The possibility of the 2010 General election in Britain leading to a hung Parliament is now being seriously discussed across the news media. In fact it requites a very particular set of circumstances to lead to a hung Parliament, and usually minority votes still lead to a significant advantage for one party over another. Indeed the Labour Party was able to gain a majority government in 2005 with only just over 35% of the vote- barely a third of the votes. The electoral system does not reflect how people actually vote, and it has happened that the party that comes second in the national vote is still able to form a government.
Therefore no one can be confident about how the 2010 election actually turns out until the votes are counted and the election results declared. A very small number of votes in key "marginal" constituencies- probably less than 100,000- will ultimately decide who receives the mandate from the Queen to form a government.
Nevertheless despite the seemingly inevitable defeat for Gordon Brown's Labour Party, the Conservatives are clearly not confident that the electoral system will deliver them a majority. They privately think that this may not stop David Cameron coming into office at the head of a minority government that can secure a majority after a second general election that would be held quickly after the first.
If that does turn out to be the Conservative strategy after the General Election, then it may not be successful. The economic position of the UK is extremely fragile, and the political uncertainty that the likelihood of an early general election would create could tip the country into an economic crisis that is much worse than anything we have so far seen. It may be that Mr. Cameron simply can not afford to plunge the country into uncertainty.
For the Liberal Democrats a hung Parliament is both an opportunity and a serious threat. To an extent the position the party may take is also a function of what the electoral system delivers us. For example we have advanced in the national percentage that the party gains and still lose seats. Equally it is quite possible that our national percentage falls and yet we gain seats. In my view there is a significant chance that the party will indeed gain votes and if it does, I think there is grounds for optimism about nett gains of seats too. Indeed, I think it is only under such a circumstance that the Parliament is likely to be balanced anyway.
The message from election campaigns and indeed coalition negotiations in Scotland is that the party must focus on a clear set of core policies to insist upon as part of any agreement to support a minority government or even to enter into a coalition.
Thankfully, the Party seems to be distilling its agenda into four key principles that we can explain to both the electorate and the other parties as our bottom line.
The first is the key principle of political and constitutional reform. All parties now agree that significant changes are required to improve the functioning of our constitution. The Lib Dems ask for an electoral system that allows the voters to sack their MP without necessarily voting against their party: a change in the electoral system is fundamental to this. The Numbers of MPs should then be reduced by 150. The House of Lords should become a substantially elected body- albeit on a different franchise to that of the House of Commons. Strict rules need to be enacted against any no UK tax payer being allowed to sit in Parliament. Neither should big money and corrupt donors continue to be able to buy influence.
The second key principle is that taxation must be simplified dramatically- including a high personal tax threshold of £10,000. Taxes and benefits should be integrated to eliminate the poverty trap. The tax burden currently falls more on the poor than the rich. Fair taxes are an economic benefit as well as a social necessity.
While it is clear that overall levels of government expenditure will need to fall- and the Lib Dems would seek to close several Whitehall ministries outright- education should be protected from the general cuts. Schools in particular should be allowed to continue to invest, and class sizes overall should be reduced.
The fourth principle is that the government should promote investment in green technology in a way that makes the UK economy more sustainable and can create long term jobs.
Given the limited space that the Liberal Democrats usually get in the media, it is pretty much just these four principles: constitutional reform, tax reform, protect education, promote green technology that we will be able to convey against the noise and indifference of the media and the other parties contending for power. However they do represent a significant fraction of the Liberal Democrat agenda and the election will require us to set out simple and clear ideas.
Whether or not we can put Liberal principles into government in 2010n is still a function of the vagaries of the electoral system: this is also a year of economic uncertainty and in the face of this, all political questions are open.
Britain needs to change. It is not enough to change the party of government. The whole system of government needs radical reform. Liberals and Liberal Democrats have been arguing for this for over a century. It may be that now our time has finally come. Yet whatever happens over the next few weeks, come it will.