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People voted for a hung parliament. I don’t think so

2010 May 13
by Paul Vallely

Have this week’s negotiations to form a new government been, to quote the former Conservative Cabinet minister, Lord Heseltine, “party politics at its most sordid”?  Or have they simply been the inevitable working-through of the consequences of a hung parliament – with parties doing deals to find consensus as is the perfectly seemly process in most European countries, with proportional voting systems, after general elections?

There has been much talk of this being what the electorate desired. The nation voted for a hung parliament because it wanted to reject the old politics and force our combative politicians into co-operation, moderating their more extreme policies, in the national interest.  That is why politicians of all parties have in recent days felt it necessary to preface every statement by saying that what they were about to propose was designed to further “a government which was strong and stable in the national interest”. If it was handy for their party, that was merely a happy by-product.

The Victorian critic Ruskin came up with the term the “pathetic fallacy” to refer to the rhetorical technique of attributing human feelings to inanimate objects: the wind sighed” and that kind of thing. He was not keen on it, though he meant pathetic as in sympathetic rather than in the modern sense of risibly inadequate. There is something of the fallacy in all the talk about the hung parliament being “what people voted for”. The public wanted a “new kind of politics” and now they’ve got it, as one commentator said grumpily.

It is not just that it makes no sense to ascribe consciousness to an entity like an electorate. It is that, as a voter in Britain you can do one of two things. You can vote for the candidate you prefer. Or you can vote against the candidate you dislike most.

It is a nonsense to say that the nation voted for a hung parliament. To do that people in Calder Valley would have had to say to the people of Halifax: “we’ll vote Conservative and you vote Labour and the people next door in Burnley can vote Lib Dem and that’ll show the ruddy politicians.” That is pretty much impossible under our voting system, as the singer Billy Bragg found at the previous election when he tried to persuade voters round his Dorset home to “find your voting valentine” in a neighbouring seat and sign a pact to swap votes to keep the Tories out.  It didn’t seem to work, which is why he didn’t try the tactic again this time.

Individuals can vote tactically, but not a nation.  All it is safe to say is that this time most voters didn’t want Grouchy Gordon, but most didn’t trust Debonair Dave and most weren’t convinced by the argument of Newboy Nick that a LibDem vote still wasn’t a wasted vote. It was an election that everybody lost because people seemed more clear about what they were against than what they were for.

It also shows that voters’ choices about what is right for them as individuals do not necessarily aggregate to what is best for the community – though it may turn out for the best if parties which fought robustly on distinctive policies have to seek common ground if they want to govern.

Some don’t like this, which is why the Labour veteran David Blunkett was ranting on about the Lib Dems behaving like harlots. It may also explain why David Cameron said during the campaign, but took care not to repeat it while he was in negotiations with the Liberal Democrats, that proportional representation “doesn’t put power in the hands of the people, it puts power in the hands of politicians”.

Good or bad, one thing is clear, if we change our voting system we are likely to see a lot more of this after future elections.

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