After 65 years of single-party government in the House of Commons, the last three general elections have led to three differently constituted governments: a two-party coalition, a Conservative majority government and a Conservative minority government reliant on a confidence and supply agreement for its parliamentary majority. Albert Weale argues that if a rethinking of British democracy is required, that we must start from first principles and consider how to create ways of institutionalising political negotiation among different groups in a way that embraces an incentive towards encompassing different interests and opinions.
A UK trio
2010 – 2015 – 2017. Three elections; three results; three parliaments varying in their party balance: three types of government. Three types of majority rule.
2010 produced a hung parliament with no one party holding an overall majority of seats in the Commons, leading to a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, the first UK government formed by a coalition of more than one party since 1945. In 2015 the UK reverted to its familiar type with one party holding a majority of parliamentary seats, and with the Conservatives able to form a single-party government. 2017 produced another hung parliament and the government exhibited yet another form: a minority government dependent on a small party, the Democratic Unionists, for confidence and supply, but without the assurance that it could carry the whole of its programme during its term of office.
These three examples illustrate the different ways in which the principle of majority rule can be interpreted. 2015 exhibits the typical pattern of government formation in the UK: one party gains a majority of seats in parliament on less than a majority of votes in the election, with the Conservatives holding just over 50% of the seats on the basis of 37% of the popular vote. On this view of majority rule, it means government by the party that can secure a majority of seats in the legislature whether or not it has secured a majority of votes in the country. No UK governing government since 1935 has secured more than a plurality of the popular vote.
Contrast this with that of the coalition government between 2010 and 2015. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats held 56% of the seats and between them shared 59% of the popular vote. The governing parties were in a majority with respect to their popular and parliamentary majorities. This illustrates a second interpretation of majority rule, the double majority principle: governments with a majority status in the legislature should also command majority support among the electorate.
The 2017 minority government illustrates a third understanding of majority rule. A minority vote among the electorate give rise to a minority of seats for the leading party in parliament. Support for the government continuing in office lies with a small minor party, but without the guarantee that the governing party can secure its full political programme, any item of which will depend upon an ad hoc parliamentary majority in order to pass. Majority rule therefore works issue by issue.
To be a democrat is to be a majoritarian. But what does it mean to be majoritarian? Rethinking democracy means beginning from first principles, bearing in mind the various ways in which those principles can be worked out in practice. Different understandings of majority rule are not merely matters of abstract theoretical speculation but correspond to different ways of thinking about the foundations of democracy.
The traditional Westminster understanding
In the UK governments normally enjoy a majority of seats in parliament without a majority of votes in an election. The Westminster combination is often justified by a single rationale. If the purpose of an election is to have ‘strong and stable’ government, then a plurality electoral system will usually produce that end. Moreover, if accountability is an important value, then government by parliamentary majority achieves that goal. No one but the Thatcher government was responsible for the Poll Tax, just as no one but the Blair government was responsible for the Iraq war. And everyone knew it.
Moreover, only a relatively small change in party preference among the electorate will produce a large change in the balance of seats in parliament. So it might be argued that governments have an incentive to be particularly responsive to voter concerns. On this account UK governments are responsive precisely because they typically rest on less than an absolute majority of the popular vote. Of course, this supposed virtue may be turned on its head. If UK governments are peculiarly sensitive to relatively small changes in popular support, that can lead them into a pattern of chop-and-change policy making. A long-standing critique of the Westminster system is that the adversarial politics produced by the electoral system induces frequent and counter-productive swings in public policy.
Are the virtues of accountability so clear and obvious that they outweigh the disadvantages of giving power to a party that secures only a plurality of the vote? It may not be necessary to insist that a governing party secures at least 50% of the popular vote before it can claim some majoritarian legitimacy. If a party secures, say, 48% of the vote with no other party within 5%, then you can argue that this is enough. However, as the support for a single party in government falls below 48%, the sense of legitimacy weakens. For myself, I find the sweeping Thatcher reforms with large parliamentary majorities resting on a share of the popular vote that never rose above 44% illegitimate in terms of majority rule, but others may judge differently. When a plurality falls below 40%, it is hard to say that a government rests on anything but a minority. When a government secures a parliamentary majority with only 37% of the popular vote, we are clearly in the territory of minority rule, with all the dangers that brings, as we saw with the 2015 Cameron government.
Double Majority Rule
Double majority governments require both a parliamentary and an electoral majority. The double majority principle favours coalition government. It does not follow, however, that legislative majorities produced by coalition always rest on popular majorities. German coalition governments sometimes rest only on parties that between them have less than 50% of the popular vote, for example the 2009 coalition that rested on only 49% of the popular vote. Yet German experience also highlights the distinction between Westminster majoritarianism and coalitional majoritarianism. In 2009 the German Christian parties won around 34% of the popular vote, not far short of the 37% that David Cameron’s Conservatives had in the UK in 2015. Yet in Germany, Angela Merkel was nowhere near forming a parliamentary majority, whereas Cameron’s Conservatives had a good working majority.
