Thursday, May 13, 2010

The 55% rule

For the record, this was Southsea Expat's comment on Iain Dale's Diary:
The requirement for a no confidence motion to bring down the Government will remain 50% +1. The new 55% requirement is for a vote to bring about the dissolution of Parliament — a completely separate thing. It is standard practice in other countries which have fixed term parliaments — to prevent the party in power from getting round the fixed term by voting against itself and thus bringing about an election at an advantageous time of its own choosing. So it is a necessary part of the move to a fixed term parliament. Under the proposed new system the government could lose a confidence vote if 50% +1 voted against them. The Prime Minister would then have to resign and the Queen could invite the leader of another party to form a government. What the Prime Minister could not do would be to use a no confidence vote to trigger a general election. The actual dissolution of Parliament would require a 55% vote. This paper from the Constitution Unit at University College London explains the issue. You will see that the Liberal Democrat Manifesto pledged to
introduce fixed-term parliaments to ensure that the Prime Minister of the day cannot change the date of an election to suit themselves
whilst the Conservative manifesto pledged to make
the Royal Prerogative subject to greater democratic control so that Parliament is properly involved.
Since the Labour manifesto also contained a pledge to bring in fixed term parliaments, I am not sure why any of the parties are getting so upset about this.
All of that is fair; and above board. Except:

The 55% rule

There are (nominally: the following assumes Thirsk & Malton votes Tory) 650 seats. the outcome was:
  • Conservative: 306
  • Labour: 258
  • Lib Dem: 57
  • Democratic Unionist: 8
  • SNP: 6
  • Sinn Féin: 5
  • Plaid Cymru: 3
  • Social Democratic and Labour: 3
  • Alliance: 1
  • Green: 1
  • Independent Unionist: 1
  • The Speaker: 1
Now: 55% of that ConDemLib majority is:
(306 + 57) = 363
Whereas 55% of the Commons is:
357.5
So 358, curiously enough, is about the only round number which would guarantee a ConDem majority against all eventualities. In effect, the ConDem government is reckoning to lose just half-a-dozen by-elections in a five-year parliament. [See below.]

Were there more losses, or a few defections, would the 55% rule be suddenly adjusted upwards?

Bottom line:

There are two different issues here:
  1. does an administration have the confidence of the House of Commons?
  2. does the lack of confidence require the government to renew its mandate by seeking a popular vote?
Until this moment, those have been regarded as inseparable. This coalition seeks to perpetuate itself, for an unconscionable five years, by separating the two.

For a start, five years is above the normal quota: in practice in the UK, by legislation pretty well everywhere else. Four years (as for the devolved Assemblies) might, just might be more reasonable.

Consider that fifth year: a lame-duck parliament. It is in the interest of every non-government party, for sheer electoral reasons, to vote solidly against the administration. "Pairings" and other arrangements would go by the board. Many of those votes will be lost by the administration. In effect, for a year, the government is by that 55% rule.

Any, and every government is, to some extent, a coalition. Some are explicit. Others, even most, are not. This one, against all tradition is trying to impose a rule which suits only itself.

That is the breach of democratic principle involved. Sphere: Related Content

7 comments:

Southsea Expat said...

Sorry, Malcolm, I'm afraid you are still not getting it. 55% is NOT the figure required to bring the government down. The government will lose power if it loses a vote of confidence by 50% +1. The 55% relates to whether parliament can be dissolved before the end of the fixed term. The government and parliament are not the same thing. In a fixed term parliament, the fall of the government does not mean the end of the parliament. If an alternative grouping of MPs can command the necessary 50% +1 votes to survive a vote of confidence then they can form a new government from members of the existing parliament. The 55% rule is not designed to keep the government in power - quite the opposite. It is designed to stop the government dissolving parliament, for reasons of electoral advantage, before the parliament reaches the end of its fixed term. At present the Prime Minister can ask the Queen to dissolve parliament at a time of his own choosing, without the need to obtain the approval of parliament or even of his own Cabinet. Under the proposed new system he could not do so and would have to get a 55% majority in parliament. It is thus a transfer of power from one person - the Prime Minister - to the whole of parliament. As such it is MORE democratic, not less. You may find it helpful to read the briefing paper on the subject of fixed term parliaments prepared by House of Commons staff in November 2007: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-00831.pdf . Also the April 2010 briefing paper on dissolution of parliaments at: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-05085.pdf . Pages 5 to 9 cover the "Governance of Britain" green paper proposals on dissolution. Note that the Green Paper states : "The new process would have no implications for the traditional right of the Opposition parties to table 'no confidence' motions. Were such a no confidence motion to be passed, the Prime Minister would in future be obliged to resign (and advise the Sovereign to call for someone else to form an administration) or propose a dissolution motion. In the unlikely event that the Prime Minister proposed a dissolution motion and lost it, the House would in effect have signalled that it believed another administration could be formed without an election." Incidentally, I am not necessarily in favour of the change to fixed term parliaments, just trying to clarify what the 55% is about as it has been so widely misunderstood.

Malcolm Redfellow said...

