The mystery of the inevitable


“Let the people have their say, and then we’ll do what we have to do afterwards.”  Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna takes a dim view of hung parliament discourse.  He finds it “distasteful” and “hubristic.”  He has even implied it to be undemocratic.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  The least hubristic approach for any party to take is one which presupposes the most likely scenario; and unless the polls shift dramatically from where they have teetered over the past month (the latest shown above), that scenario is a result with no party commanding an overall majority.  If Mr Umunna sees hubris in assuming a probable situation where his party lacks dominance, you would rightly be confused as to why he guards against this by assuming an improbable situation where his party commands dominance.  Indeed, it is a stance taken by both major parties that is looking increasingly out-dated.

More importantly, it is silence on the issue which threatens democracy.  British voters are in the dark, perhaps more so than ever before.  Westminster is a fish out of water to the development multiparty politics.  The electorate has very little experience or understanding of the coalition, confidence and supply, or vote-by-vote mechanisms that are characteristic of such a structure.  The insurgence of UKIP and the SNP has prompted voters to try out new allegiances.  To make prediction even muddier, as the polls now stand, the Lib Dems – by far the most palatable coalition partner – will not be able to tip the balance as they did in 2010.

But the greatest source of this darkness is that parties are not telling voters what they would do.  Labour and Tory MPs for some reason feel we need to be reminded that their party is going for a majority.  Neither have stated clearly the parties with whom they would enter into a deal, nor what shape that deal would take.  Occasionally deals are ruled out, as the coalition of Labour and the SNP has been.  Yet there is little credibility in such promises when they are made to the goal of securing a majority.  We will only find out after the election whether Mr Miliband would truly rather sacrifice Prime Ministership – and, by consequence, his current job – than enter a deal with the SNP.  It is not a terribly convincing prospect.

But Mr Miliband’s integrity is not the biggest problem here.  The biggest problem is that voters no longer know what they are voting for.  Structurally, a majority government can deliver on promises with ease.  This makes the connection between votes and outcomes strong.  If there is no overall majority in May, two things will jeopardise this.  First, before the formation of the cabinet, small parties will wield bargaining power disproportionate to their electoral support, extracting potentially key policy changes from the major parties – policies to which those parties may owe a large share of their vote.

Second, after the formation of a coalition or minority government, small parties will move the goalposts.  The Fixed Term Parliament Act has effectively made it easier for the parties of a coalition to breach the terms of that coalition.  Nicola Sturgeon can now concede a lot more, to get into bed with Mr Miliband, than she will have the incentive to deliver on once under the sheets.  And Mr Miliband will once again have to decide between being a weak Prime Minister or unemployed.

This is all very bad news for the British voter.  It means that when you cast your ballot on 7th May you cannot be half as certain as you would be a decade ago that your vote will produce the policy outcome you intended.  It means you must take any pledge from Mr Cameron or Mr Miliband with twice the pinch of salt you used to.  It means you may vote for a government because you want a more united union, and end up with one that tears it apart.

Westminster democracy is all about that connection between vote and outcome.  Rather than confine the role of our vote to mere consent, we recognize the great benefits – to government accountability, to the incentives for performance, to the credibility of party manifestos – of the strong link, relative to other models of democracy, between what we choose and what happens.

Now, maybe we are in fact beginning a transition to a long term multiparty structure.  If so, the above issues we face are no different to those across the Channel.  But our ability as an electorate to navigate them is.  If it was not imperative up until this point in the argument, it is imperative now that parties give us a better and more binding indication of who they would deal with, what kind of deal they would tolerate and which policies they would ringfence from negotiation.  Mr Umunna wants the “people to dictate the terms of what happens” after the election.  Without this discourse, that is a hollow power indeed.

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