08 May, 2010

Only Fools and Horse Traders

The result of the British general election brings up some fascinating questions – some old, some new, and some that are only new to certain countries.

Opponents of proportional representation, which is the method advocated as the fair alternative to the archaic first-past-the-post system, say that the problem with PR is that it always leads to hung parliaments and horse-trading between parties in order to form a workable government.  But as David Dimbleby mentioned, what they have ended up with under the existing system is a hung parliament and horse trading between parties.  So if there have to be negotiations between parties to form a government, why not have a more democratic, more representative version of it?  Discuss.

The Conservatives say they have the moral right to attempt to form government since they have the greatest number of seats of any party and the greatest primary vote of any party.  Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg said before the election that the party with the most seats deserved to form government, and he kept that position on Friday morning.  However, the constitution doesn’t mention moral right.  Constitutionally, the sitting prime minister has first dibs on forming a government in the event that his government has not been defeated outright.  Jeremy Paxman confronted a Conservative with the irony that the Tories, in asserting the moral right to govern, are in effect, trying to subvert the constitution.  Discuss.

So everyone now wants to woo Clegg and the Lib-Dems.  Some thought that the Tories would never abide a coalition but by Friday morning, David Cameron was making a public offer of partnership that was so flattering and seductive that I swear I almost heard a Barry White record playing in the background.  By comparison, Gordon Brown’s equivalent offer sounded more like, “You know, if your date with David doesn’t work out, maybe we could hook up for coffee later or something?”  In fact, Brown is doing the honourable thing by waiting on the outcome of talks between the Tories and Lib-Dems when he has the constitutional right to make the first offer.  Discuss.

Contrary to all predictions, support for the Liberal Democrats dropped this election with the party losing five seats, yet their power and influence over the next government has increased enormously.  Is this democratic?  Discuss.

However, if we’re going to talk about the moral right, we ought to look at a few other things.  While the Conservatives polled the highest of any single party, with 36% of the overall vote, an outright majority of 52% voted for one of the two centre-left parties. Source  Where does that leave the moral right to govern?  Discuss.

But then, an alliance of Conservative and Liberal Democrat would provide a good working majority of 363 – probably enough to absorb disgruntled members of either party who refuse to work with the other.  Even if the Lib-Dems support Labour, their combined numbers would still fall 11 short of a parliamentary majority. Labour would have to make deals with the Scottish Nationalists, and Sinn Fein to make up those numbers, and probably Plaid Cymru and the Social Democratic & Labour Party just to have some wriggle room.  (I’m assuming that a coalition between Labour and the Democratic Unionist Party is out of the question, but I could be wrong.)

It could be suggested that this is how parliaments are supposed to work all the time.  In principle, the parliament IS the government.  Parties are a more recent idea.  The so-called horse trading we are seeing in Britain and saw in Tasmania last month is what parliaments are supposed to do, with all members discussing the most acceptable way forward.  Discuss.

There are many countries where this is the norm, and with every election, various parties negotiate with each other to decide who will form government and which policies will be adopted or jettisoned in the process.  In these cases, it’s not always the party with the most seats that ends up governing.  Such horse trading is often the case even in the US, where the two party system is still going strong.  There is no assumption that Republicans or Democrats will always vote with the party, and so every bill has to be negotiated rather than passed along party lines.  We have seen how difficult it has been for Obama to enact the policies he convincingly won the election with, even with a majority in congress and, briefly, a supermajority in the senate. 
It is the opposition’s right and duty to oppose any legislation that it feels is not in the national interest, regardless of any public mandate.  Discuss.

It’s clear that many people vote strategically, because they don’t want to endorse the entire manifesto of any one party.  I have never voted for the same party in both the lower and upper houses for the very reason that there needs to be review.  Kim Beazley made a brave statement that almost worked for him in 1998.  That was the election that John Howard went to with the promise of a GST (a policy which he had claimed was dead and buried three years earlier).  Beazley announced that if the Liberals won the election, Labor would not block a GST in the Senate.  In other words, don’t vote Liberal expecting Labor to block the bits you don’t like – if you vote for it, that’s what you’ll get.  As it turned out, Labor won the popular primary vote that year, but not the election.  Howard still claimed a mandate.
The elected government has the right to enact its agenda unimpeded.  Discuss.

I think what it becoming clear is that voters no longer want to give a mandate to any one party or set of policies.  There is debate in the US about whether the president should have the power of “line item veto” rather than only being able to sign a bill or reject it outright.  I think voters want that kind of line item veto on party policies too, which is why we are seeing tighter and tighter election results, forcing all sides to compromise.  I kind of suspect the outcome will be a minority Conservative government, without backing from third parties, and that has to negotiate through all its major legislation. 

Regardless of who forms government and what constitutes the opposition in the UK, there’s no telling at the moment which policies will survive and which will be compromised.  There are some people, including Tory supporters, saying that a coalition of Conservative and Liberal Democrat would be the best of both worlds – Conservative management tempered by Lib-Dem sensibilities.  But how would that be different from the status quo?
Conservative + Liberal Democrat = Labour.


  1. Love the post title :-)

    Interesting post, I think part of the problem is there just isn't enough policy difference between the major parties in most western countries at the moment.

    People want things to be different in theory, but still want to be able to buy their plasma's, send their kids to private school, own their own home, dine out, buy designer clothes and take nice holidays.

    While this need to growth continues and we want to maintain our lifestyles, political parties will do their best to maintain the status quo, despite what this may mean for the long term future.

    In Australia the reality is who you vote for makes very little differnce as the fundamentals for both parties are really not that different.

    And I think it's similar for the UK and US

  2. I think you're right. Certainly here, the main differences between the two are the hobby-horse policies. The Libs had industrial relations, Labor has education. There's a fair bit of consensus on the day-to-day stuff. And when it comes to things like interest rates, all serious financial commentators (and David Koche) say that it doesn't matter a monkey's who is in power, interest rates do their own thing.

    The big difference I see between the two parties in Australia is that those on the more conservative side tend to pitch themselves squarely at their base, while those on the more progressive side try so hard to appeal to the other side that they end up abandoning their traditional supporters and it often ends up a net loss. Kevin certainly hasn't won a single vote by trying to be Liberal-lite these last couple of weeks.

  3. This election was as predictable as all UK elections. The new PM is the same guy everybody thought would be PM and Clegg is in his coalition. Where's somebody as exciting as Bush when you need him?

    We always have a coalition government and we don't vote your way or the UK way.

    The American president can easily be a member of the minority party and he doesn't need the majority of votes to win.

    Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California by winning less than 50% of the votes of less than 50% of the people who voted. And usually only about 50% of the people vote.

    Show me a country that's truly democratic.

  4. I think before we can even discuss that, we have to decide what a democracy is. Is it active participation in governing the country at all times? Or is it enough to have, as most of us do, something more akin to an elective dictatorship where we elect the government and leave the rest up to them for the next 3 to 5 years?

    I've never seen a system that doesn't have some flaws, but I would definitely say some are better than others. California is a great example. The idea that the people could come together and sack the governor is great. However, there were 20 candidates in the election that followed, which meant that Arnie could have won with as little as 10% of the vote.