Rethinking hung parliament outcomes

With a little less than five months to go until the next UK general election in May 2015, the general consensus amongst pundits and pollsters is that there will be another hung parliament. UK Parliamentary Election Forecast has been releasing daily seat projections based on polling trends. The most recent forecasts have predicted either a tie between the Conservatives and Labour, or else one of the two major parties marginally ahead by a handful of seats or less. In every instance, however, each party is well short of the 326 seats needed for a (one-seat) single party majority government.

This reality has prompted a number of news articles and opinion pieces speculating on the problem of government formation following the 2015 vote (see, for example Mark D’Arcy’s piece, or this piece, Have party manifestos had their day? or Forming alliances: a run-down of the parties red lines). And the reason why there may be a problem in trying to form a government is that the current seat projections for all parties show that a coalition government will be more difficult to form because the major parties would require the support of more than one of the smaller parties. In 2010, the Conservatives were only twenty seats shy of a majority, and combined with the Liberal Democrats’ 57 seats, they were able to form a solid majority coalition government. That may not be possible in 2015.

The current seat projections have Labour with 282, the Conservatives with 281, the Scottish National Party (SNP) with 34, the Liberal Democrats with 28, and then a handful of much smaller parties (DUP 8, UKIP 3, SDLP 3, Plaid Cymru 2 and the Greens 1, plus 8 others). So Labour would need both the SNP and the Lib Dems to from a majority coalition government. The same arrangement would be necessary for the Conservatives, but the likelihood of the SNP backing the Tories are slim to none.

What is truly fascinating in all of this, however, is the virtually universal acceptance of coalition government as the preferred outcome of a hung parliament. Remember that back in 2010, when the Tories and Lib Dems formed a coalition, that was the first peace-time coalition in the UK in something like 70 years. It was a novelty. Most thought it wouldn’t last, but it did, and it (mostly) worked, and in retrospect, it maybe even suffered fewer blow-ups than some single-party majority governments. People may still not really like coalitions, but there is at least the recognition and acceptance of coalition government as legitimate and workable and, perhaps more importantly, inherently more stable than single-party minority government.

This is such an amazing contrast to opinion here in Canada. I wrote back in 2011 about how coalition is sort of a dirty word in Canadian politics. Political parties here, both federal and provincial, are always quick to deny any interest in even considering forming a coalition. The worse thing one party can say about another (other than they will raise taxes) is that they plan to form a coalition with a third party. If a party leader dares to speculate that they might be open to considering options should an election result in a hung parliament, the other party leaders will jump on that comment, forcing a quick retraction or correction from the first party leader.

The Canadian media isn’t much help on this front. When reporting on polls that show a very close race during a campaign (and even outside of one), the headline is likely to read “Poll shows election would result in Party X minority government!” No it doesn’t — the poll shows the election is likely to result in a hung parliament. Many journalists don’t seem to quite understand the process of government formation in Westminster systems, and there is often confusion between the concept of a proper coalition government and something more akin to an agreement between two (or more) parties, for example, a supply and confidence agreement.

In the lead-up to the 2010 UK general election, when again, like today, polls where showing that the likely outcome was going to be a hung parliament, UK academics and research institutes began a campaign to educate the media and the public about government formation and what to expect should a hung parliament occur. These efforts began in 2009, and included initiatives such as the Constitution Unit’s Making Minority Government Work, which included this excellent PDF “Hung Parliaments: What you need to know“. The Institute for Government and the Hansard Society were also involved.

As a result of that campaign, when the election did indeed result in a hung parliament, no one panicked. The media did not declare a minority Conservative government once the seat totals were in. The parties were allowed to negotiate and take the time to see what sort of arrangements could be worked out. It was only five days later that a government emerged, the Tory-Lib Dem majority coalition government.

We need this sort of education campaign here in Canada. Current polling shows that the October 2015 election is likely to result in a hung parliament. Of course, polls can and will change, but that doesn’t negate the fact that there is a desperate need for a concerted program and effort to educate the media, voters and yes, even our political parties, that coalition is a viable option and not something evil or foreign. An organization like Samara Canada would be ideal to take the lead on something like this. I am sure that there are many academics who’d be willing to take part (at least – that’s the impression I get from my Twitter feed). I don’t actually hold out much hope than any Canadian political parties will be mature enough to seriously attempt to form a coalition, but that’s not my goal here. All I want it to reclaim coalition government as a legitimate form of government and ensure that the press, politicians and voters fully understand how government formation works and what options are out there. Is that too much to ask?

Update: Turns out that there are efforts underway to create a cabinet manual for Canada akin to the ones in existence in New Zealand and the UK. However, while an excellent step forward, what concerns me is that this is a largely behind-the-scenes effort. There is still a need for a very public campaign to educate Canadians about how government formation really works.


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