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There is such alot of nonsense talked about hung parliaments

Talking about hung parliaments is all the rage on the electoral merry-go-round at the moment. What a shame that so much of what is said is nonsense. 

I find particularly bizarre the assertion that we need a single party government to tackle the dire economic problems the country faces. We only have to look across at Europe to Greece to see how well a single party government has coped with the financial storms of recent recent years. While looking across Europe, you might ponder how well Germany has done since the war and how rarely it has ever had a single party government. I could go on and those fearful of a parliament where the political parties might actually have to talk to each other can equally cite countries where they haven't coped so well when the verdict of their electors says they don't want to trust one party alone with power.

Then there is the myth being pushed particularly hard by the Conservatives at the moment that the first past the post system allows for quick and decisive changes of government. Really? In the UK, we have changed government only six times since the second world war, less than almost any other developed country. In the current UK General Election we are actually looking at a system that could produce a result where the current governing party comes third in terms of popular votes but wins more seats than any other party and uses that as a mandate for staying in office. Decisive? I don't think so.

Our current system is deeply flawed. I have always believed that it produces bad government because Prime Ministers walk into the House of Commons and see their benches packed to overflowing because they have 60% of the MPs allowing them to forget that this is often achieved on barely 40% of the popular vote. They run away with the idea that this gives them a mandate for policies that are actually opposed by two-thirds of the population.

Take Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Like many incoming Prime Ministers she was initially sensitive to the need to balance her own Cabinet which meant there were people close to her who understood the need to build support for difficult policies beyond the narrow base of the Conservative Party, the so-called 'One Nation' tradition of Toryism that dates back to Disraeli. As the over-riding issue at the time was the excessive power of the trade unions, finding support beyond the governing party was not difficult. The Liberals were certainly no fans of over powerful unions and there was also support among Labour supporters dating back a decade when the left wing minister Barbara Castle proposed sweeping reforms in a White Paper entitled In Place of Strife only for her Prime Minister Harold Wilson to side with the unions and ditch it.

After two more election victories delivering huge majorities on a minority of the vote Thatcher lost the plot, becoming trenchantly anti-Europe and also proposing the Poll Tax. She was looking at those packed Tory benches and believed she could do anything. Pursuing these policies - for which there was not even unanimous support in her own party, let alone support outside it - brought her down.

Roll forward to 1997 and the election of Tony Blair. Initially, he built on a broad anti-Tory consensus of what the government's priorities were. Like Thatcher, he won two more elections with large majorities on a minority of the vote and then forgot that he was not omnipotent by taking the country into a war that few wanted. Even two million people taking to the streets in London didn't make him realise how little support he had. It didn't bring his downfall and he did go on to win a further election with a much smaller majority but it has cost him his reputation, although history may eventually judge his premiership more positively overall.

Those are two examples of how the first past the post system has led to blatantly poor government.

Beyond those arguments there is the debate about fairness and electoral where the main points are well rehearsed. In simple terms, at the last election it took 28,000 votes to elect a Labour MP, 51,000 votes to elect a Conservative MP and 101,000 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat MP. By what measures of fairness and democracy is it right that a vote for one party is worth only a quarter of a vote for another party?

Finally, you have to stand back and look at the bigger picture of our election results since the war and it is clear that the country as a whole has rarely been keen on trusting one party with the sole responsibility of governing the country. You have to look back to the Conservative victories 1951 and 1955 to find General Elections where one party was on or around 50% of the popular vote.

Those are arguments in favour of electoral reform which I have always supported but today we are looking forward to a little over a week when the present system could deliver a hung parliament and the challenge is clear.

The responsibility of political leaders is to accept the challenge given to them by the British people through the ballot box. If that responsibility - even under a fair voting system -  is to govern as a single party having secured the majority of the votes, then fine. If it is to govern by co-operating with one or more other parties then they should be capable of rising to that challenge. In a time of crisis co-operation could have its benefits, bringing a greater range of talents to bear on the problems we face so we shouldn't fear a hung parliament and we should certainly stop talking such nonsense about it.
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