No to 55%

by Carl Gardner on May 12, 2010

The new government is only a day old, and already it’s engaging in constitutional whimmery, even though its formation and existence proves the value and robustness of the constitution we have. The coalition agreement (Part 6, page 3) says this:

The parties agree to the establishment of five year fixed-term parliaments. A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government will put a binding motion before the House of Commons in the first days following this agreement stating that the next general election will be held on the first Thursday of May 2015. Following this motion, legislation will be brought forward to make provision for fixed term parliaments of five years. This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour.

This must have seemed reasonable at the time; it makes sense that the two coalescing parties should want to bind each other in to a fixed-term agreement. I was expecting them to make a public agreement that the Cabinet should have to agree unanimously (or perhaps with a maximum of three votes against, say, bearing in mind the LibDems will have five Cabinet seats) before the PM could seek a dissolution of Parliament. In effect, it would be an agreement to suspend the convention that the decision to seek dissolution is for the PM alone.

This proposed legislation, though, seems to aim at preventing an election even if 54% of MPs want one. That is wrong in principle, it’s undemocratic, and it must be opposed.

What it would mean is that if the coalition broke down, the Con-LibDem administration would end too. Of course. But there wouldn’t and couldn’t be an election. Instead, a minority Conservative government would be able to carry on – its 306 seats giving it a blocking minority of 47% – and as long as it kept discipline it could rule without the confidence of Parliament. Bear in mind that this could happen the moment this new legislation comes into force, which is presumably intended to be soon, so that government could go on, effectively behind Parliamentary barricades, for months or for several years. Even for this to be theoretically possible is, I’m afraid, outrageous and unconscionable. Whatever government we have, it must be accountable to Parliament.

Constitutional reform is one thing. Constitutional whimmery is quite another, and it’s something we’ve had far, far too much of recently, particularly from the Tories, strangely enough – David Cameron came out with a bonkers, half-baked unmanifestoed idea during the election campaign that was almost the exact opposite of this 55% one. Interestingly that idea wasn’t quite the direct opposite of this 55% one; both would protect him, and only him, if he did lead an unmovable Cleggless minority later this Parliament. His whimmery has been consistent in the one sense of being entirely self-serving.

This is a major constitutional innovation, dreamt up in a back-room by politicians and never put to the voters.

I have no hestitation in supporting the new “No to 55%” campaign. I urge you to support it too.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 simply wondered May 13, 2010 at 00:48

i’m sorry? did anyone trail these new ideas? did anybody vote on them? government in the national interest, my arse!
i am happy to say i am surprised by this shameless attempt by those who weren’t really voted into power to maintain themselves even if they can’t provide a majority.

can it really work? must give eric blair a ring…
.-= simply wondered´s last blog ..large policeman with big stick uses it to defend himself from vicious (though small) woman armed with juice carton that might have looked a bit like a gun. sort of. ish. =-.

2 Steve Lowman May 13, 2010 at 02:36

You have this wrong. No party could govern without the confidence of the House. This does not abolish the idea of a no confidence vote with a 50% + 1 majority. The problem is that there could be no government but also no 55% majority for dissolution. Thus, effectively, official anarchy!!!

3 Carl Gardner May 13, 2010 at 02:47

Well, Simply, the LibDems did put fixed-term Parliaments to the electorate – and got 23% of the vote. We certainly need a referendum before such a major constitutional change is legislated for.

Steve: I’m not sure I have got this wrong. I see the point about a no confidence motion still being available, and the government still having to resign. Maybe that is right. But there can’t be “no government”. Either the government carries on as Gordon Brown did last week (in which case everything I said was right) or there would have to be some mechanism to force other to govern together or finally, there would have to be some way of forcing an election contrary to the will of the largest minority.

At best, the 55% proposal has not been properly thought through.

4 botogol May 13, 2010 at 09:33

I think it’s actually even *worse* than you say: because in practice I don’t think it even imposes any constraints on a government’s power to call an election if/when it wants. Consider
– most often the governing party/coalition will command 55% – so it can call an election when it likes
– even if the governing party/coalition does not command 55%, in the event that it wants to resign and call an election it is inconceivable that the opposition parties would unite to keep a reluctant Government in power.

So, a govening party could still call an election when it liked

The only situation where this proposal actually bites is – as you say – is that it enables a governing party with 45-50% of Parliament to hang on to power.

(what a coincidence that the Conservatives have 46%)

Is it half-baked, or actually cunning?
.-= botogol´s last blog ..Ups and Downs =-.

