If there is no majority after the UK election, is Canada the model?

Most polls in the UK continue to show that the election, expected 6 May, is likely to result in no single party holding a majority of seats. A so-called hung parliament certainly is not something in the recent experience of The Mother of All Parliaments. The prospect is getting a lot of attention in the British media–predictably, most of it not positive. In fact the very term, hung parliament, implies indecision: juries, after all, have failed to render their required dichotomous verdict when they are “hung.”

A minority situation last resulted from a UK election in 1974 (the election of February of that year, which was shortly followed by one in October that produced a narrow Labour majority). It just may happen in 2010. There is even a chance, if the voting result is close, that we could see a reversed plurality: Conservatives will almost certainly have the voting plurality, but they presumably need a lead of several percentage points to win the plurality (let alone a majority) of seats. As John Rentoul notes, that is the “nightmare” for Nick Clegg, leader of the third largest party, the Liberal Democrats.

Clegg has been careful to say that it is the voters, not he or his party, that are the “kingmakers.” He has also been careful not to delcare that he will work with the party that has the most seats, but rather with the party with the “strongest mandate.” In a reversal situation, that would be quite ambiguous indeed.

While no-majority situations have been rare in the UK, they have been rather common in one of the “daughters” of Westminster: Canada. As noted in a recent Globe and Mail article, Canadian experience is being invoked on the British campaign trail. Some campaigners for the big parties are warning of an alleged “nightmare scenario” of “Canadian-style” minority government if there is a “hung” parliament. Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, are touting Canada’s experience with reducing its deficit in the 1990s (to be fair, under majority Liberal governments) as a model. Of course, the not-so-subtle message is that it is a model that Britain would follow only if the Liberal Democrats were in a position to bargain with a minority cabinet and prevent either big party from implementing its own designs.

Not only would a representative parliament–as I prefer to call it–not be a disaster for Britain, it actually could be quite beneficial.

16 thoughts on “If there is no majority after the UK election, is Canada the model?

  1. The states of South Australia (MPV) and Tasmania (STB) are both thought to be heading for the same situation in elections today. As far as I know, no-one in the media here has been xenophobic enough to threaten us with Canadian style. The major party leaders in both states have (of course) been fairly eager to claim that a hung parliament equals chaos.

  2. The reverse plurality is on first preferences only. We will have to wait a couple of days for the distribution of preferences.

  3. @Vasi

    South Australia has a rule designed to prevent reversed pluralities:

    South Australia has a unique electoral system that requires electorate boundaries to be redrawn after each election to ensure that the party winning more than 50 per cent of the state wide two party preferred vote will also win more than 50 per cent of the seats and thus form government. In practical terms the independent Commission that undertakes the redistribution has no alternative but to take the results of the past election as the basis for determining what is likely to produce a ‘fair’ result in four years time.

    I am still waiting for the state electoral commission to post the two party preferred vote.

  4. The Tasmanian Governor has opted to re-appoint the sitting Labor Premier, after the election produced a 10-10-5 split. His Excellency’s tiebreaking criterion – which trumped a Liberal plurality by a 2.1% margin – was not incumbency, but Labor’s greater willingness to kick heads:

    “Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett’s refusal to guarantee not to vote down a minority Liberal government – not the Greens’ support for Labor – clinched Governor Peter Underwood’s decision to re-install the ALP….”

    – Matthew Denholm, “Fury at David Bartlett backflip,” The Weekend Australian (10-11 April 2010).

    This seems to sit rather oddly with Bartlett’s earlier magnanimity in offering to stand aside for a Hodgman minority govt because the Liberals won more first-preference votes. Or maybe it explains the said magnanimity – ie, he wasn’t offering to hand Hodgman a full 4-year term, only a Greineresque 6-12 months of governing under constant threat of a Labor/ Greens NoCoMo.

    The Greens leader, Nick McKim, attacked the Premier for his nolo episcopari: “If Mr Bartlett attempts to abdicate today, it’ll constitute a betrayal of every person who voted Labor.” – “Greens accuse Premier of voter betrayal,” ABC News (7 April 2010). (Because, yeah, we know how much it hurts the Tasmanian Greens to see Labor Premiers forced out office…).

    So I’m curious now to see how the London remake of The Dave & Nick Show will tour in May… Fortunately Britain is blessed with an electoral system that, unlike Tasmania’s, guarantees strong majority government and doesn’t let unrepresentative minor parties with narrow electoral support impose their demands upon the entire parliament.

  5. You know what would be an excellent idea? Have the voters decide who should be the government by using AV. Using sequential preferences is the closest thing to having voters decide on.

