2007 - 2022

Large Parties, Low Majorities and Bad Logic

jim_1827016cBy John S Warren

On BBC Radio Scotland, ‘Good Morning Scotland’ (30th March) James Murphy MP, the ‘Scottish Labour’ Leader recycled two strangely obtuse, befuddled propositions as “facts”.

The first proposition was that the largest party in the House of Commons forms the government after a general election. In fact (as Mr Murphy confusingly also seems to know), this is quite simply false; constitutionally the British system is as simple and effective as it is crude; whoever commands a majority of votes in the House of Commons (single party, coalition, mere understanding; but whomsoever carries the vote) forms the government.

The Westminster system is what the great, and still most cited British constitutional lawyer of the last century and more, AV Dicey (1835-1922), described in “England’s Case Against Home Rule” (Irish Home Rule), as a form of absolutism:

“The sovereignty of Parliament is like the sovereignty of the Czar. It is like all sovereignty at bottom, nothing else but unlimited power;” (‘England’s Case Against Home Rule’ Ch.VII, p.169)”.

In the same work, however he gave short shrift to those who saw the activities of the parliamentary Parnellite Home Rulers, as somehow undermining of Parliament, or an intolerable burden on its operation.

Dicey dismissed the so-called burden of a strong minority Irish Home Rule group in the House of Commons as a mere inconvenience (like toothache); the burden was precisely what Parliament was there to manage, not to look for other methods to eliminate it: and the remedy, if one was required, was simple, direct and was already avaliable to “the English people”:

“By giving to either of the great parties an absolute majority they can terminate all the inconveniences threatened by Parnellite obstruction” (‘England’s Case Against Home Rule’ Ch.IV, p.126).

Of course, if the electorate choose not to provide one of the large parties with an “absolute” (note the weight of the word) majority, then we may all reasonably draw the conclusion that the people, in their wisdom, are not sufficiently persuaded that any party may be trusted with the power which an absolute majority confers: this is a process that is best called British ‘democracy’ in action, as well as an example of the functioning of the British Constitution as long-established. Incidentally it is quit clear that in Dicey’s specific context ‘English’ here includes the Scottish people, of whom he was fully aware.

Even Mr Murphy does not appear to believe that the largest single party necessarily forms the government; for his second argument perversely concedes the whole case he has just challenged, by asking when the last Westminster government was formed by a party that was not the largest; his answer is 1924.

For those with a poor grasp of dates, 1924 is not never. 1924 does not mean never again; the rules have not changed. It is quite alarming that Mr Murphy is prepared to present a case that is quite so transparently self-contradictory. Is this an example of how we may expect any government in which Mr Murphy, or Scottish Labour are represented, intend to ‘use’ the rules of logic to inform their decision-making? I hope not, but I am not reassured.

Notice that what Mr Murphy is actually attempting to do is suggest that logic bends over time. The largest parties do not always form the Government, but the last time this happened was 1924; this was a very long time ago, so somehow it does not count. Somehow the rules have changed by a process presumably of natural aging: only the rules haven’t changed. Mr Murphy, who (I confess) often seems to me confused or bemused; has confused time with circumstance.

The largest party does not automatically form the government under specific sets of electoral circumstances, which do not happen frequently; but this frequency is purely a function of political contingency, not necessity. Given the right circumstances – quite probably in 2015 – it will happen again.

There are deep ironies in Mr Murphy’s argument. It appears that electoral support for Labour in Scotland is completely disintegrating, if the polls are accurate. We shall see. The reason for the forecast collapse in the number of Labour MPs returned after the election, however is not solely a function of rising SNP support alone, but the way the Westminster voting system ratchets the results.

The FPTP Westminster system over-rewards tipping-points when support threshholds are crossed and high voting hurdles are unexpectedly cleared. Labour has long defended FPTP in Westminster because they thought it was in their electoral interests to do so, principally to defend the ‘two-party’ system, but more recently because given the overall Labour vote in Scotland and its concentration, even within broad limits it provided a high hurdle that the SNP could never be expected to clear in order to return a large number of MPs; and this would somehow persist forever, in Labour’s endless summer of entitlement, however dim, lazy, complacent, self-serving or incompetent Labour became in Scotland; and now they are suddenly faced with being hoist by their own petard.

So be it. This speaks only to the long-term, profound inadequacy of the Labour Party – both the people who run it, and the institution. We heard the same old incoherent, insipid, jam-tomorrow story again this morning. There is little more to be said.

Comments (22)

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  1. DR says:

    Lovely, and timely. Thank you!

