Predicting the Elections – What Happens if….?
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There’s growing talk in Conservative and Labour circles about a minority government. Let’s make an assumption about numbers – not a prediction, just approximate numbers based on current polls: Con 275, Lab 275, LD 35, SNP 40, UKIP 5, Green 2, Speaker 1, all the Northern Irish 17 (of which the present numbers are DUP 8, SF 5, SDLP 3, All 1).
Take out the Speaker and assume that Sinn Fein get five again, and the target for an overall majority is 323. On these numbers a majority Coalition looks hard to achieve – though don’t underestimate the ability of politicians to moderate or even overturn pre-election statements when it comes to getting into government. But add the heightened level of distaste in both Conservatives and Labour for both the concept of coalition and recent practice (at least in Westminster) and the idea of a minority government is not a fantasy.
Of course a Labour or Conservative minority administration will still need to find a majority in the Commons, whether by positive votes or abstentions, but that’s a different issue. And the PM in a minority government does not need to be leader of the largest party, as indeed the Labour leader Ramsay Macdonald was not in 1924. We should also note – something else that the British media has so far not noticed – that a minority government may itself be a coalition of two or even more parties. On the figures above a Lab-SNP government would still be 18 votes short of a majority, and either a Con-LD or Lab-LD government 23 votes short.
But let’s assume that we get numbers something like these and that the two largest parties both prefer a minority government to a cobbled up three or four party coalition. And that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act remains in place. Three questions arise (actually a lot more but I want to raise three here!)
(1) Are Westminster politicians, cloistered in their notorious Bubble with the lobby-based media and a winner-takes-all view of life, ready for the considerable culture change that a “permanent” minority government would require?
Of course we’ve had minority governments before, with the Ramsay Macdonald governments in 1924 and 1929, and the last two years of the Labour government in the late 1970s, the time of the Lib-Lab pact. But James Callaghan’s Labour government then was only just in a minority and indeed managed to stagger on for another six months after the Liberals pulled out of the pact.
A “permanent” minority government, scheduled to last five years, will require some big changes in the way Westminster politicians and civil servants do things. The system won’t be majoritarian any more. Governments will propose, Parliament will dispose. Are we ready for that? Can we cope with that? It will need the skills of negotiation, conciliation, toleration of dissent, acceptance of compromise and trade-offs, rather than just efficient and sometimes brutal whipping of the government party. Most of all, the acceptance of the will of Parliament on big issues and little ones. And PM Questions in its present form will have to go the way of the dinosaurs, where it belongs.
(2) The House of Lords will have to be taken very seriously indeed. Its own role will have to be thought through. At present it does much of the detailed scrutiny of legislation which the Commons, focused on the high-level and controversial issues, doesn’t do. Under a non-majoritarian system, perhaps the Commons can reform itself to do more of this job (but don’t bet on it). Or perhaps the role of the Lords will be even more important, in which case it will need to be resourced rather better than now.
It might even be a chance to introduce a better and more mature way of reconciling differences between the two Houses. Instead of the slightly ridiculous ping-pong when clerks in pantomime gear parade up and down between the two chambers delivering “messages”, we could see something like the Conciliation Committee negotiations that take place between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.
(3) It would be a wonderful chance for Parliament – in both Houses – to become more powerful as against the executive. Select committees in both Houses (and joint ones) could really come into their own. The whole process of legislation could be opened up to a much greater public gaze – and involvement. It seems that we are all going to have to move out of the Palace of Westminster for very major repairs, possibly in 2020. Perhaps we could do that earlier than planned and sit in circular chambers in a way that might change our restrictive two-sided confrontational culture for ever!
The big question is of course – can a minority government really last five years? But we might also ask – can anyone prevent it lasting five years, given the existence of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act? This is a fascinating question and one I hope to look at in my next piece.
First published by Liberal Democrat Voice on 9th March 2015
Original Article: http://www.libdemvoice.org/tony-greaves-writes-what-happens-if-44924.html