  6. The Tasmanian Governor has opted to re-appoint the sitting Labor Premier, after the election produced a 10-10-5 split. His Excellency’s tiebreaking criterion – which trumped a Liberal plurality by a 2.1% margin – was not incumbency, but Labor’s greater willingness to kick heads:

    “Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett’s refusal to guarantee not to vote down a minority Liberal government – not the Greens’ support for Labor – clinched Governor Peter Underwood’s decision to re-install the ALP….”
    – Matthew Denholm, “Fury at David Bartlett backflip,” The Weekend Australian (10-11 April 2010).
    This seems to sit rather oddly with Bartlett’s earlier magnanimity in offering to stand aside for a Hodgman minority govt because the Liberals won more first-preference votes. Or maybe it explains the said magnanimity – ie, he wasn’t offering to hand Hodgman a full 4-year term, only a Greineresque 6-12 months of governing under constant threat of a Labor/ Greens NoCoMo.

    The Greens leader, Nick McKim, attacked the Premier for his nolo episcopari: “If Mr Bartlett attempts to abdicate today, it’ll constitute a betrayal of every person who voted Labor.” – “Greens accuse Premier of voter betrayal,” ABC News (7 April 2010). (Because, yeah, we know how much it hurts the Tasmanian Greens to see Labor Premiers forced out office…).
    So I’m curious now to see how the London remake of The Dave & Nick Show will tour in May… Fortunately Britain is blessed with an electoral system that, unlike Tasmania’s, guarantees strong majority government and doesn’t let unrepresentative minor parties with narrow electoral support impose their demands upon the entire parliament.

  7. First, there are misperceptions about so-called ‘hung’ parliaments and their consequences, no doubt due to lazy reporting by the British media. In the UK the use of this term has a short history. It first appeared in the 1970s as Stuart Wilks-Heeg at the Democratic Audit persuasively argues http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/election/?p=1036
    Second, why do people refer to Canada as a ‘nighmare scenario’ of minority government? The postwar experience of minority governments in Canada under the Liberals in the past and the Conservatives now has been on the whole about moderate politics and balanced government and there is no reason to believe that this would be different in the UK should the Conservatives or Labour fail to get a majority on May 6. That said, the presence of strong regional parties in the Canadian federal multiparty system makes the parallel with the UK system questionable.

    Third, in both countries, however, there are strong reasons for adopting a more efficient and equitable electoral system. This would give voters more power as clearly shown by the Voter Power Index developed by Nic Marks for the New Economics Foundation http://www.voterpower.org.uk/

  8. Tasmania became mildly exciting. The Labor and Liberal leaders agreed that if each major won the same number of seats government would go to the one who received most ‘votes’ by which they meant first preferences. The outgoing Labor premier advised the governor to send for the Liberal opposition leader on the basis of this agreement.

    The governor refused and commissioned Labor to form a government. The governor’s reasons are here. Sadly they are in .doc form but they are still worth reading.

    As a former chief justice and serving governor, Underwood’s opinion is probably a tad more authoritative than some of the more excitable ideas posted the lively discussion of the Canadian prorogation before last.

    Governor Underwood seems to have a somewhat different view of his job than Governor General Jean:

    I also told him [the outgoing Labor premier] that as he was the still the holder of my commission to form a government and the Premier of the State he had a constitutional obligation to form a government so that the Parliament could be called together and the strength of that government tested on the floor of the House of Assembly.

    Calling the parliament together so the strength of the government could be tested seems to have been the last thing on the governor-general’s mind.

  9. I read the Governor’s letter, and it seems that at least some of the Queen’s representatives know exactly what they are doing in relation to a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy.

    Ultimately, and as it should, Parliament should choose a government.

  10. The premier has just invited the state Greens leader into the ministry. If he accepts he will the country’s first Green minister.

  11. ‘[The Liberal Democrats] after all, have suffered from a kind of collective action problem: there are plenty of people who’d be happy to consider them only if they could be sure that sufficient numbers of other people were also prepared to endorse the third party. Absent that assurance it’s just a wasted vote. Well maybe not anymore…’

    – Alex Massie, “So, Britain, What the Hell is Going On?”, The Spectator blog (19 April 2010).

  12. And just to liven things up… a candidate inadvertently Stonehouses himself:

    ‘The Scottish Liberal Democrats suffered an embarrassing setback yesterday in their fight to win a key marginal seat after it emerged that the party’s candidate is in Australia for a three-week holiday. Tim McKay, who is attempting to unseat Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, in his Edinburgh South West constituency left the country shortly before Gordon Brown called the election, and is expected to return just two weeks before polling day on May 6…’

    – Angus Macleod, “Lib Dem candidate disappears Down Under,” The Times (16 April 2010).

  13. Judging by the latest OpEd in the Globe and Mail, Canada’s not a great place to look for meaningful reform. The argument appears to be that Canada is insufficiently majoritarian (!?), because without a parliamentary majority, no party has authentic legitimacy. Somebody better tell the Germans that they haven’t had a single legitimate party in sixty years.

    (Don’t even get me started on the rest of the article, which includes the ludicrous claim that the US Electoral College is an ingenious way to provide true legitimacy. If this is the best thinking Canada can provide on electoral systems…)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s