Parliament: Hung, drawn and quartered
The news that the nationalist parties of Scotland and Wales have agreed on four areas of joint negotiation in the event of a hung Parliament should send a shiver down the electorate’s collective spine. It’s not that we can blame Plaid Cymru or the SNP for hoping to make the most of potential political disarray – it’s their job to promote their causes – but rather that we should be concerned about the political horse-trading that will ensue if none of the parties has a stable majority. We don’t need to look too far into the past to see what a damaging state of affairs a hung Parliament could lead to.
It was an exceptional situation when, in June 2008, the Government found itself dependent on the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party in order to secure its legislation on 42 day detention. The scale of the Labour rebellion that led to a party with just 9 seats holding the balance of power was incredibly unusual in British politics. But that controversial vote is a worrying premonition of the kind of dirty politics we can expect, day-in-day-out, if none of the parties secure overall victory. The DUP supported a Bill that was opposed by both opposition parties and a considerable number of Government MPs. They then boasted about how their support for the Bill had brought new Government investment to Northern Ireland while Lib Dems and Conservatives cried fowl. The legislative process was tarnished by the impression that smaller parties were able, effectively, to sell safe passage through the Commons for highly unpopular laws, all in exchange for spending on pet issues.
In a Parliament without a majority Government we can expect much more of these backroom deals. Of course, we all know that the Lib Dems will have a bigger role in a hung Parliament – and many believe that to be no bad thing. But we also need to remember that the smaller parties – from the DUP and Sin Fein to Plaid Cymru and Respect – would enjoy newfound power as the bigger parties scramble for every precious vote. The price that they attempt to extract in exchange for their support could be anything - from disproportionate investment in their power-bases (as the DUP was accused of) or the devolution of even more power to legislatures where they hold greater sway – either way, it will be hammered out away from public scrutiny in the negotiating offices of Westminster rather than the debating chamber of Parliament.
Some people, especially those on the progressive left (such as Anthony Barnett in last week’s New Statesman) seem to believe that a hung Parliament could be the answer to the ‘dirty Parliament’ of expenses and hubris that we’ve endured for the last five years. I admire their optimism but I’m worried that the reverse would be the case – a hung Parliament could well result in a politics that is even less transparent, and more reliant on discrete negotiation and vested interests. We’d all be the poorer for that but, in the end, it is the credibility of our much-beleaguered democratic process that has the most to lose. Parliament could end up not simply hung, but drawn and quartered too.