hope to use the hung parliament to enact reforms to the structure of the taxation system.
The major parties all agree on basic tax-and-spend policies (more police on the beat, immigration tightening, support for the NHS, investment in education etc). Where policy might change, based on who is part of the coalition, might well be in the field of non-appropriations: libel reform, constitutional changes, civil liberties, tax structure, or the recent digital economy bill.
Assuming this is understood by voters (if just intuitively) these policy areas might tell us something about the sorts of people who are in the 32 per cent on record supporting a hung parliament as their preferred option.
For instance, it would not be surprising if we were to find them to be overwhelmingly socially-liberal, highly politically-engaged, many of them educated, more younger voters, many of them reasonably affluent, and thus less reliant on public services and so less concerned with large-scale investment than personal freedoms and abstract political issues.
VHPs are not a phenomenon we have seen so discretely before – it remains to be seen whether they are coherent and organised enough to effect their collective will in a way that will determine the course of the next government.
Greg Callus is the deputy editor of politicalbetting.com and co-author of the Guide to the 2010 election.