Friday, 26 March 2010

How could you vote for a hung Parliament?

The New Statesman believes a 'realignment of the left is needed, and has begun a series to debate what this might mean. Editor Jason Cowley argues that "the Labour Party remains the primary means by which to achieve a plural, social-democratic transformation". Yet the series began with Anthony Barnett's "hang 'em" essay arguing very much the opposite.

The highly untribal David Marquand found that a "diatribe" too far, which would surely let David Cameron in. There are further responses this week from myself, from Roy Hattersley and Neal Lawson. (Mine is the only of the three not to throw around references to Militant and the SWP to characterise the new danger of Barnettism! But we all argue that there is no plausible left pluralist governing strategy which writes Labour out of the script entirely).

Let's come back to Barnett's characterisation of Labour another time. Here, I want to make a narrower point. The cover of last week's New Statesman appeared to promise that Anthony Barnett will be advocating a hung Parliament, so advising voters attracted by the idea as how to maximise their chances of getting one.

But he didn't do that. Following his advice would make a hung Parliament less, not more, likely, because he has two different and competing objectives

1. Voting against New Labour and not voting Conservative.

The hope is to kick New Labour out, without helping the Conservatives in.

2. Voting to promote the chances of a Hung Parliament

Anthony Barnett hopes that (1) voting against the big two will lead to (2) a hung Parliament.

It won't. Barnett entirely prioritises (1) to the neglect of (2). So he advocates a quixotic electoral pact in which Nick Clegg and the LibDems would endorse Nigel Farage's Buckingham campaign to get Britain out of Europe, SNP MPs advocating Scottish independence, and honorary major party mavericks Frank Field and David Davis.

Voters who want to"maximise the chances of a hung Parliament would clearly weaken their chances if they followed Barnett's advice. Here's why.

First, what is a hung Parliament?

There will be a hung Parliament if no party - neither the Conservatives nor Labour - win 326 seats (and a majority of 2) in the House of Commons.

Which of these is the most likely "risk" to a Hung Parliament?

The bookmakers make a Conservative majority government 8/13, a Hung Parliament 13/8 and a Labour majority 9/1. (You can get 200/1 on the LibDems having most seats, even if short of a majority).

So here is the accurate and as impartial as we can be strategic advice to any voters who - unlike Barnett - see making a hung Parliament more likely as a priority.

Voters whose priority is to maximise the chances of a Hung Parliament should vote for the best placed anti-Conservative candidate (who they are willing to support) in any seat where the Conservatives have some chance of winning.

They should follow this advice unless and until there is more chance of a Labour than a Conservative majority in the House of Commons

And let's look at the electoral battleground which will decide it.

After boundary changes, Labour can not lose (net) more than 24 seats, so must hold some of its "super-marginals" to retain an overall majority. If Labour can't achieve that, the "hung Parliament or not" question becomes whether the Conservatives make the 116 net gains, targetting these seats to get over the line. (The Tories nominally start on 209 seats, given boundary changes, though won only 200 in 2005). On universal swings everywhere, they could cross the line making 90+ gains from Labour and 25-26+ from other parties. (Peter Kellner suggests that in practice the Tories probably need 105+ gains from Labour, citing the 1979 precedent where 4/7 Liberal incumbents defied a national swing to the Tories sufficient to defeat them).

This reinforces the argument that the Labour-Con battleground will be decisive. In only a handful of those seats is any other party or candidate in contention at all.

Advocating third party candidates as the best choice for progressive pluralists in these seats must depend on following Barnett's argument through to its natural conclusion: that making a Tory majority government more likely (and a hung Parliament less likely) is a price worth paying to hurt Labour. It follows that Barnett must believe either that Labour can never again be a progressive vehicle, or at least that it must lose first before the question can be asked. He means "hang 'em" in the first sense and not the second, but that does entail sacrificing the best chance of a hung Parliament in 2010 to this broader anti-Labour goal.

That would also make sense of Barnett's willingness to endorse David Davis (a vote for a David Cameron majority government, civil liberties and climate scepticism) alongside Labour's Frank Field (as a maverick), yet not to spare even the most stalwart Labour reformers like John Denham (long-time electoral reformer who resigned over Iraq), Martin Linton and many others. Nigel Farage does somehow make Barnett's "pluralist" cut, though I can't see how the Bercow-Farage contest can make any difference to the chances of a hung Parliament either way. If Barnett has arguments for wanting Farage in the Commons, the case for a hung Parliament risks being a false flag of convenience under which to advance them.


The number of what Martin Kettle calls "nottles" (Not Tory not Labour MPs) will make a difference. That is primarily because their post-1974 increase has already much increased the 'spread' between a Tory and Labour majority, as Next Left noted in a previous post.

n 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.

It does not follow that voting nottle is the primary route to a hung Parliament, which was also Kettle's argument: the gap between the two major parties which will be decisive in determining whether that wider spread matters in the Commons.

Those who especially want to increase the "nottle" contingent further could simply vote for incumbent 'nottle' MPs, and for other non-Lab/Con candidates who they thought could win. Barnett's quixotic joint "nottle" list would do more electoral damage in lost LibDem principles and crediblity (from the pro-independence and UKIP embrace) while bringing very few, if any, further seats into play.


Since there are a range of different potential tactical motivations in the 2010 General Election, here again is a neutral description of the strategic options for those with different preferences as to the outcome.

* Voters who fear the possibility of a large Tory majority and whose priority is to minimise that threat should do the same thing as pro-hung Parliament voters, and back the best placed anti-Tory candidates in seats the party could win.

* Voters who want Labour to govern should vote Labour in all Labour-held seats, and anywhere else where they believe the party has a chance of gaining a seat. They could consider voting tactically for non-Labour incumbents (LibDem, Plaid Cymru, SNP) where they believe the Conservatives have a chance in the seat, and that this is the best way to stop them and for other candidates who they think could beat the Conservatives where Labour can not.

* Voters who want Labour out and the Conservatives in would vote Conservative in all of their top 250 target seats as well as for sitting Tory MPs. They could consider voting tactically for other parties against Labour incumbents where the Tories are not in contention, and possibly for LibDem MPs with close Labour challengers, assuming they think the choice of government in a hung Parliament will be between the reds and blues.

* Voters who want the LibDems to govern would vote LibDem in all LibDem-held seats and in pretty much all of the party's top 200+ target seats, in the hope they could increase their vote by more than half to 33%+ and compete to overtake the other parties. They could consider voting for Labour incumbents facing a Tory challenge in seats the LibDems can't win, if (in the event of this political earthquake) they think that the race to be largest party would be between the yellows and the blues, or otherwise consider whether they would prefer either major party to lead a government if in a Labour-Tory marginal.

1 comment:

Robert said...

Anyone tell me new labour is anything but a bloody Thatcherite copy, it has sod all to offer the vast majority of people, for god sake Blair was a Thatcherite and he gave us the min wage, and the 10% tax band plonker brown even took that away.