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Why a hung Parliament is a good bet

Michael Crick | 15:23 UK time, Friday, 17 April 2009

Take a look at the following chart:

It shows the number of MPs elected at each election who were not Labour or Conservative, or allied with the two major parties (in the way most Northern Irish MPs used to be).

So in 1959 there were just six Liberal MPs and one Independent.

Over the years this "others" figure has crept up pretty steadily, to reach 87 MPs at the last election, and 93 MPs now after by-elections, expulsions and defections. (I exclude the Sinn Fein MPs from all these figures, as they never attend the Commons, as well as the Speaker and his three deputies.)

The growth reflects several trends:

First, the revival of the Liberal Party and their successors, the Liberal Democrats, from a mere six MPs in 1959 to 62 in 2005 (and 63 now).

Then there was the dramatic arrival of Scottish and Welsh Nationalist MPs in the 1970s, with a total today of 10 SNP or Plaid Cymru members in the House (though the figure has been even higher in the past).

Third, the number of Irish MPs has grown from just 12 in the decades after the war, to 18 today. What's more, until the early 1970s, most of them, the Official Unionists, were allied with the Conservatives, whereas nowadays the Democratic Unionists are independent.

And finally there's been a small growth in the number of independent MPs (such as Richard Taylor and Dai Davies) and MPs from minor parties, such as George Galloway of Respect, and Bob Spink of UKIP.

This growth of what one might call a balance-of-power block means that it's now a lot harder for one of the two major parties to win a general election outright. In the 1959 and 1964 elections Labour or the Tories only needed ten more seats than their rivals to be sure of a majority in the Commons.

Forty years on, the figure is almost 100. It's a remarkable feature that in 17 elections since the war, only once, in February 1974, have we ended up with a hung Parliament.

Statistically one would expect it to happen a lot more often, especially with the growth of minor parties outlined above. Indeed, some people suspect that the British electorate senses the problems of a hung Parliament and gives a last-minute nudge to the likely winner. (A similar phenomenon seems to occur in English football where it's surprisingly rare for the league to be won on goal difference.)

Certainly many leading Conservatives expect that outcome in 2010. They think its simply too big a task, in one election, to gain the 116 seats they need for a majority, on what would require the second biggest swing in 60 years. Instead, they think their best bet is to be the biggest party in a hung Parliament with the chance of winning an outright majority in a second election in a year or two. It's the two election strategy.

Equally, many Labour people are consoling themselves with the thought they might hold onto power through a hung Parliament.

And even if it doesn't happen in 2010, it bound to happen before long.


  • Comment number 1.

    I think a hung parliament would be an ideal way of restricting the power of the ruling party, and a great way of getting away from the current bipartisan system.

    Then again, I am that sad man always banging on about electoral reform...

  • Comment number 2.

    Interesting statistic, Mr C.

    With such a strong anti-Labour vote going to the Conservatives at the next election, and hung parliament seems rather unlikely.

    However in successive elections, who knows ?

    Living in Scotland where inter-party negotiation is fairly common at Holyrood, political policy is certainly less extreme on way or the other. But heaven help us if Alex Salmond and his Tartan Bovver Lads and Lassies obtain a working majority.

    There's no doubt that there is much more common sense in policies that are agreed, when no party has a mojority, and common sense in government these days can be as rare as hen's teeth.

  • Comment number 3.

    I'd go for anything to put an end to the current Labour government - and I think hung parliaments are a bad idea!

  • Comment number 4.


    THEY ALL connive at the Westminster charade. We will be pawns until we are governed by the sort of individual who would not touch the current ethos with a cattle prod.

    The LibDems do not support an abstention box on the voting paper (None of the above; No confidence in Westminster governance etc.)

    A different game on the same board will not do - I am tired of being a pawn.

  • Comment number 5.

    At a time when New Labour still is losing support, and the Liberal Democrats are not gaining any, it seems surprising that the pact which was proposed a few years back - where each would drop their candidates in constituencies where their opposite number stood a better chance of winning - has not been resuscitated.

    Of course the electorate would soon hate them for it, but it would still give them five more years for a new start; and a guarnteed win at the election - where otherwise (at a time when all parties are fighting for the centre) they both might be in the wilderness for the next decade.