  2. George Sutherland says:

    Why did we have to wait for nearly a week after the 2010 election for Mr Brown to decide that he could not form a government given that Labour was not the largest party. It was only after he (or Labour) decided that he could not form a coalition with the LibDems – and Scottish Labour were not prepared to work with the SNP – that Mr Brown eventually stood down. This resulted in a Tory government even though there was a majority of non-Tory MPs

  3. aranciaca says:

    Just a thought – for my Dad (still going strong at 92), 1924 was within his lifetime. So, it’s not that long ago.

    1. maxi kerr says:

      Aranciaca, you are correct. My mother (93) is in that same time frame. She was a spitfire maintenance crew member during the war and she can’t believe what these people at Westminster have been doing to ordinairy people especially us Scots since the war ended.

  4. Will McEwan says:

    It should be pointed out that Labour got more seats than the Tories in 1955 but a coalition of Tories, National Liberals ,Scottish Unionists and Ulster Unionists formed the government and that Gordon Brown,in 2010 with fewer seats than the Tories tried to form a Government but refused a coalition that included the SNP which prevented him succeeding.

  5. andrew>reid says:

    UK/Westminster Minority Government – Constitutional Position

    BBC World at One – 30 March 2015
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05nt09f#auto – 34m. 55s.

    Interview by presenter: Martha Kearney

    Martha Kearney: “The Times and Independent are reporting today that the Labour Party is meeting legal and constitutional experts, because it is worried that David Cameron could try to stay on as Prime Minister for as long as a month after the election if no party wins an overall majority.

    Peter Riddell is the Director of the Institute for Government – http://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/about-us/directors – we asked him to explain what happens if the result isn’t immediately clear.”

    Peter Riddell: “If no party wins an overall majority, the ultimate test of who can form a government is who commands the confidence of the Commons. If David Cameron thinks the Tories, on their own or in combination or with the support of other people, have a chance of doing that, he is perfectly entitled to wait until the Queen’s Speech, which is now fixed for May 27th with votes presumably early the following week – so that would be getting on for three and a half to four weeks after the election – to test opinion, and that’s perfectly legitimate. If there is any doubt – obviously, if Ed Miliband wins a majority, there is no doubt and David Cameron would resign immediately. The problem is, in the absence of a formal agreement, there is always likely to be doubt. I don’t think the SNP and Labour are going to have a formal agreement, so there may be doubt “

    Martha Kearney: “And, would it be possible for one party to be the largest party, but then end up not in government because there is a broader coalition of, say, the second party with the fourth or sixth party?”

    Peter Riddell: “Absolutely. It’s purely a political thing, when Nick Clegg said at the last election in 2010, ‘I will talk to the party with the largest number of seats and votes.’ That was a political thing. Constitutionally, it’s the key test isn’t the size of the party, but who can win a vote in the House of Commons. I mean, it’s very democratic in that way. It’s who can win a vote. And, it’s conceivable that a Labour minority government might have fewer seats and votes than the Conservatives but would have support from a larger number of MPs from other parties. And that is exactly what happened in 1924. After Baldwin had been defeated in the Queens Speech of 1924, he resigned and Ramsay MacDonald, who headed the second party, Labour, which was 60 to 70 seats short of the Tories, form a majority government with the backing of the Liberals.”

    Martha Kearney: “And is that the last time that happened – in 1924?”

    Peter Riddell: “The last time it happened in that way. We’ve had minority governments before. We had one in 1974, when Labour was narrowly ahead of the Conservatives in terms of seats, although the Conservatives were ahead in terms of total votes, and that lasted from the beginning of March until an October election. And, of course, we’ve had governments, which have gone into a minority, as happened to the Callaghan government in 76/77, and also John Major lost his majority in the last six months of his government’s life in 1996/97.”

    Martha Kearney: “Just returning to the scenario that we were looking at, at the very beginning of the interview, so David Cameron does remain as Prime Minister in the three and a half weeks or so before the Queens Speech, Ministers carry on doing their jobs don’t they?”

    Peter Riddell: “Up to a point – they remain Ministers, and even people who have lost their seats as MPs, they can remain ministers – obviously that’s purely temporary, but they can remain as Ministers. However, they are constrained. The Cabinet Manual, which is the summary of best practice for this, says that they are constrained in the same way as applies from today until election day – that they shouldn’t make decisions, which are binding on their successors. Any government like that would be a kind of provisional government. Whilst you can have powers to deal with terrorist attacks and real emergencies, and things like that, it shouldn’t make public appointments, award contracts, announced new policies. So, it should be limited in what it does, until it can prove it’s got the confidence of the Commons. That’s the key test for everything.”

