Saturday 28 November 2009

How (nottle) to get a hung Parliament

Hyperventilating about hypothetical hung parliaments seems to be all the rage. The New Statesman does not just cover every historical, psephological and constitutional angle, but even editorialises the Lab-Lib concordat for transparency and reform that might emerge from a smoke-filled room next May.

Martin Kettle was at it too. But correctly highlighting the importance of "nottles" - Not Tory and Not Labour MPs - in affecting the chances of a hung parliament led Kettle to a false conclusion, which would risk misleading any (implausibly) enormous bloc of Guardian reading voters who wanted to maximise the chances of a Commons with no overall party majority:

If you want a hung parliament rather than a Tory majority, though, there is only one reliable way to bring it closer – and that is to vote nottle. In most circumstances, and especially in England, that means that a lot of erstwhile Labour sympathisers will have to get on with it and vote Liberal Democrat. Right now, however, there is not much sign of that.

Psephologically speaking, that doesn't make any sense.

Voters actively seeking a hung Parliament would be better advised to vote for any candidate most likely to keep the Conservatives out in any seat that the Conservatives have a chance of winning.

Of course, any real world voter may be weighing up many different factors - but that would be the sensible strategy if somebody's sole goal were to make a hung parliament more likely. (Until and unless the polls were to tighten so much towards neck and neck that one needed to offset the 'risk' of contributing to a Labour majority against that of preventing a Conservative one).

That would probably mean backing any Nottle incumbent, and perhaps other Nottle contenders with a strong chance of victory over a Conservative.

But it would also mean backing Labour in almost all Labour-held seats being targeted by the Conservatives.

Voting Nottle in a Labour-held seat which the Conservatives were targetting would make a hung Parliament less likely, not more (with the possible exception of one or two three-way contests where a Nottle might have some chance of coming through the middle).

Where there is a Labour-LibDem battleground, the outcome will make no difference to whether there is a hung parliament if the Conservatives remain ahead and the question is whether they reach the 326 seat threshold.

And, of course, this is a hypothetical question for any voter in a safe seat, with little or no chance of shifting in any direction. In most currently Conservative seats, voters can do little to increase the prospects of a hung Parliament.


This isn't because the Nottle MPs don't matter - but it is very difficult to see how that will be the decisive variable in whether there is a hung Parliament in 2010.

The rarity of hung parliaments is not some inexorable property of our electoral system: fully half of the General Elections between 1918 and 1945 led to hung Parliaments. It depends on how the distribution of votes fall, and are translated into seats.

The rise of the nottles have meant the conditions for hung Parliaments have been stronger since the mid-1970s.

In the general elections of the 1950s and 1960s, the number of neither Labour nor Tory MPs was 11, 9, 8 and 7 (in the 1950s) and 9, 14 and 12 (from 1964-70).

With the fragmentation of the two-party vote, and the increased representation of Liberal and nationalist parties, that rose to 37 and 39 in the 1974 elections, and after falling to 27 in 1979, rose again to 44 or 45 in each of the 1983-92 elections, the jumping again to 76 in 1997 and then 92 in 2005.

Yet we have not had hung Parliaments in this nottle-rich period. One major reason is that close elections between the major parties have been very rare. (The 2005 contest was the only one for thirty years in which the two main parties finished within 5% of each other).

As Peter Kellner points out, even if there was a slight fall in Nottles from the 92 elected last time, it is difficult to see how it could possibly end up less than 80. There is no chance the number more than halving to leave as few Nottles as in 1992, when John Major needed a 7.5% lead over Labour to just secure an overall majority.

Hence the potential 11-point spread (from a Labour lead of 1 point to a Tory 10 point lead) which Kellner suggests would be likely to give us a hung Parliament.

It is true that the Tories could fall a couple of points short of a double-digit lead and win a majority if they did particularly well in the marginals. But we will almost certainly have a hung Parliament if Labour finishes within 7 or 8 points of the Tories.

While, were Labour more than 10 points behind, no Nottle surge is going to deny the Tories a majority. (An unlikely LibDem sweep of currently Tory-held southern seats could have an impact, but any number of LibDem gains against other parties would be irrelevant in this respect).

In assessing the prospects for a Hung Parliament, minding the gap between the two major parties is surely still the variable which matters most.

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