Votes or seats? Why Nick Clegg won’t, can’t and shouldn’t answer that hung Parliament question

Ever since Nick Clegg launched his line on a hung Parliament – that he would talk to the party that won the “strongest mandate” and was keeping all options open – the question has been asked (though not by the public): does that mean the party with most votes or the party with most seats?

And ever since Nick has been asked that question, he has studiously refused to answer it. He stonewalled Paxman on Monday, and at the Lib Dem manifesto launch today.

And you know what? He’s absolutely right to refuse to be drawn. Here’s why: the crazy British electoral system throws up so many possible permutations, it is impossible to give a definite answer. Let’s just take one example of a plausible election result to show why Nick Clegg should decline the kind invitation of the media to tie himself in pointless knots of speculation.

    Conservatives 36%, Labour 34%, Lib Dems 22%
    This scenario would see the Tories win most votes, yet emerge with perhaps only 255 MPs to Labour’s 310 – which would mean that even with the Lib Dems’ c.60 seats, any kind of Lib Dem-Tory deal would lack a majority in the House of Commons. Labour certainly wouldn’t have the strongest mandate in that case – but the Tories wouldn’t have enough seats either.

I could go on all night working through the various psephelogical possibilities … and that’s fine because I’m just a blogger on the internet. But the idea that Nick Clegg, as leader of the UK’s third largest political party, should waste time in interviews setting out how he might respond according to each and every result is ludicrous.

I have my disagreements with the Lib Dem leadership on the question of a hung Parliament: I think the party should have ruled out a coalition in advance. But Nick is 100% right not to take the media bait, and bog himself down in unknown unknowables on an issue which means diddly squat to the public.

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This entry was posted in General Election and Op-eds.


  • Richard Huzzey 14th Apr '10 - 9:48pm

    Your argument is good but I think Nick’s avoidance the question can come over as sinister and evasive. As you say at the end of this post, the real tragedy is that we haven’t ruled out a formal coalition and pledged ourselves to working on a case-by-case basis on issues where we agree with the government of the day. Then every Lib Dem MP would mean another vote for Lib Dem policies, regardless of which party leader stood at the despatch box.

  • Andrew Suffield 14th Apr '10 - 10:44pm

    To return to the topic of the post: if you ever find yourself asking the question “does more votes or more seats have the stronger position?” then you’re talking about a parliament which is effectively tied, and no party has a clear mandate.

    An interesting observation: with our current voting system, Labour achieves a majority on 36% and the Tories achieve a majority on 40% (and a Lib Dem majority does not happen; there aren’t enough free votes).

  • The really tricky question though is “OK it’s fair enough to say that there are too many permutations to say and in many instances it is totally clear who has the strongest mandate. Just as an indication of how you approach that assessment, who had the strongest mandate following the February 1974 election?”

  • I think the ‘strongest mandate’ line is a terrible dodge. The answer should be ‘we will not enter into a formal coalition with either party and we will not accept cabinet positions in anyone else’s government, but we will offer initial support to whichever party offers us the most concessions towards our own manifesto and then vote on bills on an issue-by-issue basis.’

  • Andrew Turvey 14th Apr '10 - 11:22pm

    The danger for the Lib Dems is that someone votes for them thinking they’re voting “to keep the Tories out” (maybe because they read a leaflet that said as much) and then, lo and behold, we end up with a Tory-LibDem deal after the election. Or substitute Tory for Labour and get the same thing.

    The risk is (a) they’ll be put off voting LibDem in the first place or (b) even worse, they will vote LibDem and then feel betrayed after the election

    It’s not unreasonable for a voter to want to know that if he contributes to the election of a LibDem MP, what this will actually mean for the government of the country.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 14th Apr '10 - 11:34pm

    What’s the point of a politician saying something, and then refusing to explain what he means by it? Ridiculous.

  • Andrew Suffield 14th Apr '10 - 11:52pm

    will offer initial support to whichever party offers us the most concessions towards our own manifesto

    Clegg is being very clear about not wanting to do this, and in particular: he will not join forces with the smaller party to kick out the big one.

  • If Nick doesn’t want to go for the issue by issue approach, for whatever reason, then I don’t see why he can’t say “the strongest mandate is the part with the most votes, subject to the electoral arithmetic offering the prospect of stable government. That is the party we would speak to first.” or some such. I would also rule out Brown as PM if I were Nick. Brown will have lost a majority, with all the advantages of incumbency. That is a mandate to leave office!

    I do think Nick sounds evasive at the moment.

    That said, whatever he says will be misconstrued as “Vote gold, get Brown” by Tories in Con-LD marginals, and vice versa in Lab-LD marginals.


