"Hung" parliament, electoral reform will come
LONDON (Reuters) - British general elections almost always deliver decisive outcomes: since 1929 there has been only one election that delivered a 'hung parliament' where no party had a majority -- and that was more than 30 years ago.
But a hung parliament and a coalition or minority government now looks inevitable and if it doesn't happen this election, it will in the next decade. Electoral reform will swiftly follow.
Markets are jittery at the prospect of an outcome on May 6 in which no party wins an outright majority, given the need to deal urgently and decisively with the country's debt.
The Conservative party in particular has warned such a result would be a worst case scenario for Britain, which has one of the highest debt to GDP levels in the world and is emerging from the worst recession for more than 50 years.
But they are trying to hold back an unstoppable tide.
"If it's not this time, it will be next time or the time after," said Philip Cowley, Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham.
That's because the rise in smaller parties -- notably the centrist Liberal Democrats -- is loosening the hold on the electoral system the two main parties have had since World War Two.
New electoral systems for regional governments in Wales and Scotland have exposed many voters to coalition and minority governments that work.
Adjustments to the national system of 'first past the post' voting in 650 localities, or constituencies, have made the relationship between number of votes and number of parliamentary seats more obscure - and strengthened the case for reform. As the system stands, Labour can score fewer votes than the Conservatives but still command more seats.
In 1951, the combined share of the national vote of Conservatives and Labour was 96.8 percent. In 2005, the last general election, their combined share had dropped to 67.6 percent yet they still had a commanding 79 percent of parliamentary seats.
"You cannot get to the point where the share of the two main parties is less than 60 percent and think that you can have a majority government," Cowley said.
ELECTORAL REFORM TO FOLLOW
In the 2008 Hansard Society booklet on hung parliament prospects, academic Helen Margetts argues: "The prospects for a hung parliament and electoral reform in the UK are intimately linked; it can be argued that the former is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for the latter."
She notes this is because a hung parliament is the only circumstance in which the main parties are likely to consider electoral reform and that the conditions leading to a hung result would reflect an environment where reform is inevitable.
Labour has said already it would launch a "comprehensive programme of constitutional reform" if elected, promising fixed-term parliaments and a referendum on an alternative votes system for electing members of parliament.
Given Labour has had 13 years to reform the voting system, the pledges -- which came a day after Prime Minister Gordon Brown set the date of the general election -- looked like an attempt to woo reform champions, the Liberal Democrats, who could hold the balance of power in a hung parliament.
The Liberal Democrats, however, are dismissive of the proposals.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, basking in a surge of popularity in opinion polls, is dismissive of the Labour proposals, calling them a "baby step in the right direction."
The Liberal Democrats, who had 22 percent of the national vote at the last election but only nine percent of seats, have long campaigned for proportional representation, a system which is well established across Europe.
"Our view is that the electoral system is potty," Clegg said on Monday. "Any electoral system which could deliver a party the most seats which actually comes third in the proportion of votes is hardly a model of democratic fairness."
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