At election time, the news media does a terrible job of explaining how it all works. Since so much of what we watch on the TV or read in the papers is ultimately designed to keep us passively satisfied, prejudiced, woefully ill-informed consumer-drones rather than encourage us to be active critically-thinking citizens, that’s not really surprising.
Most of us have a vague understanding of how an election produces a government. You vote locally for which person you want/dislike the least to be your MP, and somewhere along the line that helps determines which man in a tie off the telly becomes Prime Minister. But beyond that, for a lot of people the system is fairly baffling.
So, to fulfil our non-existent public service remit – a ridiculously short guide to the perplexed.
Political parties have policies. Changes they want to make to how the country works. Abolish tuition fees, raise or lower taxes, replace primary education with Chucklevision repeats, whatever. But to get those policies put into action, they have to be made into law. And to pass a law, you have to get Parliament to agree to it.
Parliament votes on all proposed new laws (or bills, as they’re known). The MPs we’ve all elected – or at least the ones who’ve bothered to turn up that day – can vote for a new bit of legislation, against it, or, for a stunning variety of cowardly reasons, abstain. If more MPs vote for it than against it, a bill becomes law, and the civil service has to go away and make it happen.
That’s the simplified version. In actuality, the bill has to jump through all kinds of legislative hoops before facing the final yes or no – it gets examined by committees, tweaked and amended, yo-yoed back and forth between the Commons and the unelected House of Lords – but in the end, it all comes down to maths. Of the MPs in the House of Commons, who’s for it and who’s against it.
‘The government’ is really just the political party in the best position to gets its policies made into law. And that almost always means the party with the most MPs in the House of Commons. The leader of that party becomes the Prime Minister, and other leading party figures become Cabinet ministers.
But to be a truly effective government, just having more MPs than the other major party isn’t enough. You need to have what’s called a ‘majority’ – more than half the total number of seats in the House of Commons, so that other parties can’t gang up and block the laws you make.
In 1997, for example, Tony Blair’s Labour Party won 418 or the 659 seats in the House of Commons. That meant that even if the Tories, the Lib Dems and every other non-Labour MP in Parliament ganged up to try and stop government policy being made into law, they still wouldn’t be able to. Blair had 179 more MPs than he needed to win Commons votes, the biggest majority a Labour government had ever had. Blair was essentially an elected dictator (and proceeded to do fuck all with that huge, transformative power, but that’s another story).
Our electoral system, First Past the Post, has traditionally been very good at producing that kind of majority government. Despite only winning 43% of the vote, New Labour ended up with 63% of the seats in Parliament thanks to its distorting effects.
But last time around, in 2010, mainstream politics was so monumentally unpopular that for the first time in decades, no one party got enough seats to govern as a majority government, even under First Past the Post. The Tories won the most seats – 306 – but not enough to stop Labour, the Lib Dems, and myriad smaller parties voting to block the laws they tried to pass.
Which, as it always does in a country completely un-used to this kind of outcome, resulted in somewhat of a constitutional pickle. Minority governments are powerless if their opponents decide to make trouble.
There are two alternatives – three if you count political deadlock, inevitably followed shortly after by another election.
One, more than one party can join forces to form a coalition government. That’s what happened in 2010. Together, the Tories and the Lib Dems had enough seats to have a majority. The two parties made a deal – if the Tories would let the Lib Dems pass some of their policies, the Lib Dems would let the Tories pass most of theirs. Tory leader David Cameron would be Prime Minister, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg would be Deputy Prime Minister, and the Cabinet would be filled by senior figures from both parties.
Two, the largest party rules as a minority government – but does deals with other parties in parliament, or even individual MPs, to get them to vote government policy into law. This isn’t as formal or binding an arrangement as a coalition. If this had happened in 2010, Cameron would’ve been Prime Minister, and all his Cabinet ministers would’ve been Tories. And rather than having to sign up to a whole raft of Tory policies, Clegg and the Lib Dems – and any other groups the Tories might have tried to get to support them, like Northern Ireland’s right-wing DUP – could pick and choose which issues they supported the government on, and which ones they didn’t.
Coalitions are undoubtedly hard work – but not as hard as running an effective minority government. That’s why, in our view, Clegg and the Lib Dems should’ve stayed out of government and made life as hard as possible for the Tories. Before they even considered voting through any Tory legislation, they should’ve insisted it was so watered down that it wasn’t recognisably Tory any more – and in that way, could’ve ensured Cameron’s time in office was less socially damaging than Tony Blair’s was.
They didn’t, of course, and we’ve been left in the mess we find ourselves in 2015. What kind of mess we’ll find ourselves in come May 2020 largely depends on what happens next week.