  • Martin Land 15th Apr '10 - 7:03am

    As I’ve said before, few people on the doorstep are talking about a hung parliament; lot’s are talking about hanging parliament.

    The problem is that hung parliaments are fuel for mediocre journalists on a feeding frenzy. There is little we can do other than keep on giving the same answer.

    And they will keep asking the question, because it’s not the answer they want to hear.

  • Hywel, as one who was a Liberal election agent in Feb ’74, I can tell you that although it didn’t FEEL as though Labour had won, it was sure as can be that the Tories had lost. Their slogan had been “Who governs Britain?” and clearly the answer had been “Not you”. If they could have relied on the Ulster Unionists things might, mathematically, have been different but there was no way the Liberals could or would have supported a Government where the necessary concessions had been made to the UU’s.

  • The whole “strongest mandate” starting point is wrong. In your scenario 36% 34% 22% (or any other realistic ones) no one has a mandate for single party government. That’s part of the problem, the arrogance of politicians to think the electoral fruit machine is all that matters.

    Sure Nick can’t respond to ever single permutation – but he could start to turn the question around. He could say Mr Cameron says we must get rid of the Labour Govt. but will he talk to the lib Dems about an agreed programme for government? Mr Brown says the Conservatives threaten the recovery – will he talk to the Lib Dems about how we can sustain it ?

    he could say – it’s not a case of putitng in a labour or Tory party free to do whatever they wish. It must be on the basis of progressing the 4 Lib Dem priorities.

    As for voting “issue by issue” – it doesn’t work. the public aren’t interested and the other parties know what to do. They wait till they get an issue they know means a lot to the Lib Dems and little to the voters – and then they call an election, The Lib Dems principled stand on an issue that is either irrelevant or unpopular means a stuffing in the subsequent general election.

  • The poll today in the Daily Telegraph today of 100 marginal seats (80 held by Labour 20 held by the Lib Dems) is reported as:

    “The poll found that the Tories would pick up 74 of the 100 seats from Labour. However, they would not pick up any of the seats held by Liberal Democrats.”

    Another marginals poll put the swing to the tories in the south west as half of one percent.

    I can’t imagine Chris Huhne or Tim Farron losing their seats – despite them being written of on any national swing projection.

    Given the scope for Lib Dem gains from Labour and Lib Dems exceeding the 2005 vote share a hung parliament with 80 – 90 Lib Dems is really on the cards.

    Clegg really ought to have a answer worked out to put a hung parliament (not it’s not balanced until it is represntative) is a good thing as it means politicians have to listen to the majority – not just special interest groups like hedge fund managers or trade unions.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 15th Apr '10 - 9:03am

    It’s also quite funny to contrast Stephen Tall’s present insistence that Nick Clegg should refuse to clarify whether he means “most votes” or “most seats” with the comment Tall made in November, when he thought Clegg _had_ made a clear statement about this (though in fact Clegg had just used the ambiguous “strongest mandate” formula):

    “Personally, I am delighted with Nick’s statement. It has long baffled me that the party has declined to adopt what seems to me the simplest approach for dealing with the interminable ‘hung Parliament’ question – to say we’ll respect the decision of the electorate and talk to whichever party wins the most votes.

  • Sunder Katwala 15th Apr '10 - 9:57am

    Stephen’s advice seems very sensible to me for the LibDems: Clegg has tried to answee the question (saying more than leaders have in past elections in general terms) without negotiating live with the media about every possible scenario.

    But I would also suggest that, if this were to happen, Lloyd George might have advice for today’s leadership! Blog here

  • Andrew Suffield 15th Apr '10 - 2:29pm

    If the larger party cannot, or will not, form a Govt, and an alliance with the smaller party would be viable (very unlikely, but technically possible, depending on how many seats we get), he’s not rules that out, unless oyu’ve read something I’ve not?

    If the larger party fails to form a minority government (unlikely; we’re into “Brown/Cameron comes down with a sudden case of dead and the party is in disarray” territory here), it’s not “kicking them out” to form a coalition with whoever’s left.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 15th Apr '10 - 2:50pm


    “why do you think my view’s changed?”

    Naturally, the difference between your view in November that the party _should_ say something, and your view now that it “won’t, can’t and shouldn’t”.

    Even a politician would be hard pressed to claim that “should” means the same as “shouldn’t”!

  • Philip Baker 29th Apr '10 - 1:29pm

    After the last TV debate, YouGov asked: “How would you vote on May 6 if you thought the Liberal Democrats had a significant chance of winning the election”. The responses: Lib Dem 49%, Conservative 25%, Labour 19%. If this actually happened there would be 548 Lib Dem MPs, 41 Labour MPs and just 25 Tories.

    Well – just do it! Vote for what you really want to happen, and it will.

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