Democracy reaction

Seems like the “enhanced majority” agreement I posted about the other day has been picked up on by the political radar. At the moment, BBC News’ lead article deals with the story, calling it a “backlash” over the plans, which would involve requiring the consent of 55% of MPs – rather than 50% plus one, as is the case now – in order to carry a motion proposing the dissolution of Parliament.

I pointed out that the numbers seemed to be very convenient for the present Conservative/Liberal Democrat axis, given that the figures quoted allowed the Tories to continue to govern alone for the rest of their five-year term, even if the Lib Dems were to leave the coalition and enter opposition. Now some prominent individuals have come out to suggest that this constitutional change, were it to be ratified, would be a travesty for democracy.

Former Labour Cabinet ministers Jack Straw and David Blunkett are among those criticising the plans, with Straw describing them as “completely undemocratic” and Blunkett calling it a “stitch-up.” Lord Falconer talks of a “zombie government” that could lurch towards the end of its term without being able to pass any legislation.

It is not just from the ranks of HM Opposition that these criticisms are being raised: Lee Rotherham of ConservativeHome argues that “such a change betrays the most basic and fundamental principles of how a democracy works.” And the Tory MP Charles Walker reckons “this is perhaps just a little too much for our unwritten constitution to bear.” Various experts on constitutional law have also expressed concern over the plans. A set of further commentaries on both sides of the issue can be found on the BBC website.

Those in favour of such an arrangement have been quick to respond, pointing to a perceived misunderstanding by the critics. According to David Howarth, a legal academic and a former Lib Dem MP, the 55% rule applies only to a vote on the dissolution of Parliament, not on a vote of confidence in the government. Howarth described Straw as “totally confused” on the matter.

Under our present constitutional arrangement, the Prime Minister has the right to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament and call a general election at any time within a Parliament’s five-year term. If the government were to lose a vote of confidence, in most cases the Prime Minister would be expected to ask for Parliament to be dissolved and an election to be called.

However, under the new arrangement, the Prime Minister would not be allowed to voluntarily dissolve Parliament – he would require the consent of 55% of MPs to do so. In the event that the government lost a vote of confidence – by whatever margin – they would still be expected to resign, but there would not be an immediate election. Instead, a new government would be formed from the existing make-up of Parliament.

The problem with entrenching the term limits of Parliament in this way is that, should the Tories be forced to resign mid-term,  remaining would be the possibility an unstable, cobbled-together minority government of one or more of the other parties. Alternatively, once in opposition the Tories could vote for dissolution and, with the support of other parties, could reach the required 55% threshold – so what is the point of the ruling if it only serves to delay an election by a matter of weeks? The cynical view is that it is a way of putting power in the hands of the Tories only – any motion for dissolution requires their support, however you add up the numbers. To echo a sentiment I have seen a lot in recent days, if this is a change intended for long-term constitutional reform, it is done for extremely short-sighted reasons.

The other matter is that this actually constitutes a massive U-turn by the Conservatives. Only a few weeks ago, David Cameron said that anyone assuming the post of Prime Minister mid-term should be required to call an election within six months. Yet the mechanism being proposed by the new Conservative/Lib Dem government would actually prevent this from happening even if a new PM wanted to go to the country shortly after taking office.

What is it they say about power?

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