Alas: I am "getting it".

Equally, I am aware that The government and parliament are not the same thing.

I am fully conscious of the right of a PM to access the royal prerogative. I am also aware that prerogative cannot be abolished by a simple vote of the Commons, much less by a piece of paper.

I am all in favour of any further reduction of the medieval powers of the Crown, and transferring them to parliament.

Suddenly, out of the blue, the famously-unwritten British constitution gets just one written clause. It is, in Carl Gardner's words, Constitutional whimmery.

What this 55%-nonsense does not do is extend the powers of the whole Commons: it reinforces power in the hands of a duopoly: the PM and DPM. It grants them the right to over-ride any no-confidence vote.

By the accretion of an extra MP or two, by a stroke of a pen, all is sweetness-and-light. Say, for the sake of argument, Naomi Long "joins" the LibDems, in the way that the Alliance Party tried to get themselves reclassified as "Unionists" in the Assembly, all the no-confidence votes are as nothing. We've a renewed administration. This is serial political adultery. Any residual powers of the Commons to check the executive have been further neutered.

You still fail to address the issues of why five-years should be the term of a future parliament, and why this magic 55% is the proper number. As of last week a parliament lasted a maximum of five years: now that become the norm. It seems to me that the intent is a blatant power grab, to extend the life of a parliament, pure and simple.

I never though I'd agree with the Daily Mail, but Gerri Peev's article also nails much of the issues.

So this small voice is now affiliated to No to 55.

Southsea Expat said...

No, Malcolm, the 55% does NOT "reinforce power in the hands of a duopoly: the PM and DPM". It does NOT "grant them the right to over-ride any no-confidence vote". If they lose a 50% +1 no confidence vote they will be out of office, just as is the case at present. The Queen will then call on the opposition (who by definition do have 50% +1 votes, since they've just brought the government down) to form a new government. If no-one can form a government, parliament will be dissolved, just as happens at present. The Queen will retain her prerogative power to do that.

I understand why you are upset about this - on first reading the proposal I was also outraged but, after further research, I realised I had misunderstood what was proposed.

As to your othe points, all sorts of aspects of our constitution are already written down in legislation and this particular issue will be part of wider legislation covering all aspects of the change to fixed term parliaments. Given the way that Labour have played fast and loose with the constitution over the past 13 years, I now think there is a good case to be argued for our adopting a written constitution but I'm open to being persuaded otherwise.

I did not address the issues of why 5 years should be the term of a future parliament, and why 55% is the proper number because I am agnostic on both points. The Scottish Parliament & Welsh Assembly both have 4 year fixed terms and a 66% vote requirement for them to be dissolved early. No doubt there will be much debate about each figure. Indeed, I am agnostic about the whole issue of moving to a fixed term parliament and wait to be peruaded by the arguments on either side. At present, the widespread misunderstanding of the 55% figure (cynically exploited by Jack Straw, who well understands that it is NOT a change to the figure required to bring a government down) is getting in the way of that wider debate we should be having.

Malcolm Redfellow said...

That last explanation falls down on the comparison with the devolved Assemblies.

There the context is different because:

1. They are elected on a form of PR (not the best version, but specifically intended not to encourage a majority administration);

and

2. Everybody knew the rules beforehand.

If I'm allowed an analogy, before the second over is bowled, the umpires are declaring the leg-before-wicket rule null-and-void.

Southsea Expat said...

The intention is to distinguish between an opposition confidence motion to bring down a government (50%) and a government dissolution for its own advantage (55%).

You may not believe me but perhaps you will believe the Constitution Unit at UCL: http://bit.ly/9Z8TJN

The LBW rule still stands - it is NOT null and void. But now there will be a new rule preventing the batsman from running himself out, thus bringing his own team's innings to an end, and forcing the other side to go in to bat half an hour before dusk, with the light fading, a new ball and a dodgy wicket.

Howzat?

Malcolm Redfellow said...

A quickie (I'm under the cosh here):

1. I've seen the UCL paper.

2. Just because the LibDems cannot and, understandably, do not trust the given word of a Tory PM does not justify a major constitutional change.

3. The 55% rule, far from diminishing the royal prerogative (a good thing), increases the power of the executive over the legislature (a bad thing).

4. The 55% rule is far more constitutionally significant than the largely-cosmetic shift to AV voting. A referendum is promised on one, but the other is a stitch-up between eight men in a (presumably smokeless) back-room, and goes through on the nod.

5. Since Cameron has, for now, 47% of the MPs, one can easily see the attraction that lock gives him. Nasty stuff.

6. As I've suggested in a parallel post, the combination of 55% and five-year term overthrows the Asquith obiter dictum at the time of the 1911 Act.

Time presses.

Southsea Expat said...

OK. I give up. If you can say this: "The 55% rule, far from diminishing the royal prerogative (a good thing), increases the power of the executive over the legislature (a bad thing." then it is clear that you have not understood a word of what I have been saying: the opposition can get rid of the government by a 50% vote. The government cannot get rid of itself without a 55% vote. Hopefully the light will dawn eventually.

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