Page last updated at 12:28 GMT, Friday, 19 March 2010

What's life like under a hung Parliament?

Clockwise from top left - Abba, evidence of a strike by dustmen, Porridge, and a bombed Guildford pub
There were strikes, economic upheavals, political uncertainty, IRA bombings and various cultural happenings in 1974

By Rajini Vaidyanathan
BBC News Magazine

It's been 36 years since Britain last had a hung Parliament, but with some opinion polls suggesting it could happen again this year, what would it mean for the day-to-day life of the country?

It's a scenario the political parties are bracing themselves for. What happens if there is no conclusive election result; with no one political party winning an overall majority of MPs?

The last time an election produced a hung Parliament was 1974. The country was in a very different state back then - a miners' strike had led to a national power shortage which, in turn, meant a three-day week, with severe restrictions on when electricity could be used.

FEBRUARY 1974 GENERAL ELECTION
Conservatives 297 seats (37.8% share)
Labour 301 seats (37.2% share)
Liberal 14 seats (19.3% share)

The election in February of that year was held in what might be termed as extraordinary circumstances.

The ruling Conservative Party led by Edward Heath won more votes across the country, but failed to win the highest number of seats. None of the parties secured an overall majority - after negotiations between the Conservatives to form a government with the Liberals failed, Heath resigned, resulting in Labour under Harold Wilson running the country as a "minority government".

It went on for eight months - until Mr Wilson called a second election for October and secured a small majority.

So what happened during those months? Did the machinery of government just grind to a halt? Did anything get done?

SHORT-TERM-ISM

One of the biggest effects of a minority government is the uncertainty that it can produce. Without a majority in parliament there is no guarantee the ruling party can pass laws.

Suzi Quatro and John Denver
Suzi Quatro was number one for the first election, John Denver for the second

"You are aware, as you go through the front door of Number 10 Downing Street every morning, that the government might fall by the evening," says Lord Donoghue, who, as Bernard Donoghue, was a senior policy adviser to Harold Wilson at the time.

As he explains, this brings a sense of immediacy to everything you do. A government with a healthy majority would be planning what legislation and laws it wanted to bring in. But when it has no idea how long it will be in power, and whether a law it proposes will be supported in Parliament, a sense of short-termism pervades.

"It's clearly constrained - it can't do what a government with an overall majority can do," explains Lord Norton, an expert on Parliament. "It's far more fraught, a far more hand to mouth existence. You can govern but you can't govern proactively," he adds.

PERPETUAL ELECTIONEERING

For those not enamoured of the prospect of wall-to-wall political debate, the normal gap between general elections - four or five years - is reasonable.

But under the hung Parliament of 1974, there was always a sense that another election was just around the corner. The minority party is motivated by the need to secure a convincing mandate.

Edward Heath
Electioneering - there was eight months of it

And that can be bad news for anyone who is lukewarm about the prospect of a succession of political candidates knocking on their front door.

As Lord Donoghue recalls, in 1974 the knowledge that another election would be called soon, meant that the government in many senses was in electioneering, rather than governing, mode.

"Many policy announcements were being seen as potentially general election manifesto promises," he says. White papers proposing laws were put forward to Parliament which didn't become law in that year, but highlighted what the Labour government could do if it was to win another vote.

"The entire focus of that government was firstly to end the emergency that existed and secondly to get ready for the next election," says Alwyn Turner, an author who has written books about that period. In that sense, Mr Turner suggests the Budget of that year, was a "giveaway Budget to sweeten people up," containing measures such as freezing council rents, food subsidies and increasing certain benefits.

BIG DECISIONS GET POSTPONED

Polls suggesting the prospect of a hung Parliament have caused the pound to have occasional sharp falls against the dollar in 2010, so it is tempting to look for economic effects in 1974.

"1974 was a bad year all around," notes Catherine Schenk, professor of international economic history. "There was all this uncertainty." And the "global financial maelstrom" of 1974 has lessons for us today.

We had serious inflation building up and the hung Parliament postponed dealing with it
Prof Nicholas Crafts

But at the start of that year, there were bigger events going on than even the prospect of a hung Parliament.

The UK and much of the world was in the middle of a stock market slump, plummeting property prices had caused a secondary banking crisis with lenders needing bailing out, and oil prices had rocketed in the wake of the OPEC oil embargo against the US. In addition to this, a move towards all major currencies floating, instead of being pegged to each other, also increased the potential for a problematic year.

"The hung Parliament was just a blip on the horizon. [But] the political implications may have increased the uncertainty," says Prof Schenk.

It is tempting to compare 2010 to 1974.

"There are quite strong parallels," says Prof Schenk.

"We had serious inflation building up and the hung parliament postponed dealing with it," says Prof Nicholas Crafts, of Warwick University, director of ESRC Research Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy. In 1974 inflation was on its way to a rate of 27%.

GOVERNMENT DOESN'T GRIND TO A HALT

While running the country under a hung Parliament has its limitations, it is still possible to accomplish things.

Even if the ruling party doesn't have a majority of MPs, laws can be passed with the agreement of opposition MPs. And, in 1974, they were.

