July 17, 2019

A Hung Parliament?

A Hung Parliament?

This was written for Dagen, May 2010.

The result of the British General Election was widely predicted. The outcome, as expected was a ‘hung parliament’. The very phrase signifies uncertainty; parliament ‘hanging around’ waiting for some leader to emerge. Even though we anticipated it, the traditionalist press went into panic mode, announcing ‘Britain faces limbo’ and that ‘fears of a power vacuum in Westminster have sent financial markets into freefall.’ Some even saw a crisis parallel to that of Greece.

There is an individualism built into Britain’s ‘first past the post’ electoral system. The single candidate with the most votes in any constituency wins the seat, and the single political party with enough seats to cross the finishing line forms a government. So when, as in this election, no-one crosses the finishing line there is confusion. Political hardliners forecast gloomily that it will be impossible for any party to govern, and we will need another election within months.

Yet many UK voters find it extraordinary that we cling to this old electoral system with its  polarized view of power and combative process of policy-making. It barely seems to serve the interests of democracy when one party polls 36% of the votes and gets 47% of the seats, whilst another gains 23% of the votes but only 9% of the seats. Minority parties have no voice, but a major party, with only one out of 59 Scottish MPs, has a mandate to rule Scotland! This way of approaching government seems undemocratic and odd; all the more so because elsewhere in British society we make decisions by consensus and conduct elections by proportional representation.

The Christian roots of British social democracy have often been acknowledged by politicians, including Gordon Brown. Indeed, embedded within the traditions of European and American democracy is a long Christian legacy. Theological principles like the idea of human accountability, the equal significance of each person, and the commitment to care for our neighbours form a bedrock for law-making and government. Our legacy urges respect for justice, and good stewardship. It endorses human freedom and gives us the responsibility to choose well. Even in a secular age these principles are almost engrained in public awareness and values.

In this election, the dominant British media focused on leader debates and ignored many key issues which concerned the public. Now they deride the electorate for not knowing what it wants. But the election result might well suggest the British public does know what it wants. There is surely something significant in the wide distribution of votes, the election of the first Green Party MP (despite media and electoral disadvantage), and the lack of overall support for any one party. It could be a strong indication that the electorate wants stronger democratic values; that it wants politicians to work together in a more consensual democracy where everyone’s vote counts equally. Let us hope this week can bring us closer to that.

Dagen Newspaper, Sweden, May 2010