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A hung parliament

In recent months the main pollsters have recorded a reduction in the Conservative Party’s lead ahead of the general election. As a result, most observers are predicting a hung parliament. But what exactly does this mean?

A hung parliament occurs when each of the parties fails to win a majority of seats in the House of Commons. In simple terms, a hung parliament will occur if the Labour Party lose 24 seats and the Conservatives fail to gain 116 seats.

When a hung parliament occurs in the UK, the Party with the most votes will usually be asked by the Queen to try and form a government. At this point, they have two options.

Coalition government

A coalition government is formed when the largest party (that with the most votes) forges an alliance with another to achieve an overall majority. They can engage in a formal coalition by granting a certain number of cabinet positions to members of other parties, usually proportional to that of votes won by that party.

Coalition governments are not uncommon. Countries such as New Zealand, Isreal, Switzerland and Germany all have extensive experience in coalition rule. The devolved powers in both Scotland and Wales have also been successfully run by coalitions in recent years.

In many ways, coalitions encourage parties to co-operate and their bipartisan cabinets are argued to more fairly reflect the feelings of the electorate.

However, the demand for co-operation is not always viewed as a positive. Coalitions can be prone to infighting as parties with distinctly different ideologies battle for influence. Sometimes the constant level of compromise and discussions leads to a slowing of the legislative process. On the other hand the smaller party may be ignored, leading to potential factions.

Minority government

The largest party may also try and form a government without making any alliances or policy concessions to smaller parties. Instead, they attempt to win support from other parties on each individual bill as and when it reaches the floor of the house.

Mike Thomas from pressure group Charter 2010 thinks it would be a mistake for the largest party after the next election to try and rule in a minority government.

He told me: “A coalition would be more stable than a minority government. An issue by issue basis doesn’t really work if you’re after stability and continuity.”

In fact, minority governments are inherently less stable than formal coalitions. The opposition’s majority can easily bring down the government and force another election by way of a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister.

Further election

Whatever the resulting government of a hung parliament, it is always likely that another election will be imminent. In systems where hung parliament’s are rare, the ruling party will usually call an election as soon as it feels it is able to win an overall majority.

This was the case the last time the UK had a hung parliament in 1974. Then, a minority government led by Harold Wilson called an election after just eight months. They won the election with a majority of only three.

What’s going to happen in the UK?

Despite a hung parliament being a real possibility, Mike Thomas thinks political parties are unlikely to talk publically about it before the general election.

“Although the parties are talking internally, none of them are likely to talk aloud because it’s in their nature to believe and think they can win the next election. They don’t want to be seen as consigning themselves to a hung parliament already.”

If a hung parliament were to occur, the balance of power is likely to be held by the Liberal Democrats. Their leader Nick Clegg has been mooted as saying that his party are not interested in cabinet jobs and would prefer policy concessions.

Clegg has set out four key themes upon which his party will fight the election. These themes have been dubbed the ‘Lib Dem shopping list’, indicating that the Party will support a coalition if it their policies on these key areas are included in a mandate.

The fact that the Liberal Democrats have signalled their intent to negotiate suggests that, in the event of a hung parliament, we are more likely to have a coalition government than a minority one. This will however depend on potentially fragile negotiations and the potential for another election later in the year is always present.

By Nick Higgins

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Image is important…

There have recently been calls for a televised debate between the leaders of the three main political parties in the UK ahead of the next general election.

Gordon Brown (Labour), David Cameron (Conservative) and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat) have all agreed, in principle to the debate and Sky News have been running an online petition to gain support from the public and cement it in history.

The televised debate has been a feature of American politics for a number of years. I remember studying Politics at school and discussing Nixon v Kennedy in the first of four televised debates during their presidential campaigns of 1960.

Nixon had recently been discharged from hospital and campaigned right up until the first debate. He also refused television makeup. Kennedy on the other hand had rested. He was tanned, clean-shaven and well prepared. Nixon looked lost, pale, under-weight and was bearing stubble.

The vast majority of the 80 million television viewers thought Kennedy had won the debate. Even with television footage in black and white, his photogenic appeal is widely held as the explanation why. This explanation is reinforced when we consider listeners on radio throughout the U.S regarded Nixon as the winner.

‘Politics in a new light’

Whatever happens the debate in the UK can be seen as a modernisation of democracy and a necessary step towards more transparent politics in the UK. After the expenses scandal and the failure to present a coherent strategy on Afghanistan, it is up to all three leaders to rest and tan (as it were). The British public needs to be reintroduced to politics in a new light and the leader’s debate is a useful opportunity to do so.

This opportunity should be used not necessarily to attack others, nor persistently dig up manifesto promises which have been fulfilled in times gone by, or what I like to call, ‘recalling the glory years’. Nor should it be used to complain about manifesto promises which the government have failed to turn into legislation.

The leaders need to sew together reputations as clean, honest and committed personalities who have a clear outline for the methods they will use to regain public support and bring politics closer to its people.

In my eyes that is what the general election is all about. It is about bringing politics closer to the people it has alienated. It is about parties fighting for votes from a pool of people who might now abstain. It is about increasing the importance of transparency in UK Politics. It is about committing to reforming the pay structure and perks of MP’s and it is about tabling a coherent, visible strategy for Afghanistan, rather than just echoing Barack Obama every three weeks.

The question of image

Bearing all of this in mind, we can return to the question of whether or not image will determine the winner of the debate as it did so famously for Kennedy during the 1960 Presidential election. Fifty years on it seems that image is more important than ever before. With not only colour, but now high-definition television, the leaders will have to be weary of the problems encountered by Nixon in 1960.

The viewers will be able to measure the depth of individual creases and crows feet on the leader’s face.  If they fail notice it themselves, rest assured it will be printed on tabloid front pages with in-depth analysis detailing ‘the terrain of a modern politician’s face’. In many ways it is an unfortunate aspect of being an important player in politics today, something you must accept is that you will look 60 when you are actually 40 years old.

Having detailed what I think needs to be the focus of the leaders debate and the general election as being based around personable characteristics, it follows that image may well play a large part in determining the outcome. People’s images can create a subconscious confidence in what comes out of their mouth.

In my opinion, any leader looking tired and dishevelled on the night of the debate will find it hard to portray a rejuvenated character who is ready and willing to head up a government for the next four or five years. A leader looking rested, tanned, clean-shaven and youthful may benefit from the ‘Kennedy effect’, presenting the public with a confidence and a readiness which will translate into votes.

By Nick Higgins

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