5 James Medhurst May 13, 2010 at 10:26

This change goes hand in hand with introducting fixed-term parliaments so, of course, a government could not call an election without giving itself a vote of no confidence. As in 2005 in Germany, this would damage it electorally.

Actually, the Labour Party also had fixed-term parliaments in its manifesto so 52% of the public voted for it, not that I think that it matters very much. If war can be declared without a referendum, the constitution can also be changed – you have argued yourself against too entrenched a constitution.

David Cameron has also talked about fixed term parlimaments in the past. If he really wanted to act in self-interest, he would have formed a minority and called an election within a year, hoping that the increased resources of the Conservative Party would have given him an overall majority. In the meantime, he would have been careful to do nothing about the economy.

The rationale for fixed-term parliaments is that it allows governments to take unpopular but necessary actions at the start of their terms, safe in the knowledge that it will not be put to the people until the outcome is known. This is undemocratic only in the sense that it prevents an appeal to naked populism contrary to the national interest. The fact that this is proposed gives me confidence that George Osborne is now going to introduce the austerity measures that he talked about in October and would have been introduced by Alistair Darling had there not been an election coming up.
.-= James Medhurst´s last blog ..Reformulating claims =-.

6 Lee Griffin May 13, 2010 at 10:27

“and as long as it kept discipline it could rule without the confidence of Parliament”

Um… no it couldn’t, the other 53% of the parliament could no confidence it and the Tory minority would be forced to resign government. That’s precisely why minority governments are so rare.
.-= Lee Griffin´s last blog ..Niaccurshi: @Scarletstand No it doesn’t, it keeps parliament running as long as it can. Tories would still lose power under a no confidence =-.

7 botogol May 13, 2010 at 10:33

the more I thuink about it, the more sinister it seem:
– A government that believes in fixed term parliaments doesn’t need a new law – it can merely announce that it will refrain from calling an election, and then keep that promise
– so why pass a law? the only purpose served (it seems to me) is to make it more difficult for parliament to throw out a minority government.

It’s actually rather Zimbabwean
.-= botogol´s last blog ..Ups and Downs =-.

8 simply wondered May 13, 2010 at 11:05

‘Well, Simply, the LibDems did put fixed-term Parliaments to the electorate – and got 23% of the vote.’

precisely!
.-= simply wondered´s last blog ..large policeman with big stick uses it to defend himself from vicious (though small) woman armed with juice carton that might have looked a bit like a gun. sort of. ish. =-.

9 Lee Griffin May 13, 2010 at 12:53

botogol, it can’t announce that it will refrain from calling an election, fixed terms ensure it has to happen. The reason for 55% is to make it difficult for a government to call an election when it is politically expedient for them to do so, hence why it’s 66% in Scotland.

When it becomes clear the governance of the country has fallen apart, no party is going to keep the country in chaos by not voting to dissolve, as it would be political suicide, and if they did we’d likely have a system like Scotland that means after 28 days of no government you’d force an election regardless.
.-= Lee Griffin´s last blog ..Niaccurshi: @Scarletstand No it doesn’t, it keeps parliament running as long as it can. Tories would still lose power under a no confidence =-.

10 ObiterJ May 13, 2010 at 16:53

Perhaps there should be TWO rules:

1] The P.M. may not request a dissolution without 55% – (this rule to be time limited to THIS Parliament only)

2] If there is a Vote of Confidence which is lost by 50%+1 (or worse) then the P.M. must resign.
.-= ObiterJ´s last blog ..The Coalition Government: the agreement: Next election 7th May 2015 =-.

11 Carl Gardner May 13, 2010 at 17:08

Do you mean an opposition motion for a dissolution would only require 50%+1, Obiter? That only a government motion would require 55%? That would be much less objectionable.

12 ObiterJ May 13, 2010 at 17:39

Yes, that’s what I am getting at. However, my rule 1 should NOT apply beyond the present parliament.
.-= ObiterJ´s last blog ..The Coalition Government: the agreement: Next election 7th May 2015 =-.

13 Simon May 13, 2010 at 20:30

Just a thought but does this allow a change of Government, ie a new coalition of Lib/Lab without the need for a general election?

14 Ian Bowns May 14, 2010 at 12:53

Dear Carl,

I have only read your point at the head of this discussion. I wonder, why are you so agitated that a slightly different majority can move for dissolution (c.f. no confidence in current government), but not about the fact that we don’t usually have a government with the support of the majority of the people in the first place? I thought that a government supported by a minority was called a dictatorship?

