On this page Sarah Richardson and Roxane McMeeken look at what would happen to construction if nobody won the election, and overleaf we catch up with our floating voters, receive a letter from David Cameron and meet the former Jarvis man who founded his own political party

General elections are when the public is given a chance to speak. Sometimes, though, it is difficult to work out what it has said – and in the case of a hung parliament, it’s practically impossible. There have been only two in the 20th century as the result of an election. The last time it happened was after the 1974 election called by the Heath government and held on 28 February in an atmosphere of crisis brought on by a successful strike by the National Union of Mineworkers, the three-day week and the oil shock that followed the Yom Kippur war. The other time was in March 1929, when there was no sense of crisis at all (little did they know). So it’s hardly surprising that most of the electorate is still trying to work out just what such a result would mean for the UK.

A political history of indecision

The first point to make is that they can last a long time. The 1974 result gave Labour 301 seats, the Tories 297 and Liberals 14. Heath remained as prime minister and tried to form an alliance with Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberals. As it had taken 40,000 votes to elect a Conservative MP, compared with 432,823 to elect a Liberal, Thorpe refused to enter a coalition without electoral reform, and Heath preferred to resign after four days of negotiations than grant it. Wilson then took over but was forced to call another election in October, which he won with an overall majority of three. Labour struggled on for five years, two of them in the ungainly three-legged race that was the Lib-Lab pact.

This time round, many of the same dynamics are in place. One novelty is that the parties are taking the possibility of a hung parliament into account in their campaigns. So, the Tories have sought to warn the voters not to vote for a hung parliament, despite the fact that that option doesn’t appear on the ballot paper. George Osborne has warned that it would lead to “economic paralysis” and that on the whole it would be safer to avoid that (by voting Conservative). Nick Clegg, seeing the chance to achieve the Lib Dems’ paramount aim of electoral reform, has reassured voters that a hung parliament would allow his party to act as “guarantors of fiscal stability”.

As the polls stand now (27 April), the most likely outcome is a coalition between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, if Cameron makes concessions that Heath did not. But what consequences would the lack of a majority, and this partnership in particular, have for the industry?

The economic consequences

  • Energy The Lib Dems are against nuclear new build, which would mean at the very least a slowing of schemes while the parties thrashed out a position. There would be a boost for renewables, but it is doubtful whether this would be enough to meet the UK’s future energy needs.
  • Transport Crossrail looks safe, with both parties supporting it. Equally certain is that Heathrow expansion would be axed. The Lib Dems are more in favour of rail than road, so we might see more money diverted there.
  • Housing Both parties support greening the existing housing stock, so that’s likely to be a high priority for spending. However, the Lib Dems’ controversial pledge to impose VAT on new homes in order to reduce the rate for repairs may be a sticking point. Both parties favour a more localised approach to housing delivery.
  • Education The Lib Dems have already accused the Tories of wanting to reduce capital spending on schools. In the long term, they are likely to provide a safeguard against savage cuts – but in the shorter term, the hung parliament could stop work going ahead.

One form that Osborne’s “economic paralysis” could take is a break in the signing of public sector contracts. Whitehall departments and quangos such as the Homes and Communities Agency and Partnerships for Schools are in pre-election purdah, meaning they cannot commission work. However, it is understood that officials have received the nod on some contracts from Labour and Conservatives, meaning they could progress as soon as one or other is elected. Not if there a hung parliament, however, as the incoming government would not have pre-approved the work. Graham Kean, head of public sector at EC Harris, says although the election of a single party would result in central government spending on new projects being turned off for at least four months, “the amount of wrangling accompanying a hung parliament would mean that period could be doubled or tripled”.

Osborne’s forecast would – if borne out – deter private sector funders and developers from investing. But the evidence this week suggests his fears could be overblown: the markets have remained up despite increased speculation about a hung parliament. A hung parliament may even have beneficial effects, depending on how close the parties are. If the Conservatives were to win a majority, or close to it, there would be swift spending cuts – which may or may not add up to the £6bn that Brown repeats every 47 seconds. If 1974 were repeated, the industry might get a six-month reprieve. As one industry figure puts it, cynically: “They won’t want to give the nasty news if they aren’t going to be in power long enough for people to forget it.”

