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On the possibility of unrepresentative government

A brief history and explanation of the coalition proposed 55% voting threshold for the dissolution of parliament

Much has been said of Liberal Democrat – Conservative coalition plans to make the dissolution of Parliament subject to a 55% threshold majority vote. Much of that comment, assertion and politicking has been misleading. To begin at the beginning, on 11 May 2010, the coalition partners reached agreement on establishing five-year fixed-term parliaments and legislation that will “provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour”1. Initial responses to this proposal varied from cautious concern to outright condemnation. There was no unqualified praise.

Within hours of the coalition plan becoming public an article appeared on the law pages of ‘The Times’ describing what it saw as the raising of the bar of a parliamentary no confidence vote against the government from the conventional 50% simple majority level to 55% as “dangerous” and “a major and fundamental alteration in our constitution”, which opened the way to Governments to protect themselves by legislating for whatever percentage vote they deemed necessary to maintain power.2

‘The Guardian’, sallying forth the following day, reassured readers that the 55% rule was a legitimate coalition stabiliser. The 55% threshold vote only referred to providing a vote for the dissolution of Parliament and thus the subsequent calling of a general election. It wouldn’t stop the passing of a conventional no confidence vote and thus the normal fall of a defeated government.3

On the same day as ‘The Guardian’, a blog on ‘Liberal Democratic Voice’ pointed out that, under current convention, a government falls if it loses a vote of no confidence and, if no other government seems feasible, the prime minister asks the Queen to dissolve parliament and thus bring about a general election. The implication again being that all was well.4

Neither ‘The Guardian’ nor ‘Liberal Democratic Voice’ considered if, under the proposed new rules, the prime minister might require a 55% vote against the government before asking the Queen for dissolution.

Naturally, the discussion outlined above was only a part of the debate, indeed uproar, as all manner of nuances and conflicting perspectives on the meaning and significance of a 55% dissolution threshold and its possible political motivations were enunciated.

The coalition, in the form of Conservative Oliver Letwin and Liberal Democrat Danny Alexander, writing in ‘The Guardian’ on 16 May, explained, presumably as part of an attempt to clarify and promote their position on the matter, why they want the system for dissolving parliament to change.5 Two paragraphs are particularly revealing:

“But even in the event of a fixed-term parliament, a suspicion remains – that one party or another could pull the plug and force an early election. That's why in other countries where there is a fixed-term parliament there are mechanisms in place to ensure it cannot be abandoned early. By setting the bar high enough, you can prevent parties from forcing an election when it is politically convenient.

In Scotland, for example, parliament can be dissolved only if two thirds of the members vote for it – a mechanism created by Labour. We have decided that 66% is too high, and instead have opted for 55% – the right threshold to give the stability we need.”

Taking the second paragraph first, it seems clear that the coalition intends that the only route to early dissolution will be through a vote, either a vote on a no confidence motion or a vote on a specific dissolution resolution, that requires more than a simple majority, specifically 55% or more. Noting both paragraphs, one has to question why 55% and not two-thirds or some other figure.

If the only route to dissolution is to become a 55% vote then the prime minister will not be permitted to ask the Queen for a dissolution of parliament on the loss of a confidence vote unless that loss is at the 55% level. It might be that an alternative government could arise from within parliament, the constitutional convention here is now rendered unclear, but the continuance in power of a minority and unrepresentative government that neither commands the confidence of the House of Commons nor is able to marshal the requisite majority to pass legislation must be a possibility. Governments have considerable power and do not necessarily need to pass legislation in order to survive or even govern effectively.

Why choose a dissolution threshold of 55%? There are 650 seats in Parliament and the current political makeup is Conservatives 306 (47.1%), Liberal Democrats 57 (8.8%), Labour 258 (39.7%) and Others 28 (4.3%) with one seat (0.15%) awaiting the result of a yet to be held election. If the Liberal Democrats were to desert the coalition, surely a Conservative fear, then it will not be possible to force from power a remaining minority Conservative government which holds 47% plus of the votes; the combined vote of all the other parties so being less than 55%. On the other hand, the coalition vote is a little over 55% and it would therefore be able to engineer a dissolution vote in order to force an election at a time of its choosing, thus prematurely terminating a nominally fixed-term parliament, to its potential electoral advantage. In short, the 55% figure can reasonably be seen as having been carefully chosen to entrench the coalition whilst retaining the power to dissolve parliament at a mutually convenient time against a backstop of the survival of a minority Conservative government.

The Scottish parliamentary system, which the coalition appears to have drawn on for its outline reform model, has a 28-day time limit for the formation of a new government after the fall an existing government through a conventional simple majority no confidence vote. If the formation of a government proves impossible then parliament is dissolved and an election takes place. The current coalition agreement proposals lack this necessary safeguard against possible deadlock or the continuation in power of a government that lacks the support of parliament.

The coalition initial agreement of 11 May 2010 was produced in difficult circumstances. Its plans for political reform will inevitably be refined. There are advantages to fixed-term parliaments6, but these advantages must not be out-weighed by the risk of unwarranted early terminations of parliament or the possibility of governments that have lost the confidence of parliament improperly retaining their power. The coalition must ensure that it does not place itself above the country.

1 Conservative - Liberal Democrat coalition negotiations agreements (of 11 May 2010)

2 Plans for fixed-term Parliaments "not credible" and "dangerous" - says law expert

3 The 55% rule? It shouldn't scare voters

4 Confusion reigns over 55% – the reality is rather different

5 We want the 55% rule because Britain needs stable government

6 Fixed Term: The Campaign for Fixed Term Parliaments

(This article was first published on 19 May 2010, without the references, on the Accidental Activist! blog.)

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