So, I’ve managed to steer clear of commenting on the recent UK general election, not because I don’t want to, but because there are enough self-important people with half-formed “opinions” out there on the Internet without me adding to them with my own particular brand of political brainfartery. However, given that we now have a result, something calling itself a “government,” and a set of announcements summarising what our latest coalition of the mediocre plans to achieve in the next five years, I thought I may as well throw my hat into the ring with a few observations.
If pushed, I’d describe myself as a democratic socialist. Broadly, that means that I support the basic tenets of a socialist society, but believe that such a system can and should be achieved through democratic mechanisms. I don’t want to get too hung up on definitions, so let’s leave it at that.
Being of this particular strain of political thought I believe that true democracy needs to be in place in order for society to function properly. Constitutional reform, something that our last Labour government spectacularly failed to deliver on, is something that has been a long time coming – and in some ways it is refreshing to see our new Whig/Tory coalition actively discussing it. However, the direction they are taking our notoriously flexible UK constitution is not one I’d wish to see them follow.
Buried in the list of agreements for the coming Parliament is the establishment of a fixed term for the coalition government of five years. With this comes a law that prevents the early dissolution of Parliament, by ensuring that a vote of no confidence in the government cannot be carried unless it has the support of 55% of MPs.
Let’s look at the maths of this. There are 306 Conservatives and 57 Liberal Democrats in Parliament, a majority of 78 for the governing coalition. Suppose that, two or three years down the line, something important and divisive comes up – a major new European treaty, for example – that opens up the ideological gulf that exists between the two parties. Suppose that the differences between the parties are so severe that the coalition is no longer workable, and the 57 Lib Dems cross the floor to join the opposition.
We now have a minority Conservative administration, substantially short of a workable majority – a lame duck government that cannot pass any legislation that invokes the ire of the other parties. And, moreover, we cannot get rid of them – all of the other MPs in the house (that is, every party represented except for the Tories and Sinn Fein, who don’t take their seats at Westminster) number only 339, 52% of the total number of MPs. In order for a vote of confidence to pass, 16 Tory MPs would have to vote alongside the Opposition parties to kick themselves out of office. Is that likely?
What initially seems to be a sensible piece of stabilising legislation for fixed-term parliaments actually turns out to be something that, viewed cynically, could be construed as a Tory attempt to ensure that they can retain power even without the support of the Liberal Democrats. The precise numbers required for this “enhanced majority” are remarkably convenient.
Setting aside party politics, this is a step backwards for democracy. Steven Poole has already described it as “basically like the Enabling Act of 1933.” While the reference to pre-WWII Germany may be more hyperbole than substance, the basic rejection of democratic principles embodied in both these pieces of legislation is chillingly similar.
And now, with my party political hat firmly back on, I turn to another commitment of our new government, to introduce powers for constituents to recall their local MPs and force a by-election. While the precise extent of these powers has not been made clear, it is quite easy to envisage a scenario where voters can voice their displeasure with the current administration – democracy in action.
For the avoidance of doubt, I voted Labour at the general election. But from speaking to some friends of mine who did vote Lib Dem, it is clear that many of them do not endorse their parliamentary party’s decision to prop up a minority Conservative government. Many of them, I imagine, voted Lib Dem specifically to voice their intention to keep the Tories out.
What I would like to see, then, is these new powers of recall used to depose Lib Dem MPs – not because they have been doing a poor job, but because their party is not serving the interests of a great proportion of their voters. If sufficient numbers are disaffected then the resulting by-elections could show governments firstly that the voices of constituents must be heard, and secondly that the behind-closed-doors horse-trading that has characterised the last few days will not be tolerated. It won’t solve the problem of the Tories’ wholly undemocratic “55% rule,” but it will send a clear and powerful message to our politicians.