Nothing changes… The graph above shows the “majorities” achieved by “winning” parties in general elections since 1945. I use quote marks because occasionally they’re not majorities at all, and the victory is far from clear. Two of the past eighteen elections have failed to deliver majority government: the last one, of course, and the one held in February 1974. Yet a further five elections have yielded slim majorities of around 20 seats or fewer. The situation we face this year isn’t entirely new.
…everything stays the same. What the graph doesn’t show is circumstances outside of general elections. Sometimes these circumstances lead to majorities, as when the Conservatives negotiated their way into the current Coalition with the Lib Dems. But they can also create minorities. Before John Major went to the polls in 1997, his party had already been whittled down by a series of defections, resignations and by-elections. He actually became the leader of a minority government in December 1996. Again, this country has experienced finely-balanced Parliaments more frequently – and more recently – than some coverage suggests.
Or does it? Another thing the graph doesn’t show is the breakdown of two-party politics. Thanks largely to the electoral system, this fragmentation hasn’t been as great as it might have been – but it certainly has an effect in the margins where close elections take place. After the first election of 1974 there were nine parties in Parliament other than Labour and the Conservatives. Yet the largest of these, the Liberals, had only 14 seats. This left Labour’s Harold Wilson without enough raw material to create a Coalition, so he didn’t. Whereas, in 2010, David Cameron had the benefit of a 57-seat-stong bloc of Lib Dems to reach a 78-seat majority overall. There should be similar options for whoever wins the next election.
The big difference. What Harold Wilson could count on in 1974, however, was his own ability to call another general election – which he did, winning a three-seat majority later that year. Now that prerogative has been more or less withdrawn from Prime Ministers, thanks to the Fixed Terms Parliament Act of 2011. Its provisions are worth repeating ahead of May and its aftermath. An election can only take place before five years if i) the Government loses a vote of no confidence, and another Government isn’t formed within 14 days, or ii) two-thirds of the House votes to hold an election.
Uncertain certainty, certain uncertainty. If no party wins a majority in May, the Damoclean provisions of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act will encourage them to find stable coalitions or at least confidence and supply arrangements. That is the certainty encoded within the legislation. But there’s also plenty of uncertainty within it. If the largest party couldn’t form a stable government, would the challenging parties be able to form an alternative? Would they risk incurring another election and its associated costs? And just who would lead the country in between? The executive cleanliness of the Wilson years has given way to Parliamentary messiness. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, but it sure does show how our knotty constitution is getting knottier.