Heath, Thorpe and Wilson
Messrs Heath, Thorpe and Wilson - majority-less to a man

As Lord Norton explains, just because a party has no single majority, does not mean that all the other parties will automatically combine against it, "it just imposes a far greater burden on the party in government in getting its measures through".

Between March and October 1974 as many as 27 laws were passed, says Lord Norton. They included measures relating to solicitors, railways, and road traffic. But, crucially, the bulk of these new laws were uncontentious.

Lord Norton says this shows that a hung Parliament can get laws passed, but generally administrative measures. All that withstanding, "you've never quite certain what will get through", he says.

Many major issues were dealt with in 1974. One was the end of the miners' strike, which had brought coal production to a standstill in 1973, and prompted Edward Heath to call a snap election. Within days of taking office Mr Wilson managed to reach a pay settlement with the miners.

YOUTH REBELLION

That sense of uncertainty at the top can have a knock-on effect on the wider public, argues Dave Haslam, DJ and author of a book about the 1970s. He believes the hung Parliament reinforced the perception many had at the time that Britain was, simply, ungovernable.

Streaker
Streaking - first came to a big sporting event under a hung Parliament

"People were frustrated that whoever was governing hadn't got a clear mandate. As always what you want from a government is a government that can deal with long-term problems, if you have in effect a hung Parliament... everything is this week."

Add to that the general mix high inflation, strikes, picket lines and an IRA bombing campaign in Britain, and the result was a "more apocalyptic" view on politics, says Haslam. That rawness drove a sense of urgency between who was running Britain and passions on the street.

In his view, at least, it fed a creative urge among young people that resulted in the punk music scene of 1976 and 77.

"There was frustration that the mess wasn't getting cleaned up. It was the kind of chaos and pessimism. The social trends that you see don't suddenly pop out of nowhere. The roots of the punk explosion... when the Sex Pistols sang Anarchy in the UK... it wasn't as much a wish as something that went back a few years, and went back to the problems of the hung Parliament."

Additional reporting by Finlo Rohrer.


Send us your comments using the form below.

There is much less between the policies of the political parties now than in the 1970s, and the options available to them are much more constrained by the effects of the current recession.

So the effect of a hung parliament would be very different from 35 years' ago, and would probably be better than what we have now. The public is fed up with the parties trying to differentiate themselves by false accusations.
Jean, BATH, UK

...explains Lord Norton, an expert on Parliament. "It's far more fraught, a far more hand to mouth existence."

I get the impression that politicians could learn a lot from a bit of hand to mouth living for a while.

It might put them back in touch with some of the voters that literally have to live like that at the moment.
Carl, Derby, UK

Why the scare stories about a "hung" parliament? Surely one of the biggest problems for Britain in the past 30 years has been having a Parliament dominated by an executive formed from one party or the other.

I come from a country where coalition governments have been common for many years, formed as a result of election results that would be described in Britain as "hung". By and large, those coalition governments have worked quite well. I say quite because I've not been supporter of the parties that formed the governments, but that's democracy for you.
DJ, Aberdeenshire, UK

So for once the parties will have to work together instead of constantly using negative politics to undermine each other and basically wasting enormous amounts of time arguing...

I'm aware checks and balances are necessary but why is a confrontational rather than cooperative political system the default? Squabbling and constant one-upmanship seems to be a monumental waste of time, things could get done so much better and simply by working together, compromising and understanding the other side...Bring on the hung parliament!
Graham, Symington, Scotland

Depends on whether you are an MP or not, doesn't it ? It will not make any difference to their 'Creative Accounting Escapades', will it ?
B.W.Moore. MR., Stockton on Tees, UK

Most European countries function, arguably better than the UK, under coalition government. Under our system the majority of votes cast is never represented in government - a coalition of, for example the Lib Dems with either Tory or Labour would give a government representing around 55% of votes cast in the general election.

That's democracy, not the feeble impression of democracy that is created by our undemocratic very convenient two-party system.

I am by the way neither a member of, nor a regular voter for the Lib Dems!
Andrew Taylor, Nottingham, UK

We currently have two 'hung parliaments' in the UK - with a minority administration successfully running Scotland and a coalition of Labour and Plaid Cymru happily running Wales. The sky hasn't fallen in...
Nigel Callaghan, Machynlleth

Perhaps a hung parliament would not be a bad thing. The current government have used their majority to pass through a lot of "contentious" laws and decisions that had little or no public support that they wouldn't have been able to if they had had to win the debate with colleagues from other parties. Hands up who thought that the ridiculous anti-terror laws and ID cards were a good idea?
Rob, Maidstone Kent

I actually want a hung-parliament. It will be a powerful message to the parties that things cannot go on as they are and also keep them out of trouble until things change.

From a larger perspective I think that we also need to stop listening to manifestos (which are always ignored when a party come to power) and judge parties more on past performance
Paolo, St Albans

Perhaps a hung parliament should be viewed as a positive. Other European countries manage quite adequately. We must remember that MPs are ultimately elected representatives of the people of the country and should respect the views of the people over their political party.

And if very few new laws get passed that would be a good thing. We already have many perfectly adequate laws that need to be enforced properly. Hopefully common sense will prevail amongst all politicians and they would agree if a sensible law needs to be passed.
Julie, London

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SEE ALSO
What is a hung parliament?
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