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General Election 2015 & Why Parliament Deserves To Be Hung
John Tatlock , May 7th, 2015 12:57

If - or, more likely, when - today's vote reveals that no party has a majority, it won't be a reflection of voters being apathetic, rather the blasé attitude of those they're voting for. This, John Tatlock argues, doesn't necessarily have to be seen as a negative

I live in the centre of Manchester, one of the wealthier cities in the fifth richest country by GDP in the world.

If you come onto Oxford Road from my building and turn left, within five minutes or so you can be at the town hall, just next to the recently-refurbished central library, a pretty spectacular £50 million revamp of an already-spectacular building.

If you'd turned right instead of left (and I'm not making a metaphor out of this, just giving directions), within about three minutes walk there are people living under a bridge. In the centre of one of the wealthier cities in the fifth richest country in the world. People living under a bridge. I feel that merits a pause for contemplation.

They're not occasionally begging under the bridge before going home to laugh about the easy money they've made in front of a big telly. They live there. By day, their sleeping bags are rolled up and tucked under the columns supporting the flyover. By night, they're rolled out and occupied. Volunteers from the food bank up the road sometimes bring them food, but they mostly get by on what they can beg. On a bad day, or more often a bad night, someone will pick a fight with them, or attempt to steal from their pathetic stash of coats, sleeping bags and charity sandwiches.

But there are quite a lot of them most nights, varying between half a dozen and a dozen. There seems to be safety in numbers. Indeed, they're something of a family. I suppose we could debate how hard-working a family they are, to borrow the language of our parliamentarians. It certainly looks fairly hard.

The night before the election, while waiting in the shop near the bridge I read a news story on my phone that tells me that the Labour-run Manchester city council have banned homeless people from the central library.

I walk home to continue work on this article, past the people under the bridge.

*

At an event for Tory party activists at the start of May, prime minister David Cameron told his audience: "Let's be proud of our record. Let's be proud of what we've done these last five years." There's a lot that could be said about that, but one thing in particular strikes me; there were no people living under the bridge near my flat in 2010.

Cameron's hapless deputy Nick Clegg is also, perhaps surprisingly to some, fond of this riff. “I'm incredibly proud of our record in government - I'm not going to apologise for it no matter what anyone says in a letter to your paper," he told the Deeside Piper newspaper at an event in Westhill on April 17. Worth noting, that last bit. Don't write in, you're just wasting your own time. He doesn't care what you think, even when he's campaigning in your town and talking to your local paper.

While it's unrealistic to expect party leaders in government to say, "My, we really are making a massive cock-up of this, aren't we?", it seems justified to wonder whether Cameron and Clegg have completely taken leave of their senses. Their position, fundamentally, is that everything is A-OK, and there are no real problems. Just got to "stay the course", and all that wretched cant.

In 1979, a week and a half before the biggest day of strike action since 1926, then Labour prime minister James Callaghan was asked during a press conference about "the mounting chaos in the country". He replied thus: "Perhaps you're taking rather a parochial view at the moment, I don't think that other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos."

This led The Sun to run their famous "CRISIS? WHAT CRISIS?" headline, and Callaghan was rightly pilloried. Whether you stand for or against the actions of the strikers this was a staggeringly blasé and indifferent stance for a prime minister to take. And again, wherever you stand pro or con Thatcher, who won a landslide victory over Callaghan later in the year, in an election triggered early by a vote of no confidence in parliament, it's hard to persuade oneself that Callaghan himself deserved a second shot.

Perhaps there's a parallel to be drawn here with Gordon Brown, for whom the never-won-a-general-election mantra proved such box office poison in 2010. Callaghan never won a general election either. He was voted leader of the Labour party after Harold Wilson's shock resignation in March 1976, just over two years into his premiership (itself, initially as a minority government). Callaghan therefore became prime minister by default.

Similarly, neither Cameron or Clegg have ever won a general election. In 2010, the Conservatives won 306 seats, 20 short of a majority. The Lib Dems took 57, which meant that a coalition made a working majority of 363, which can hardly be described as a mandate from the electorate.


Thus is how our current, rather arbitrary political system works. If you're the kind of person who thinks democracy is an important idea, election season will tend to make you queasy. A bunch of election-losing, deeply unpopular Westminster professionals haggle over who lost the least, never acknowledging that the nation has told all of them to bugger off.

So the best Cameron and Clegg can claim is to have - only by combining forces - been somewhat less rejected than everyone else who was also rejected. We have very accurate measurements of the tallest dwarves.

Realising that the same maths are unlikely to favour them in 2015, the Tories have started to argue the mundane arithmetic of parliamentary rules don't deliver a fair result. It's an argument you could credibly make if you hadn't (as the Tories did), spent a significant chunk of your first year in power defeating Lib Dem and Labour-backed attempts to change those rules.