15 Simon W May 14, 2010 at 13:21

I don’t really see the problem. Presumable a simply majority could reverse this legislation and then vote for a dissolution.

16 thalia may May 14, 2010 at 14:53

I can hardly believe the levels of idiocy being expressed about this perfectly reasonable proposal – the idea that is that instead of the PM having an arbitrary right to call an election, it is parliament itself that calls the election. This is exactly the system used in the Scottish parliament and many others.
You say “What it would mean is that if the coalition broke down, the Con-LibDem administration would end too. Of course. But there wouldn’t and couldn’t be an election. Instead, a minority Conservative government would be able to carry on – its 306 seats giving it a blocking minority of 47% – and as long as it kept discipline it could rule without the confidence of Parliament. ” – This is cobblers. A government that lost a confidence vote would cease to be the government. If another government couldn’t form then it would be up to parliament to dissolve itself. In the Scottish parliament there is a protection against deadlock in the form of a 28 day guillotine (after which an election is automatically called).

Please, please stop fedding this hysteria. Read the Scottish rules. This is a progressive electoral reform, replacing an arbitrary prime ministerial power with a parliamentary power. It changes NOTHIING about the confidence vote threshold.

17 Martin May 14, 2010 at 17:15

Thalia may

I disagree with most of your post, although, as you shall see, the guillotine is not a bad idea.

Here’s problem number one in several nutshells-

1. Currently the Head of the Executive (The PM) can force an election that de facto decides the NEXT head of the executive (the New PM) whenever he chooses – this, it is generally agreed, is a distinctly unfair advantage. (It would be preferable, presumably to have a fixed term executive).

2. But the truth, overlooked by many here, is that Parliament can ALSO force an election whenever it chooses – how? By the time honoured method of the legislature’s vote of no confidence in the PM, which by convention demands his resignation. Simply by ensuring that no other applicant gets a vote of confidence, either, the legislature, Parliament can enforce an election. It’s a basic founding block of our democracy.

The continuance of the Executive in this country depends on the confidence of the Legislature (Parliament) continuing.

3 – But the problem has been that the Head of the Executive, de facto, in most circumstances (but not, interestingly in today’s parliament, hence this 55% mumbo jumbo) has complete control of the Legislature, since the election for both is one and the same. Hence, normally, 50% is enough safety for a PM from Parliament.

4. Now, if Dave is to be believed, he wants to strip the PM of the power to call an election at a time of his choosing, but maintain, or even enhance the right of Parliament to call an election.

5. But 55% does not enhance Parliament’s right – it actually frsutrates it, because Parliament already HAS the right, de facto, by simple 50%+1 confidence motions!

6. the 55% rule gives the real possiblity of the executive quite properly hamstrung by a vote of no-confidence (50%+1), but the legislature hamstrung to change that crippled executive, because it can’t reach 55%! (This is where the guillotine might prove useful, presumably)

7. The real route of the problem, I think, is this. Parlaiment performs two key but very, very different functions – and there is a conflict between them.

8. On the one hand it is the sovereign legislature, and that role should not be crippled by the Executive being unable to continue. Currently, the Executive falling without replacement triggers an election to reinstitute the legislature in a way supportive of the (new) Executive.

9. But it is also represents the basic and continuing electoral college for the election of the Head of the Executive, the PM, whose democratic legitimacy entirely stems currently from commanding a majority of its votes.

10. Hence currently the Executive can remove the legislature, and the legislature (but generally completely controlled by the Executive) can remove the executive.

11. In our modern day ‘quasi-presidential’ system – the vast majority of voters, having no alternative, use the legislative elections as a ‘de facto’ executive election – they may be voting for a named legislator, but it’s frankly a proxy for an executive candidate.

12. Cameron’s innovation will remove the Executive removal power in theory, but a PM’s control of the legislature will normally that removal meaningless. Since he currently controls more than 55% of MPs in coalition, his change would hinder him not a jot.

13. But it mightily interfere’s with the Legislature’s free power to evict his party, because now it’s not enough that Cameron loses his majority – he has to lose 5% MORE than his majority to fall prey to Parlaiment against his will.

14. In short, it reinforces the power of the governing majority, but reduces the power of a dissenting majority!

15. The key problem of course is that the vote for PM should really now be entirely seperate from a vote for the legislators, and then these competing democratic legitimacies don’t arise, and the PM and Parliament can have seperate fixed terms that don’t depend on each other.

