Large Parties, Low Majorities and Bad Logic
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.