Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

A couple of constitutional crises?

With the polls as they have been for the last couple of weeks one thing I have been wondering is what the effect would be if something historic happened and the Lib Dems did not come third in the vote share.

In some polls last week the Lib Dems were actually first. In more recent polls they seem to have settled into second place on average.

I think if the Lib Dems really were to come first but to get less seats than either Labour or the Conservatives (which is perfectly possible under First Past the Post) then this would spark a constitutional crisis. It would mean that the party that had won the election was only awarded third place. I think that would be unsustainable and rightly the public would demand things had to change to sort this out.

Perhaps a more interesting question is what would happen if the Lib Dems were to come second in terms of vote share, but still third in terms of seats (again perfectly possible and indeed probably quite likely) and if they did not enter into a coalition or deal but instead remained in opposition. This is what could happen if the Conservatives got a very small majority or were even a few seats short but decided to go ahead as a minority government perhaps with support from one of the smaller parties.

The question in my mind under this scenario would be which party is the official opposition? Is it Labour who let's say get around 200 seats on say 27% of the vote? Or is it the Lib Dems with let's say 110 seats on 29% of the vote?

I think constitutionally the answer is Labour. They would have the second highest number of seats, therefore they would form the official opposition in terms of parliamentary strength. But hang on a minute, they will have come third! The Lib Dems would have won second place in the country and yet be denied the platform that this result should allow.

Now maybe it is because I am too involved in politics (and am a Lib Dem) that I would perceive this to be an outrage. Maybe it would seem like a minor technicality in the country and most people would just shrug their shoulders. At least the system got the winner right eh, even if second and third are the wrong way round?

I'm not so sure. The British public have a very strong sense of fair play and this will clearly have gone against that. How could Labour lay claim to lead the opposition when more people voted for another opposition party than them? This would be brought up endlessly and commented upon time and again. Every time the Labour leader got 6 questions at PMQs the Lib Dems would be incensed that they only got a third of that number with their leader having to stand at the side holding sheaves of paper without a dispatch box.

I know it might sound petty to complain about this but these things matter. One of the reasons that Nick Clegg managed to blind-side Cameron and Brown in the first leaders' debate is because of how he is treated at PMQs almost as an irrelevance with his 2 questions asked after Cameron has had his 6 and with 500 odd MPs baying at him trying to drown him out. It would not be petty to question the fairness of this continuing under these circumstances.

I wonder what might ultimately happen in this scenario. Our constitution is uncodified and has proved malleable in the past. I wonder if a way would have to be found to accommodate the opposition that had won more vote share than the "official" opposition.

I certainly think just carrying on as if the Lib Dems had come third in the country would not be an option.


Mick Anderson said...

In principle, you're quite right, but the people have relatively little say in the matter. I have a single vote out of up to 76000, which in a safe Tory seat is rather academic.

What I think you're missing is that Westminster is run by politicians for politicians. They see the electorate as an inconvenient irritation.

Certainly the "local" MP gives me the impression of being more interested in a potential Ministerial career than in looking after the constituancy.

Anonymous said...

What this election has clearly exposed is that the current FPTP system is unable to reflect the three-party wishes of the electorate. Labour have belatedly recognised this (although only for their own reasons and, shamefully, thirteen years after they promised a referendum on PR).

The Tories, on the other hand, are terrified. Their 'Invitation to Join the Government of Britain' clearly doesn't extend to the real exercise of power. So much for "Change".

The more people who put their cross next to the Lib Dems next Thursday, the bigger the message sent to those who will be making the decisions after 6th May.

Jennie Rigg said...

1983. This has happened before and will happen again unless we fight like hell. People just shrug and accept it. We don't do revolution in this country.

David Walker said...

think I heard the other day from one of those nutty professors that the LibDems only need to get to 39% and mathematically they would become the largest party under FPTP. May be a bit of a reach to aspire to that but numerically at least that isn't that far way haha. Hears hoping for another surge after Thursday's debate & the polls underestimating the level of support for LibDems - as usual :)

Mark Thompson said...

Jennie. In 1983 the Alliance got 25.4% of the vote and Labour got 27.6% of the vote. That's a clear second place for Labour.

Whilst I don't doubt the thrust of your argument in that it takes a lot to change things in our political system, if the Lib Dems were to come second in vote share this time round it would be the first time it had happened since before the second world war.

I do wonder if this might have more of an effect than you are suggesting, especially after all the focus during the election campaign on the electoral system.

Jennie Rigg said...

25.4 share of the vote, 13 seats. Manifest injustice. Last election the Indy did that "what we voted for - what we got" thing, and everybody said "yes, it's shocking isn't it? Bloody politicians" and shrugged and carried on.

I think you think the general populace cares a lot more than it actually does. This upsurge of interest in politics is only because it looks like somneone posh might get egg on their faces and that would be funny. If that doesn't happen people will just shrug and carry on.

You can call me cynical if you like. I prefer to think of myself as a realist.

Mark Thompson said...

Oh, I'm not denying 1983 was manifest injustice. I'm just saying it was not exactly what I am talking about here.

I think it will be much harder for the political classes to brush off FPTP getting the second and third placed parties wrong.

I think there are quite a few people within the general populace who do care. I have detected a much higher recognition in the last few weeks amongst my non-political friends of how ridiculous it is that for example Labour could come third and still "win" or that the Lib Dems could come first and still be third.

Whilst I worry that I might be wrong and that whatever the outcome on May 6th we all just go back to how things were before I think that you might be underestimating how feeling has shifted in the last few weeks.

Jennie Rigg said...

I'm not saying that people don't recognise that there has been/might be an injustice. I am saying they EXPECT injustice. That's what politics DOES. Why would they be surprised, shocked, and motivated to do something when they are expecting manifest unfairness? All they will do is sit in the pub and piss and moan, same as they always do.

When the expenses scandal was at it's height, there was LOTS of pissing and moaning, but when you asked people what they were going to do, they said "what CAN I do, I'm just one person, there's no point joining a political party, they're all the same" and stuff like that. I'm not underestimating the strength of feeling; you are overestimating the percentage of people foir whom strength of feeling translates to action.

Mark Thompson said...

Well we'll see. It's quite a specific hypothetical situation I have posited which may not happen anyway.

Here's to hoping you are wrong though!

BTW, didn't we have a bet about Lib Dems getting more seats than in 2005? Looks like I will happily lose that!

manwiddicombe said...

Haven't we had a situation since '97 where the Tories got a higher % of the votes but less seats than Labour?

*IF* the result is no overall majority for any party and *if* the Lib Dems do a deal with one of the other two parties to form a coalition then surely the last of the three parties will form the official opposition?

Mark Thompson said...

mw: You might be thinking of England specifically in 2005 where the Tories polled higher than Labour but got fewer seats.

Your last point is of course correct. That's why I specifically said if the Lib Dems remain in opposition.

Jennie Rigg said...

Yes, we did. Sadly, I think it was only a tenner.