The Tories and their allies in the press seem to believe that the party with the most seats in the event of a hung parliament should have the automatic right to form a government. They also claim that should Labour get fewer seats than the Tories and if they form a minority government with the support of smaller parties, then this government would be illegitimate. This has been comprehensively debunked time and time again. Yet the Tories and Nick Clegg continue to lie about this, relying on widespread ignorance of how parliament and governments function.
There is a historical precedent that has never once been mentioned during this election campaign by those commentators whose job it is to ‘explain’ the political system to the voters. The General Election of 6 December 1923, which Stanley Baldwin had called over tariff reform (which meant very little to many working class voters), produced a situation similar to the one commentators claim will happen this Friday. Baldwin hoped that he could cement his authority after succeeding Andrew Bonar Law as party leader and Prime Minister, and he was eager to make his mark.
But Baldwin’s plan to increase his party’s already large majority backfired. Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Party came second with 191 seats. Herbert Asquith’s Liberals came third with 158 seats (the Liberals were split). Baldwin’s Tories came first with 251 seats . When added together, the combined anti-Tory seats outweighed the Conservatives’ numbers. However, things were not straightforward: Baldwin claimed legitimacy and appeared before the Commons, but was defeated on 21 January by a no confidence motion tabled by former Labour leader, J.R. Clynes. George V had no choice but to appoint MacDonald as Prime Minister. Labour then formed a minority government with the support of the Liberals on 22 January, 1924. There was no question of Labour’s legitimacy to form a government on that occasion, because everyone knew how the game was played. Today, the Tories and their media chums continue claim that should Labour come second, they will lack legitimacy. The front page of today’s edition of the Murdoch-owned Times has printed a variation on the lie.
However, the role of the Liberals in 1924 should not be read as the facilitation of a Labour government but as part of a plan to secure more power for themselves, should the government fall. Indeed, the Daily Mail begged Asquith to form a coalition with the Tories to keep Labour out. Asquith hoped that the voters would see Labour as incompetent. What the voters actually saw were squabbling, power hungry politicians knifing each other in the back. Even so, MacDonald’s government was weak and unstable and suffered its first defeat in March. By October, it would be voted out of office thanks to the Zioniev Letter.
The Liberals paid for their treachery and they were reduced to 40 seats. Asquith lost his seat, was kicked upstairs and died four years later. Even though Baldwin secured a massive majority, he would again lose out to Labour in the so-called ‘Flapper Election’ of 1929, which resulted in another hung parliament. MacDonald relied on the support of Lloyd George’s 58 Liberal MPs. But this government wouldn’t last long and in 1931 another election was called. Again, this produced a hung parliament and the notorious National Government was eventually formed with Baldwin pulling the strings.
In February 1974, Edward Heath’s Tories came second and Labour came first. Heath remained in Downing Street as the caretaker Prime Minister and attempted to form a coalition with Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberals. But Thorpe rejected the Tories’ coalition proposals on the basis that Proportional Representation wasn’t offered as part of the deal. Harold Wilson was invited to form a minority government with the support of the smaller parties. Again, there was no question of legitimacy. This government lasted until October, when Wilson called another election and won a wafer-thin majority. By 1976, Wilson was gone and replaced by’ Sunny’ Jim Callaghan, whose majority began to evaporate due to by-election losses and defections. Callaghan was forced to enter into a pact with the Liberals (the Lib-Lab pact) in 1977. This lasted until the end of 1978 and the rest, as they say, is history.
What these elections reveal to us are the flaws inherent in the First Past The Post voting system. Whichever party forms the government after tomorrow’s election, we must take to the streets to demand electoral and constitutional reform. There must be no let up.