    Martha Kearney: “And in these potentially very complicated circumstances, where does this leave the position of the Queen?”

    Peter Riddell: “She wants to be out of it. There are two priorities: We must always have a government, which is why David Cameron would remain until it is clear whether he can form a government or someone else can, and the Queen should be kept out of it. She will wait to see what happens and the advice given by her chief minister, which will be David Cameron, as to whether he can form a government or someone else can, she won’t intervene. She’ll have her eyes and ears finding out what’s happening, but not intervening at all.”

    Martha Kearney: “And our thanks to Peter Riddell from the Institute for Government for that explanation.”

    1. You have supplied a very useful service. 1924 is not the definitive date or government that Mr Murphy suggests. Apart from Peter Riddell’s examples, and as one commenter above suggested,1955; there is also 1951 (which is similar to 1955).

      The 1951 and 1955 Conservative Government included the Ulster Unionists, a party that certainly did not consider itself part of the Conservative Party, and a complex mix of National and other Liberals which had spun off from the Liberal Party under the leadership, originally, of Sir John Simon. The ‘Liberals’ were closely associated with the Conservatives, but not actually subsumed within the Conservative Party until around1960.

      The Conservatives returned 321 MPs in 1951; including 21 MPs who were either Ulster Unionist or some form of independent Liberal. The Conservatives had an overall majority of only 17; against the Labour Party, the official Liberal Party and 3 ‘Others’ (representing non-Ulster Unionist Irish Labour or other minor parties).The Conservatives thus may not have been able to form a government in 1951 without the ’21’.

      Mr Murphy has over-simplified the complexity of British political history; and more important, the underlying deeper realities of British politics. British politics is thus merely re-asserting well established processes, which will in consequence haunt the Labour Party in Scotland.

      1. Drew Campbell says:

        You’re correct to say the 321 seats that comprised Churchill’s 1951 Tory administration included Ulster Unionists (and possibly some “Independent Liberals”, whatever they are). However, I think I’m right in saying there was an electoral pact declared or at least widely known to the public during the campaign – i.e. they were not competing against one another in any seats, with the implicit or explicit agreement they would co-operate in government.

        This may not contradict the technical point, of course, but it does put a slightly different complexion on the matter and suggests Peter Riddell and others citing of 1924 to be the more relevant. Whatever the case, the facts should leave Murphy, Alexander et al in an untenable position, caught out lying brassnecked and barefaced to the Scottish electorate. If only a TV or radio reporter would show some real tenacity in pursuing them on their cynical assertions he or she could really make a name for themselves. I’m willing to bet they’d fold like a marked deck.

      2. You are correct about the ‘pact’, or at least “understanding”; but it was a strange, probably perceptually deliberate distorted understanding between different parties; and the fact is the independent “Liberals” were still anxious at that time to maintain some (even largely illusory) distance between themselves and the Conservatives for their own political purposes, at the very same time as they locked themselves together with the Conservative Party. This is the inevitable but strange nature of politics; should we coin a term – ‘realpolitik’?

        The idea of an ‘understanding’ should sound familiar; and the illusion. The underlying point is that the political behaviour patterns of parties in the 1950s are not very different in their essentials to current political realities. The Labour Party is suffering from severe memory loss and is currently grossly over-simplifying British political history, presumably because the real comparisons are very uncomfortable for them. They clearly wish to live in a different world, in which they at least have a secure future, but unfortunately it is quite obvious that this isn’t the real world.They are thus inviting the electorate to join them in a world that doesn’t exist.

  6. chicmac says:

    I believe Mr Murphy himself is on public record during the hiatus of 2010 as stating that a Labour government, despite having less MPs than the Tories but with support from others, would be constitutionally legal.

  7. Clootie says:

    A drowning man will clutch at anything that falls within his grasp. He is not calm nor does he apply logic. He cares little about the fate of others at that moment. He has one thought “I must survive”.

    Labour is drowning and in it’s final moments.

    Labour ignore the history also of when they did not exist. Why the movement came into existence and the effort it took to win power. Labour unfortunately became part of the system that they were supposed to be fighting. It is time for Westminster to be challenged correctly.

    The first past the post system was designed to keep the “English nation” in command. I am not being anti english merely stating that the design of the house was to keep the others from influence such as the Irish. That nation eventually gave up on reform and walked away.

    The English press is doing the job it was designed for – turn England(voters) against any other nation of the union seeking a fair distribution of wealth. Westminster numbers will do the rest….or so they think!