(p.s. added advantage, PM could choose Ministers from a pool of talent of the whole country, not just the small pool of legislators)

16. Failing that, simply take the power to dissolve parliament away from the PM himself, but hand it to the Speaker, who can approach HM the Q on behalf of Parliament.

Set up rules that the Speaker can only approach the queen for dissolution if :

1) the present PM loses a vote of confidence (50%+1!!)

2) four weeks have since elapsed (the guillotine)

3) in that period, no person, including the losing PM, has been able to both get a petition of 100 members seeking a person to be elected PM, and have that person succeed in a vote of confidence.

Set it out that in such circumstances, the Speaker will approach HM tQ and advise that no member having the confidence of the house, she should dissolve the house, and that the election will happen on the first Thursday falling at least 4 weeks after the guillotine period expires.

If however, during the Guillotine period, the PM regains the confidence of the house we simply carry on, leaving the queen alone.

If someone ELSE wins that confidence motion, the Speaker shall approach HM tQ, inform her that the original Pm has lost the confidence of the house, and that he believes that the new person enjoys that confidence, and invite HM tQ, in the name of and on behalf of Parliament, to invite that person to kiss hands.

simples.

18 James Medhurst May 14, 2010 at 18:21

I think point 15 hits the nail on the head. We do not have a presidential system which means that the electorate do not have a right to choose the executive. There is no constitutional principle in UK law which says that the electorate should have the right to choose the executive and even less a principle which says that they should be given the illusion that they do.

The legislature chooses the executive and this will continue as it did before. The only thing that will be harder for the legislature to do it to dissolve itself. It is not necessary for Parliament to be accountable to Parliament!
.-= James Medhurst´s last blog ..Protecting pregnant employees =-.

19 Thalia May 30, 2010 at 17:57

Martin,

In brief, your whole proposal to have the Speaker make the decision seems entirely unnecessary, and no improvement. The proposed system will allow everything you’ve outlined there to happen – PM loses a vote of confidence then the govt falls. If no new government can be formed then either parliament will choose to dissolve itself or a guillotine will apply and an election automatically called as in the Scots parliament (this latter point was confirmed in a letter from Cameron that Chris Chope read out in the parliamentary debate on this issue).

So there really is no problem with the proposal as it stands. Parliament will be able to force a new election on a 50%+1 de facto basis, just as it can now. The biggest difference will be that the PM has given up the right to call an election arbitrarily but will need the agreement of the House. I don’t see any reason to switch this power to the Speaker rather than to parliament as a whole.

I’d prefer a higher obstacle to this since the 55% level could in theory allow an election to be called by the coalition (though you are wrong to say Cameron “controls” 55% of the House – he doesn’t control Lib Dems and they might not support a dissolution vote if there were no good reason for one).

But really all the knickers have been got into twists over this issue for no good reason, and the more we hear of the detail the clearer this is.

20 Carl Gardner May 31, 2010 at 03:12

Thalia, if you read my follow-up post you’ll see I do analyse the Scotland Act provisions:

https://www.headoflegal.com/2010/05/13/more-on-55/

If this 55% proposal does contain a Scottish-style safety valve allowing a majority to force an election, good. I think it’s interesting that, when pushed, advocates of the 55% rule do tend in the end to accept that it’s right in principle that, ultimately, a majority that wants an election should have one. But to be honest, I think it’s only pressure that’s forced this on the coalition, because actually a safety valve defeats the original political intention behind the idea, which was precisely to prevent the LibDems making up a majority and forcing an election. Had a safety valve been intended from the beginning, the coalition should have said so, instead of making us wait.

Ian Bowns:

I’m not agitated about our usually not having a government supported by a majority, but I am concerned about it, in fact. I agree it’s a problem (though it doesn’t mean the government is a dictatorship). But how to solve that problem? I don’t think the solution is to pretend a coalition is a government supported by a majority, when it can equally be seen as a government supported by no one at all. The choice is between imperfect systems, not between a bad one and an obviously virtuous one.

21 Carl Gardner May 31, 2010 at 03:17

Thalia, as for my supposed idiocy, cobblers etc., if you think it through, what I said is right, if you have no safety valve (which the government hadn’t conceded when I wrote that, as they seem to have since).

If 54% were incapable of forcing an election, then either a Lab-Lib-Nat-Green rainbow would have to agree a government programme, which they’ve already failed to do once, or else a Conservative minority could indeed rule for years without the confidence of the House. The whole point of the 55% was to prevent an election being the way out of that.

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