Most polls in the UK continue to show that the election, expected 6 May, is likely to result in no single party holding a majority of seats. A so-called hung parliament certainly is not something in the recent experience of The Mother of All Parliaments. The prospect is getting a lot of attention in the British media–predictably, most of it not positive. In fact the very term, hung parliament, implies indecision: juries, after all, have failed to render their required dichotomous verdict when they are “hung.”
A minority situation last resulted from a UK election in 1974 (the election of February of that year, which was shortly followed by one in October that produced a narrow Labour majority). It just may happen in 2010. There is even a chance, if the voting result is close, that we could see a reversed plurality: Conservatives will almost certainly have the voting plurality, but they presumably need a lead of several percentage points to win the plurality (let alone a majority) of seats. As John Rentoul notes, that is the “nightmare” for Nick Clegg, leader of the third largest party, the Liberal Democrats.
Clegg has been careful to say that it is the voters, not he or his party, that are the “kingmakers.” He has also been careful not to delcare that he will work with the party that has the most seats, but rather with the party with the “strongest mandate.” In a reversal situation, that would be quite ambiguous indeed.
While no-majority situations have been rare in the UK, they have been rather common in one of the “daughters” of Westminster: Canada. As noted in a recent Globe and Mail article, Canadian experience is being invoked on the British campaign trail. Some campaigners for the big parties are warning of an alleged “nightmare scenario” of “Canadian-style” minority government if there is a “hung” parliament. Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, are touting Canada’s experience with reducing its deficit in the 1990s (to be fair, under majority Liberal governments) as a model. Of course, the not-so-subtle message is that it is a model that Britain would follow only if the Liberal Democrats were in a position to bargain with a minority cabinet and prevent either big party from implementing its own designs.
Not only would a representative parliament–as I prefer to call it–not be a disaster for Britain, it actually could be quite beneficial.