Longer-term public spending decisions are likely to be shelved until the Comprehensive Spending Review in the autumn. By this time, there may have been another election and who knows what would happen then …

The lowdown on a hung parliament

How likely is it to happen?
Labour will lose its absolute majority if it loses 24 seats; the Conservatives need 116 seats to gain an absolute majority. Anything in between will result in a hung parliament.

Who will be prime minister?
Gordon Brown will remain in power until he resigns, and may try to stay in power even without the largest number of seats by forging an alliance with the Lib Dems. However, Nick Clegg has stated he would not support Labour even if they won the most seats, if they had the lowest share of the popular vote and if Brown were to remain as prime minister. To get his support, Labour may switch leader. But if the Conservatives won the largest number of seats, or the biggest share of the vote, Clegg may choose to throw his lot in with them. This would effectively install Cameron as prime minister.

Weekly election roundup

Quotes of the week

The leaders’ positions on a hung parliament and electoral reform …

Clegg one  “I will work with a man from the moon, with anyone, who can deliver the greater fairness that I think people want.”

Clegg two “If Labour do come third in terms of the number of votes cast, then people would find it inexplicable that Gordon Brown himself could carry on as prime minister.”

Cameron one “It’s becoming clear Nick Clegg wants to hold the whole country to ransom, just to get what would benefit the Liberal Democrats.”

Cameron two “I don’t want the electoral system to change … It would be a big, big mistake for this country.”

Brown “If it’s a clear result, we’ll accept it. If it’s a different result, we’ve got to deal with it. But don’t presume what the people will vote before they vote because that would be arrogant.”

Douglas Alexander (Labour’s election co-ordinator) “My sense is that Nick Clegg has somewhat overreached himself – maybe intoxicated by the publicity he has received – in getting into the prediction business.”

Highlights of the political blogs

“Today I want to speak directly to the people who have idealism and progressive ideals hardwired into their DNA …” Oh dear. Who said that? No contest – it has to have been Tony Blair, he of the “irreducible core”. Wrong: it was the Heir of Blair, soaring into fresh flights of meretricious Daveguff at his press conference this morning. Behind the pretentious technobabble lurks Cameron’s sinister agenda to cut a deal with the Liberal Democrats at any cost, including the concession of PR voting which would end the prospect of any future Conservative government ever again.
Gerald Warner, The Telegraph

The 7 March parliamentary election in Iraq produced a hung parliament in Baghdad, with no single party or grouping securing a majority. The incumbent, Nouri al-Maliki, has been described as “difficult to deal with, quick-tempered and deeply suspicious of others”. Who does that remind you of? … The anti-American Shia faction led by “firebrand” cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is the largest single party in the national assembly and the Sadrists “are adamant that Mr Maliki step down as prime minister”. So is Nick Clegg – having said at the weekend, “You can’t have Gordon Brown squatting in No 10” – Britain’s Muqtada al-Sadr?
Mehdi Hasan, New Statesman

The great thing for us as this shit gets increasingly real is the focus the debates give. I’m a massive fan. They give us a much-needed chance to get away from the issues. The actual policies. As you know I’ve never been so much of a policy man. Obviously you need them: they’re brilliant, I imagine, most of ours. But they are very lumpen. Very black and white. Very “we’re actually going to do this”. What I prefer is a little nugget you can pimp. A fragment that gives a flavour. But can be easily binned in the face of a hostile reaction to a bit of kite flying …
Malcom Tucker (from TV comedy The Thick of It), The Guardian

What the floating voters say

Jack Pringle of Pringle Brandon
He began with a leftward bias; last week he was wishing he could vote for a hung parliament; this week: no change.

There’s none of this “I agree with Nick” anymore, is there? Instead, Cameron and Brown are advancing on Clegg in a pincer movement. It’s hugely flattering for Clegg that they’re taking him seriously. A hung parliament still appeals as it would check a swing to the right under a Tory government. I don’t think it would hit construction spending – a Tory majority would be much worse in terms of cuts. Neither would it scare the markets and hit private sector investment in construction – after all, the markets are up today. I may or may not vote Lib Dem, though, as I’m a fan of my local MP, who is Labour’s Harriet Harman.