    After all the British Empire is also drowning

  8. squidgybidge says:

    Concerning the the 1951 election. I wrote a piece on it yesterday that I thinks highlights the point others have been making and further proves that we don’t need to go back as far as 1924 as Smugurphy is claimimg.


    1. jivetoaster says:

      I think 1951 has another relevance to 2015, not yet apparent.

      In 1951, Labour won 13,948,883 votes, which gave them 295 MPs
      In 1951, the Tories and allies won 12,659,712 votes, which gave them 302 MPs

      The winner in terms of votes came second. This also happened in the Feb 1974 (tories got more votes but less MPs) and in England alone in 2005: then, the Tories got 60000 more votes than Labour, but an whopping 99 less MPs.

      The constituency imbalances which led to that bizarre England result in 2005 haven’t been fixed: there’s a big chance, especially given the Scottish result, that the Tories will get more votes across the UK this time, but significantly less MPs.

  9. bringiton says:

    When you are trying to con people into believing what you say,it only has to appear to be true.
    As usual,these tricks don’t stand up to any sort of scrutiny.
    Thank goodness for the internet and those who use it to expose political lies and tricks.

    1. Barraload says:

      When you are trying to con people into believing what you say,it only has to appear to be true.

      a pretty good description of the SNP there. they are getting free ride on the back of a wave of nationalist sentiment

      1. Keep taking the tablets.

  10. revjimbob says:

    It is very revealing that Murphy and Scottish Labour chose to use a flat out lie as their favourite sound-bite of the campaign.

  11. oldbattle says:

    Is ‘waiting for the Queen’s Speech’ a rule of the house, a guiding principle or just a cultural tradition? Could a member’s motion seek to ‘elect’ the PM ( as in Edinburgh) and in a straight vote Cameron or Miliband gains the confidence of the House and so becomes leader of the Government?

  12. Alan Weir says:

    Excellent article. Whether or not Murphy is capable of logical thinking, he does have political cunning. I assume what is going on here is that the giant falsehood “Fact: the largest party gets to form the government’ is produced most of the time and is what most folk get to hear, while occasionally in obscure fora, Labour will say ‘well we know about Ramsey Macdonald’s first Labour government but that was way back in 24, it’s never happened since’; as if every other election since was a hung parliament.

    Nearer the election though, the constitutional situation (which Murphy and Alexander, Douglas, were crystal clear on in 2010) will be made clear in England and thus even BBC Scotland will have to report it. That’s probably why they are moving to ‘the overwhelming probability (or the ‘realpolitik’ Curran said last night) is that the largest party will form the government’. That’s rubbish too, of course. The argument seems to be that since 3 out of the 4 last hung parliaments led to the largest party forming the government (even that is contestable), it’s 75% likely that the Tories will, if they are the largest party. You might as well say that since 2 out of the last three prime ministers were Scottish it is 2:1 on the next one will be. What matters is the balance of forces on 8th May. Every SNP win from Labour reduces the anti-Tory majority not a whit. And every such win increases the likelihood of Cameron staying in power not a whit either, unless Miliband is prepared to go down in Labour history as another Ramsey Macdonald, 1931 edition, sustaining the Tories in power, even if not in coalition. Which Miliband isn’t going to do.

    In fact, if you look at the seats where the Tories were 2nd to Labour in Scotland in 2010, in most they are now 2nd to the SNP given the polls, because of Labour supporters moving to SNP. Some of them will never switch back. If enough do, then it will split the anti-Tory vote and let the Tories in possibly handing Cameron a very handy, in a tight parliament, 4 or 5 extra seats. So vote Labour get Tory is a much more accurate slogan in Scotland than Labour’s

    (1951 is very interesting indeed, as squidgybidge rightly says for the Tory government was an alliance not only of the confusing mix of permutations of ‘National’ and ‘Liberal’ but, in addition to the Ulster Unionists, the Scottish Unionist party, separate from the Tories until 1965. Strictly speaking it’s a hung parliament in which Labour was the largest party in terms of seats as well as votes, but unable to form a government. However the fact that this alliance was a pre-electoral alliance of parties which did not stand against one another makes it different from the Labour minority 24 government, supported by the Liberal party.)

  13. revjimbob says:

    Isn’t there any kind of a recourse to the Electoral Commission if a party is repeatedly making a verifiable untruth in an attempt to fraudulently influence voting intentions?

    1. Drew Campbell says:

      God, I WISH!!!

  14. John B Dick says:

    No Comment

    I remember Mr Atlee using these word by the way.

    (Actually I’m Registering and boxticking)

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