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.
A hung parliament is a possible – if still unlikely – outcome of the election on Thursday. Akash Paun discusses what would happen next if no one party has an overall majority once the results have declared. He explains that in the UK system ultimately who forms a government is determined by who is best placed to command the confidence of the House of Commons.
The recent and dramatic shift in the polls makes a hung parliament a plausible, if still unlikely, outcome on Thursday. Westminster has little recent experience of inconclusive elections – just two since the war, in 1974 and 2010. A second hung parliament in seven years would make things interesting, but it would be no crisis.
The sky won’t fall in
A hung parliament might produce a period of uncertainty about the composition of the new administration. The UK is accustomed to a government being formed immediately, but the sky will not fall in if it takes a little longer for the situation to resolve itself. In 2010, it took five days before the handover from Gordon Brown to David Cameron.
The UK is very odd in its haste to form a new government within 24 hours of the polls closing. Fellow Westminster systems like Canada and Australia wait over a week before swearing in the Prime Minister, even when he or she has won a clear majority.
With Brexit talks due to start on 19 June, weeks of coalition negotiations – as in Germany, for example – would be unhelpful. But that is highly unlikely. If it takes a few days to clarify who is best placed to form a stable administration, then that time should be taken. And if the media can restrain itself from hyperbole about political or constitutional crisis, then all the better.
We have argued for greater clarity about the government formation process, but there are some established principles. So long as it is unclear who is to be Prime Minister, the existing government remains in office, subject to similar constraints as in the pre-election ‘purdah’ period. It is the duty of an outgoing prime minister to hold on until unequivocal advice can be given to the Queen about who should be the next guest for tea at the palace.
Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones have this week been re-elected as First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, whilst two week ago Enda Kenny was re-elected as Irish Taoiseach. In each case the newly elected parliament elected the head of the new government. In a new report Petra Schleiter, Valerie Belu and Robert Hazell argue that a similar procedure should be adopted at Westminster, where currently the Queen decides who should be Prime Minister before parliament meets. Robert Hazell explains why.
This week has seen the re-election of Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones as First Ministers in Scotland and in Wales, following the devolved elections on 5 May. Two weeks ago we witnessed the re-election of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach in Ireland, ten weeks after the Irish election on 26 February. What these three countries have in common is not just that the same leader has been re-elected, but that in their recent elections Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland all saw the return of a hung parliament in which no party gained an overall majority. In these circumstances it does not fall to the Queen to decide who shall be First Minister, or in Ireland to the President; under their constitutions it falls to the newly elected parliament, whose first business (after election of a presiding officer) is to elect the head of the new government. That is what happened in Ireland on 6 May, in Scotland on 17 May and in Wales on 18 May.
In a report published this week, which I have written with Professor Petra Schleiter and Valerie Belu of Oxford University, we suggest that is what should also happen in future at Westminster. Instead of the Queen having to decide who should be Prime Minister before parliament meets, the first business of a newly elected House of Commons should be to select the Prime Minister, who would then be formally appointed by the Queen.
This may seem unnecessary after elections when a single party wins an overall majority, and it is obvious who is going to be Prime Minister: as happened in the UK in 2015. In those cases the election of the leader of the majority party to head the new government would be a formality. The value of asking the House of Commons to choose the Prime Minister is when it is not obvious who can command confidence in the newly elected parliament. That is always going to be the case in a hung parliament, especially if it is closely hung. We risk forgetting how narrowly we escaped from having such a parliament after the 2015 general election. In the weeks before the election the polls suggested a very close result, with some forecasting a dead heat between the two major parties. Although the Cabinet Manual says it is for the political parties to work out who can command confidence in the new parliament, there is a risk of confusion and uncertainty if there is a standoff, with both main parties claiming to be able to form a government. The only reliable way to determine who can command confidence in such a situation is a nomination vote in the House of Commons. That would be a quicker and cleaner solution than the traditional vote on the Queen’s Speech as the first test of confidence in a new government.
Spain will have a fresh general election on June 26 after government formation negotiations following December’s hung parliament failed. Alberto López-Basaguren discusses how things got to this stage, arguing that the parties have failed to correctly interpret the implications of the December result. The new election is not in their own or the public interest and the parties could, and should, have avoided it.
On May 3 King Felipe VI approved the dissolution of the Spanish parliament, calling a fresh election for June 26. In doing so he complied with Section 99(5) of the Constitution, given the inability of the Lower House to elect a Prime Minister within two months of the first investiture vote.
The election results of December 20 situated the political forces at the entrance to a maze into which, almost without exception, they have insisted on going further and further, so far indeed that they have been unable to find the exit. We have had months of uninterrupted electoral campaigning, as if for the parties there existed no other prospect than new elections.
Only the conservative Popular Party (PP), and the social democratic Socialist Party (PSOE), could form the backbone of a government majority. The strategy of both has basically been the same: the appointment of a PM being the objective, at any price, come what may afterwards, in the hope that the conditions making this possible would fall like ripe fruit. Although each of them had in mind a different fruit.