Unfortunately for Cameron, this time around Tory seats plus the Lib Dem seats plus the UKIP seats and perhaps even the DUP seats won't deliver a majority. And in any case, the Lib Dems have ruled out going into coalition with UKIP and will most likely blanch at the DUP if it comes down to the wire.

Nick Clegg's party have also ruled out going into a coalition with the SNP - a shot across the boughs of the current most viable-looking configuration of government. Nevertheless, Labour and the SNP look likely to be able to make a majority on their own and even if not, they could make an effective minority still bigger than any Tory-led minority.

So this is a bit of a tricky one for the Tories. They are having to argue that the individual party with the largest number of seats should govern, even if that's not as a majority. But that's not how the rules work; not least because they made sure that's not how the rules work. Oops.

Ultimately, it's now clear that the electorate, in a collective sense, are giving the second election in a row to 'None Of The Above'. And None Of The Above are set for another absolute landslide. But both Labour and the Tories will claim - are already warming up their claims, in fact - to have won. It's a shambles, that speaks volumes about the electorate's disdain for both parties.

So why are there a couple of overgrown school prefects swaggering around talking about pride? And another talking himself up as a bold force for change? It's genuinely mystifying. One suspects they're beyond shame, but you'd expect to see something resembling embarrassment.

Over the last six months, despite all the bluster, polls for Labour, the Liberals and the Tories have remained flat. The Greens have very slightly risen, and UKIP have very slightly fallen. The results of the three main parties' campaigns have been what you'd have expected to see if nobody had campaigned at all.

How to explain this? Let's take just one of the hot-button issues of the day: the bedroom tax. The coalition introduced the bedroom tax, with the Lib Dems in their now-settled role of enabling a Conservative policy while paying media lip service to opposing it.

Labour condemned it vocally and have made a manifesto promise to scrap it at the first opportunity.

Which is nice, except that the first, and best opportunity to do away with the bedroom tax was on November 12, 2013. Labour put forward a motion calling for an end to deductions for social tenants with spare bedrooms with "immediate effect". But in the vote, 47 Labour MPs, mostly in Scottish seats, including Gordon Brown and Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, abstained, along with 21 Lib Dems.

The motion was lost by just 26 votes. In other words, had Labour and Lib Dem MPs dragged their sorry hides to parliament and voted in accordance with their passionately-stated position, the bedroom tax would have been cancelled a year and a half ago. No explanation or justification for this failure to act, nor any apology, has ever been forthcoming.

As Angus Robertson of the SNP said at the time: "This is rank hypocrisy from Labour." When you consider that Glasgow has the highest number of people affected by the bedroom tax in the entire UK, some 14,000, then the utter collapse of Labour's vote north of the border becomes fairly unremarkable.

*

The most often-made case against hung parliaments runs like this: in a hung parliament, no party has the sheer force to push their plans through, and everything has to be slogged out vote-by-vote. This means lots of hard work for MPs, and that deeply divisive policies will likely go nowhere. I'm often puzzled that I'm expected to think of either of those things as negatives.

In 2010-11, post-Saddam Iraq lost its world record for being the democracy to go longest without an elected government to... Belgium. After an inconclusive election, all 11 parties who'd won seats, none with more than 20% of the seats, squabbled so furiously over who should be in charge that no government could be formed for 589 days. This meant that Belgium was one of the few countries that couldn't impose austerity on its citizens in the wake of the global financial crash. No cuts, no bank bail-out, no nothing. The only thing the Belgian civil service was empowered to do was to simply carry on whatever it was already doing. And in 2011, Belgium enjoyed higher economic growth than France, Germany, the UK and the US.

The blunt reality of this election is that none of the available parties deserve to govern. The historic main three are all currently travesties of their historic selves. The smaller parties have not yet presented credible alternatives. And the dismal electoral picture for all of them is not because voters are apathetic about politics; it's because parliamentarians are apathetic about voters.

So that's where we've ended up: even as a lifelong election geek, I've been finding this the most boring election period I can remember. It started with the public unimpressed, and it is concluding with the public no more impressed, though perhaps slightly depressed.

However, what will be interesting is what will happen in the weeks to come. The Tories are already trying to rewrite the rulebook on this, and preparing the ground for straight-up stealing the victory that they can't actually win. Labour are posturing and possibly throwing away any chance at power by sneering at the parties they are going to need, possibly now in perpetuity, in order to remain a political force of any kind. And the 50% of sitting MPs who are in entirely safe seats will continue to snooze and draw a salary.

I don't take the view that all parties are the same, or all politicians are the same. But parliamentarians who take their jobs seriously seem thinner on the ground than at any time I can recall. And this is delivering precisely the electoral response it deserves.

A hung parliament now seems inevitable. What form it will take is hard to say, and it lasting a five-year term is hard to conceive. The only thing I know for sure about May 8 is this: there will still be people living under a bridge near my flat.

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