Neil Dower of Conamar
The jury has been out for the

Neil Dower of Conamar
Neil Dower of Conamar

past two weeks; this week, it’s still out but he’s tilting slightly to the Tories.

Yesterday was a day of baby kissing but I think we’ve had enough of that; it’s time to talk policy. The news this week that construction is going to be in recession until 2011 means it is even more vital we know the parties’ spending plans. This third debate is likely to make up my mind because it will focus on the economy, which for me is the critical issue. I’m hoping we’ll hear some proper detail.

Chris Fennell of Curtins Consulting
Favoured Labour in the first week; dipped a toe into the yellow surge last week; this week: still Lib Dem.

Cameron puts me right off. The more I see of him in these debates the more I think he’s evasive. Gordon Brown, on the other hand, gives the impression he knows what he’s about and he is the clearest on what he will actually do. He says he would carry on the way we are now to bring us out of recession, and I like that. I have to admit I’m being charmed by Clegg, though. He comes across well on TV and I agree that we don’t need to spend billions on Trident. His demand for electoral reform also impresses me.

Simon Flatt of Flatt Consulting
Began by writing off Clegg for his blancmange-like qualities, but changed his mind after the first debate. This week he’s veering towards Labour

Simon Flatt of Flatt Consulting
Simon Flatt of Flatt Consulting

I thought the second debate made Gordon Brown look like the chief dog and the other two puppies. Cameron still comes across as having no substance but Clegg is looking a bit that way too. Brown gives you facts and figures, which is more convincing. A hung parliament would worry me because it could delay the actions that must be taken to get construction out of recession. On the other hand, it would be good to combine Brown’s experience with some of the sensible things that both Cameron and Clegg are saying.

Paul Swinburn, director of Provelio, Bristol
Last week he was backing Labour, this week he’s thinking more seriously about the Lib Dems.

I dozed off halfway through the second debate – that’s how relevant it was to me. I did watch it again though and thought that the issues discussed were a distraction. These aren’t the most pressing matters right now.

I’m still keen to hear how the parties would tackle the economy and I don’t feel much the wiser on that.

I am favouring Labour but I‘m going off them slightly. We need radical solutions and Clegg’s plan to scrap Trident is the kind of thinking required. In contrast, I’m not impressed with Labour putting up National Insurance or with the Tories saying they’ll not put it up while saying nothing about VAT.

Three to watch

Some more election candidates with construction backgrounds

Esther McVey, Conservative candidate for Wirral West
Esther McVey, Conservative candidate for Wirral West

Esther McVey, Conservative candidate for Wirral West
Labour seat. Swing required for Conservatives to take it: 1.33%

You might recognise 42-year-old McVey from GMTV but the Liverpudlian gave up her media career to work in the family construction business JG McVey. She is thought to be a strong challenger for the West Wirrall seat, which has been Labour since 1997. McVey also runs her own PR firm, Making It.

Sam Townsend, Labour candidate for Bristol North West
Labour encumbent Doug Naysmith said in 2007 he would stand down from this target seat for the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and UK Independence Party. Swing away from Labour required: 2.85%

Townsend is a construction barrister and his recent local campaign successes include forcing Bristol council to provide essential bathroom adaptations for people with serious disabilities. The 35-year-old Cambridge graduate helps run the Free Representation Unit, which gives legal support to applicants for tribunals who aren’t eligible for legal aid.

Peter Phillips, BNP candidate for Windsor
Peter Phillips, BNP candidate for Windsor

Peter Phillips, BNP candidate for Windsor
Conservative seat, target for Lib Dems and Labour, swing required: 11.16%. No British National Party candidate stood in the constituency’s last election

Architect and sole practitioner Phillips is standing against incumbent Adam Afriyie, who became the first black Tory MP in the 2005 election. Home to Windsor castle, Eton College and Ascot, this is one of the nation’s wealthiest constituencies. Long-time BNP member Phillips shocked the architecture profession by standing for the RIBA presidency three years ago.

Compiled with help from Madano

Original print headline - Invitation to a hanging