After the German elections in 2017, Angela Merkel’s Christian party could join in only two viable coalitions: a ‘Jamaica’ coalition, involving the Christian, Green and Free Democratic parties, or a grand coalition between the Christian and Social Democratic parties, which Merkel eventually negotiated. Although each of these coalitions can be validly called a majority coalition, the policies that they would be likely to follow could be significantly different from one another. This means that under the double majority principle different possible winning coalitions might form. But this still gives us majority rule. When there are potentially quite different coalitions that might be formed out of a given electoral result, this is normally a sign that parties are being elected to parliament on the basis of very different appeals to electors. Some electors care strongly about some issues, whilst others care strongly about others. The coalition process is about extracting a majority from these competing minority views.
The issue by issue majority
We can take this logic of shifting majorities further, if different majorities support different parts of a government’s programme. Suppose that there is no party or coalition of parties in the legislature that can secure a majority for all elements of its programme. The way is opened up for issue-by-issue coalitions, in which parties vote together on some issues and against one another on others. For example in Denmark in the 1980s a conservative government secured its measures on financial and economic affairs with support from opposition parties, but conceded to the alternative ‘green majority’ made up of governing and non-governing parties on environmental policies. The combination of policies that resulted were therefore fiscally conservative but environmentally progressive. This pattern of policy making is one that is typical of minority governments in the Nordic states, in which some parties will support others in office without entering the government themselves, and in which legislation is passed by ad hoc coalitions on particular issues of policy. So here we have another meaning of majority rule – government by the issue by issue legislative majority.
So far I have discussed these three interpretations of the majority principle on the assumption that they characterised mutually exclusive political institutions. However, this is an over-simplification, since it implicitly makes the role and operation of second chambers redundant in our understanding of democracy, as Steffen Ganghof has pointed out. Ignoring second chambers neglects the possibility of combining different principles of majority rule in one functioning system. In particular, democracy may be best served by separating the functions of maintaining the executive in office on the one hand and passing legislation on the other, and allocating these two functions to different houses of parliament. Something like this system is approximated in the Australian Commonwealth, as well as in the Australian states of New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania.
Transposing this logic to the UK provides a principled basis for reform of the House of Lords. If the Commons continued to be elected on the current first-past-the-post system, then a government would be formed from whatever party or parties commanded a majority in the Commons. However, a reformed House of Lords could be elected by a highly proportional system. It could be denied the power to pass a vote of no confidence in the government, as is effectively the case now, but it would be able to vote down measures proposed by the government if those measures could not command majority support in the chamber. In effect, this is to turn the existing Salisbury convention on its head. The Salisbury convention requires the Lords not to veto legislation that had been promised in the manifesto of the governing party. By contrast, were the Lords to acquire the power to reject legislation that could not command a majority in the proportionately elected second chamber (with the democratic legitimacy that election gave), the government of the day would have to craft its legislative proposals in such a way that it could reasonably anticipate sufficient cross-party consensus to secure passage of the legislation. It would replicate in two-chamber form some of the features of the single-chamber Nordic systems. The House of Lords would become a house of laws.
The principal justification of majority rule is that it provides a fair way of coming to a common policy when people disagree. In situations in which only two alternatives are in play, that democratic fairness is relatively easy to observe. However, where there are three or more alternatives seriously involved, there are different types of majority rule, each with their own distinctive characteristics.
The three very different types of government that the UK has had since 2010 illustrate the different ways in which majority rule can be institutionalised in the face of electoral pluralism. People often ask in these circumstances what the right way is for finding the majority. But this is to pose the wrong question. We should not imagine in situations of political pluralism that there is a majority hidden but struggling to come out as the will of the people, like the proverbial thin man trying to get out of the fat one.
What is needed instead are fair and open ways of institutionalising political negotiation among different groups in a way that embraces an incentive towards encompassing different interests and opinions. Coalition government, issue-by-issue voting in minority government and two-chamber government in which one chamber is purely legislative all provide ways in which this can be done. If this sounds like empowering minorities that majorities might emerge, there is neither irony nor contradiction in that claim.
This post is a highly edited version of a significantly longer article, which is one of a series of essays in Rethinking Democracy, a collection co-edited by Andrew Gamble and Tony Wright, in which leading academics explore the problems of democracy and suggest ways it might be extended and deepened. This post appears with the permission of Political Quarterly.
The author also appeared at a UCL Constitution Unit event entitled ‘Rethinking democracy: is our democracy fit for purpose’ on 14 May to discuss some of the ideas from the publication. A blogpost summarising the discussion at that event will appear on this blog later in the month.
About the author
Albert Weale FBA is Emeritus Professor of Political Theory and Public Policy at University College London and author of The Will of the People: A Modern Myth, published by Polity Press.