  • Comment number 6.

    Great story here that sums up how the tax system in the UK works :

    Suppose that every day, ten men go out for beer and the bill for all ten comes to £100.

    If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something like this:

    The first four men (the poorest) would pay nothing.

    The fifth would pay £1.

    The sixth would pay £3.

    The seventh would pay £7.

    The eighth would pay £12.

    The ninth would pay £18.

    The tenth man (the richest) would pay £59.

    So, that's what they decided to do.

    The ten men drank in the bar every day and seemed quite happy with the arrangement, until one day, the owner threw them a curve.

    'Since you are all such good customers,' he said, 'I'm going to reduce the cost of your daily beers by £20.

    Drinks for the ten now cost just £80.'The group still wanted to pay their bill the way we pay our taxes so the first four men were unaffected. They would still drink for free. But what about the other six men - the paying customers?

    How could they divide the £20 windfall so that everyone would get his 'fair share?'

    They realized that £20 divided by six is £3.33. But if they subtracted that from everybody's share, then the fifth man and the sixth man would each end up being paid to drink his beer.

    So, the bar owner suggested that it would be fair to reduce each man's bill by roughly the same amount, and he proceeded to work out the amounts each should pay. And so:

    The fifth man, like the first four, now paid nothing (100% savings).

    The sixth now paid £2 instead of £3 (33%savings).

    The seventh now pay £5 instead of £7 (28%savings).

    The eighth now paid £9 instead of £12 (25% savings).

    The ninth now paid £14 instead of £18 (22% savings).

    The tenth now paid £49 instead of £59 (16% savings).

    Each of the six was better off than before and the first four continued to drink for free, but once outside the restaurant, the men began to compare their savings.

    "I only got a pound out of the £20," declared the sixth man. He pointed to the tenth man, "but he got £10!"

    "Yeah, that's right," exclaimed the fifth man. "I only saved a pound, too. It's unfair that he got TEN times more than I!"

    "That's true!!" shouted the seventh man. "Why should he get £10 back when I got only two? The wealthy get all the breaks!"

    "Wait a minute," yelled the first four men in unison. "We didn't get anything at all. The system exploits the poor!"

    The nine men surrounded the tenth and beat him up. The next night the tenth man didn't show up for drinks, so the nine sat down and had beers without him. But when it came time to pay the bill, they discovered something very important....

    they didn't have enough money between all of them for even half of the bill!

    And that, boys and girls, journalists and college professors, is how our tax system works.

    The people who pay the highest taxes get the most benefit from a tax reduction. Tax them too much, attack them for being wealthy, and they just may not show up anymore.

    In fact, they might start drinking overseas - as long as there's Stella of course

  • Comment number 7.

    Greenslime, that "argument" about taxes is completely irrational. i've never met anyone in my life who thinks like that. have you? or are you making assumptions about the logical capacity of the nations poor? As someone who has been through both affluent and impoverished times, and equally having many aquantences who are rich and many who are poor, the poor who are charged less or who are in receipt of benefits are CONSTANTLY aware that they are excluded from certain financial responsibilities that the rich must pay up for, because they are CONSTANTLY reminded by people like you who seem to be resentful about this.

    however, excuse me if i'm being niaive. it may be that i am living in an area of the country that is unique in that the poor are not defined solely by being ignorant, irrational, money grabbing, greedy, violent boozers...

  • Comment number 8.

    thank god for the rich. they keep us all afloat dont they!? who builds your roads, and your train lines, and nurses you in hospital, and teaches your seven year old how to spell? These people are not the highest earners in the country, but are essential! you have such a materialistic perspective on how individuals can contribute to society.

  • Comment number 9.

    Alice - greenslime was not posting an argument, but rather an allegory. I'm pretty sure he/she doesn't think in terms of people propping up others in a bar, but rather wanted to reduce the point to as simple an essence as possible.

    It's not a point I agree with at all but your bashing his resentment hardly poses an effective counterpoint. The emotive nature of your response also undermines it.

    GreenSlime - I disagree with the sentiment you have posted because I believe the worse off to be worst effected by downturns and tough economic times. A small percentage of additional tax is enough to cause problems to an already stressed household struggling to get by, but may erode ever so slightly into the disposable income of the super rich.


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