Greater Coat of Arms of Belgium

Union is strength. Belgium wins ironic motto of the week. Image via Wikipedia

Conservative Shadow Cabinet member Jeremy Hunt has been on the campaign trail, telling people how awful hung parliaments are:

Speaking at a Conservative election campaign event in central London, shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt said this would mean a “lack of accountability”, with no one party in charge, and deals being done “behind closed doors”. The last time this happened, it had resulted in a fall in share prices and, eventually, the “winter of discontent” of 1978/9.

Mr Hunt said: “It’s ordinary people, not politicians, who suffer the effect of paralysis at the top. That’s why a hung parliament would be bad for everyone.” He warned that voting systems in other countries, which tend to bring in hung parliaments and coalition governments, created instability.

Belgium’s latest regime collapsed last week after just five months, Mr Hunt said, adding that Israel had had 32 governments in 62 years and Italy had had 60 since World War Two.

I suppose no-one ever went wrong by betting on the national myopia and political illiteracy of the British press corps, but his selection of chaotic hung parliaments is – to put it kindly – selective and one-sided. There are far more reasons for political instability in Belgium, Italy and Israel than their electoral system.

In Belgium, for instance, governments are unstable not because of their electoral system, but because of their crazy linguistic federalism, and the pointless arguments that creates. The impending demise of Yves Leterme‘s government is over a change in political boundaries near Brussels. Meanwhile, the Belgian state, with national debt half as high again as the UK’s, is able to carry on financing it easily, and is nowhere near economic collapse.

Italy, famous for its frequent changes of government, has actually swung away from PR in recent years, before swinging back. They have had a lot of Prime Ministers, though the rate of change has slowed in recent years, but only fourteen Parliaments. It doesn’t seem to have done their finances too much harm – the Italians may be PIIGS, with the highest national debt in the EU, but they at least hold most of their national debt internally rather than with foreign lenders, so they are less at risk from a debtors strike.

Israel, I think it’s safe to say, has a few wider geopolitical issues to handle.

Meanwhile, left unsaid are all the countries where PR does not result in frequent changes of government. Such as:

Germany, which has had only had eight Chancellors (Prime Minister equivalent) since 1949, nine if you include Walter Scheel, who was acting Chancellor for nine days after Willy Brandt‘s resignation. Plenty of stability and macroeconomic rigidity there.

The Netherlands, where there have been fifteen Prime Ministers since 1945.

Spain, which has had five Prime Ministers in thirty-five years, so would probably have had nine or ten if it had been a democracy since 1945.

Sweden, which has had thirteen Prime Ministers since 1945, but only ten in the last forty years.

Compare them with the UK, where there have been thirteen different Prime Ministers (counting Harold Wilson twice, on the same basis as the calculations above) since 1945, and that with a non-proportional electoral system which in theory delivers stability.

The bigger truth is that it’s not electoral systems that make governments unstable, it’s political culture. In Germany, where the CDU/CSU and the SPD have been slugging it out since the war, proportional representation has not meant frequent changes of leadership. In Italy, where parties seem to be being founded and merged every day, governments change and fall regularly, and the work of government goes on.

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Written by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.