Much commentary has presented the hung parliament that resulted from last week’s general election as a source of damaging instability. In this post Albert Weale argues that democrats should in fact welcome a hung parliament, where a parliamentary majority approves measures on the basis of the merits of the arguments rather than on the basis that they were included in the majority party’s manifesto.
The UK now has a hung parliament. Does that mean that British government is no longer strong and stable but weak and wobbly? To listen to much commentary, you would think so. But for democrats there are good reasons for welcoming a hung parliament.
The prevalent view of parliamentary democracy in Britain runs something like this. General elections are occasions of accountability of governments to the people. Parties stand on their manifestos, and if they secure a majority of seats, their democratic responsibility is to implement what they have promised. Through the Salisbury convention, the House of Lords will not frustrate measures promised in the manifesto. If the people do not like what the governing party has done, they have the opportunity to get rid of that party at the next election.
In this way of thinking, the first-past-the-post electoral system occupies a crucial role. It may not deliver a fair representation of political opinion, at least as judged by the test of proportionality, but it does secure stable government. It magnifies a simple plurality of the popular vote into a majority, often a large majority, of seats in the Commons. With such a majority, a government has no excuse for not implementing the programme for which it has received a mandate. That is simply democracy.
If politics were simply a matter of a contest between left and right, with the two major parties drawn towards the centre ground, this view of democracy might have something to be said for it. In the real world it has nothing to be said for it.
In the first place, it assumes that party programmes address their whole appeal to large groups of electors, who share a coherent political orientation by which different parts of a programme hold together. But this is false. The Labour voter who likes what Labour has to say on the NHS may dislike what they say on immigration, and the Conservative who supports the party on low taxation may not agree with the party on foreign policy.
Secondly, and more importantly, the stable majority theory stops parliament doing its job properly. Backbenchers who may support their party in general will find themselves corralled in supporting it on policies where they disagree. Unless they are particularly brave or foolhardy, they will find it easier to go along with the party programme. Or, perhaps worse, they may simply take no interest in particular elements of public policy, thinking that the party has done their work for them.
The key assumption of the conventional wisdom that needs challenging is that there should be a close connection between maintaining a government in office and supporting the programme with which it came into office. There is no reason to hold to this view. In terms of democratic theory, the question of whether the Queen’s government carries on is quite distinct from whether it can get central parts of its manifesto programme through. A UK government may be granted ‘confidence and supply’ without that carrying the implication that it is entitled to secure the whole or even a major part of its programme.
The distinction is clearer in proportional representation systems where minority governments occur. Danish governments, for example, typically rest on something like 40 per cent of seats in the parliament and they have allowed policy to be decided by shifting majorities of the parliamentary vote. Similarly, the 2007 minority SNP government in Scotland legislated through shifting majorities. In effect, they have been following that version of majority rule knows as the issue-by-issue median.
The problem that commentators in the UK have in thinking about this issue is that they conceive of the parliamentary system as one where the legislature and the executive are fused. This then carries the implication that if the government cannot get its measures through, it is somehow failing. But if we care about parliamentary government, what we should care about is that a parliamentary majority approves measures on the basis of the merits of the arguments as revealed in the parliamentary debate – not on the basis that someone in the party hierarchy succeeded in getting a promise into the manifesto.
The German political scientist, Steffen Ganghof, has drawn attention to the institutional logic of this distinction, in the form of what he calls semi-parliamentary regimes. A semi-parliamentary regime separates the function of forming a government from the function of passing legislation. In some Australian states these two functions are in effect the responsibilities of different parliamentary chambers. But the functions do not have to be separated in this particular institutional way. A convention that a government may be granted confidence and supply without its being assumed that in losing an important part of its legislative programme, it thereby loses the confidence of the house is all that is needed.
In fact, under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act something like this convention has already started to emerge in the UK. When the government lost the vote on intervention in Syria, it may be said to have lost on an important policy matter, but that did not lead to a sense that the government as such had lost the confidence of the House of Commons.
All very well, you may say, but the UK is entering choppy waters with the Brexit negotiations. Do we not need strong and stable government at this time? Although Theresa May’s gamble failed, was not the premise on which she called the election correct?
If by strong and stable government we mean a government that can determine a Brexit package and then use its parliamentary majority to push that through parliament independently of the reservations of its own supporters, let alone the sincerely held reservations of other parties, the answer is ‘no’.
Moreover, a minority government will embolden just that part of the parliamentary system that currently needs support in one of its areas of traditional strength, the House of Lords. The Lords is strong on the rule of law and the need to maintain scrutiny over areas of administrative discretion. Already its Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee has highlighted the dangers of executive dominance implicit in the Great Repeal Bill. Faced with a government claiming a mandate and with a large majority in the Commons, the Lords may well have felt inhibited in voting against elements of the Great Repeal Bill that were of serious concern. With a minority government that no longer need be so. Even the firmest believer in the Salisbury convention cannot believe that the government will have a mandate for the creation of unaccountable discretion.
We do not have to be starry-eyed about hung parliaments. Already it is clear that the Democratic Unionist Party have been rattling the collection plate as the price for their support for the Conservative government. In any system of issue-by-issue voting pivotal parties in parliament will seek to extract concessions. But the thought that you can remove the pork barrel from democratic politics is a fantasy, and there is some merit from the point of view of transparency in having the deals done between different parties rather than within parties.
So if you are a democrat, you may give two cheers for traditional majoritarian government. You can give three cheers for a hung parliament.
About the author
Albert Weale is Emeritus Professor of Political Theory and Public Policy at UCL.