John Rees argues that a hung parliament could be an opportunity for the left because it will alter the balance between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics.

Cameron's hangingThe one safe prediction about the outcome of the general election seems to be that it will result in a government without a large majority in the House of Commons.

There maybe a hung parliament resulting in either a Liberal-Labour coalition or a Liberal-Tory coalition. Possibly, just possibly, one of the major parties will have a small overall majority. This will mark a major change in the face of parliamentary politics in Britain.

Since Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory in 1979 every government for the last 30 years has been able to rely on substantial, sometimes massive, majorities in the House of Commons.

The smallest of recent majorities was the 21 seat margin that gave John Major victory in 1992, although that dwindled to single figures in the course of his tenure in No. 10 due to defections and by-election losses.

Before Thatcher governments with small majorities were more common. Labour had a majority of five in 1950 and four in 1964. In both cases the government moved quickly to call another election in an attempt to gain a larger majority. In 1951 Clement Attlee’s gamble failed and the Conservatives won. In 1966, however, Harold Wilson’s government enjoyed a landslide majority of 97.

After the election in February 1974 resulted in a hung parliament Labour called a second election in October the same year. Labour won a majority but it didn’t last. In 1977 Labour became a minority government again, dependent on minor parties to stay in power even though it did not formally create a coalition government.

In some ways the more polarised politics that followed the collapse of the welfare state consensus in the 1970s, plus Britain’s first past the post electoral system, is what lies behind the subsequent long period of government with large Commons majorities.

The failure of the working class and the left to consolidate its victories of the early 1970s led to disillusionment, the Social Democrat Party split in Labour and the long Thatcherite ascendancy. The comparable and deep disillusion with the Tories led to Labour’s revival beginning with the 1997 landslide.

Graph: Financial TimesNow disillusion is general. The great loser seems to be David Cameron, impossible as that seemed a year ago. The Tories have looked, well, too Tory to really capitalise on the collapse of Labour’s support. And some sections of the establishment seem to worry that the Tory policy of ‘inflict as much pain as soon as possible’ may actually be too dangerous to implement.

The Liberal surge is no doubt overstated but to the extent that it is real it is a product of popular disillusion with the two main parties and a media campaign which is beginning to sense that in difficult times ahead a coalition government may have more authority in imposing job losses and cuts.

But would a cobbled together coalition or a government with a small majority be bad for the left? Coalition governments are not necessarily weak governments. The National Government of 1931 survived the slump.

But that government was a product of the 1931 split in the Labour Party, led by Ramsey MacDonald, and followed just five years after the defeat of the General Strike.

The ruling class does not have the same advantages today. Indeed, it now faces a level of popular discontent not seen since the 1970s. All the opinion polls majorities opposed to privatisation and the growing gap between rich and poor. And these attitudes have led to renewed levels of popular mobilisation, though not yet industrial action, that have been sustained over the last 10 years.

So perhaps extra-parliamentary politics will carry more weight under a weak government. Its hard to see a government with, say, a four seat majority withstanding a mass movement outside parliament in the way in which Tony Blair’s massive majority protected him form the mass movement against the Iraq war (and the biggest back bench revolt in history).

A weak government may alter the balance between parliamentary government and extra-parliamentary action to the benefit of the latter. The left could benefit from this fact. But a weak government may also prove a chance for the far right. If the political elite looks both unanimous and unable to alleviate the crisis, the right can gain.

The truth is that the failure of parliamentary politics is a challenge for the left as well as an opportunity. If the left doesn’t take the opportunity to build a mass, extra-parliamentary response to the recession then the populist right, the Islamophobes, the EDL and the BNP will be the beneficiaries.

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.