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Lessons for a 'hung Parliament'

Tony Travers
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Local government offers profound lessons to national politicians on how to make coalitions work.

The arrival of three-party general election politics will not have come as much of a surprise to many in local government. There have long been more than two parties in council elections. Or, if there are two, they are not always Labour or the Conservatives.

In Wales and Scotland, there are often four parties in contention and, given the importance of Independents, sometimes five.

The potential lesson for Westminster of co-existence is profound

Tony Travers

Recent campaigning about a ‘hung Parliament’ has often suggested it would be difficult to run the country without a clear majority for one party, or that political paralysis would lead the financial markets to panic.

Yet the evidence from councils is that they can operate perfectly effectively with two or more parties working together.

Intriguingly, there are a large number of Conservative/Liberal Democrat administrations.

Birmingham and Leeds City Councils, St Helens MBC and Camden, Southwark and Brent LBCs are among the major English authorities that have operated with either a Lib Dem or Tory leader, though with the two parties creating the overall leadership.

There are also Labour/Lib Dem councils, though fewer than Con/Lib Dem ones.

The potential lesson for Westminster of such co-existence is profound. At Westminster if a government loses a vote of confidence it will, by convention, hold a general election.

Councils and, indeed, the Scottish and Welsh governments hold elections periodically and cannot dissolve themselves if they cannot create and maintain an effective administration. Of course, a move to fixed-term parliaments would remove this difference.

With one week to go until polling day, it seems increasingly possible there could be changes to electoral arrangements and to the institutions of government.

If the country decided to consider proportional representation, it is hard to imagine doing so without reform to the House of Lords. If both reforms occurred, we would potentially be in for a full constitutional reform programme.

As and when this minor revolution occurs, local government should be at the front of the queue with robust proposals for a stronger place in any new British constitution.

Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

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