This week’s election in Britain has prompted a heated debate about the potential legitimacy of the next government given that the party that wins the most seats may not end up governing. The polls ahead of Thursday’s vote show the Conservatives and Labour neck-and-neck in percentage terms, but projections of the possible make-up of parliament point mostly to a Conservative victory.
That might stop short of a 326-seat majority in the House of Commons, however, and the Conservatives may not be able to gain enough support from smaller parties to form a government. By contrast if Labour could secure enough votes for a majority, it could take the keys to Downing Street despite having technically lost. This last happened in 1923.
As the countdown to the vote begins, Conservative supporters have begun to argue that such a move would be “illegitimate” in the eyes of the electorate. Prime Minister David Cameron weighed in on Thursday saying it would create “a massive credibility problem”. But Professor Robert Hazell, head of the Constitutional Unit at University College London, said the only rule is whether or not any one party can rely on a parliamentary majority.
“There’s no rule that says that the largest single party has a right to form the government,” he said. “It may have the strongest claim in terms of numbers but the rule constitutionally is that the person who can command the confidence of the House of Commons shall be appointed as prime minister.” In the December 1923 general election, Labour lost to the Conservatives but ended up forming a minority government with support from the Liberals.
That experiment was short-lived however and another election had to be held 10 months later in October 1924 in which the Conservatives won a majority. In February 1974, the Conservatives came ahead of Labour in percentage terms but second in seats and tried to form a government with the Liberals. Even though they failed, the Labour government that resulted proved unstable and collapsed, triggering another general election in October 1974.
– ‘Keep calm and carry on’ –
An added complication this year is the situation in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party is expected to win an overwhelming majority of seats. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon this week argued that whichever of the two main parties win on a national level, Scotland’s voice had to be heard. “Surely a test of legitimacy that should be applied to whatever Westminster government is formed after this election cannot simply be that it is the largest party in England,” she said.
“The test that must be applied is whether a government can build a majority and win support that reflects the whole of the UK. “English MPs will always be the largest part of any Westminster majority but to ignore Scottish voices would be wrong.” The wrangling that has already begun about deals that could be made after the election indicates that the situation could get “messy”, Hazell said.
“If the numbers are very close it’s possible that there will be two rival camps both claiming to be able to form a credible government,” he said. The default in that case is that Prime Minister David Cameron would stay in power and could call a confidence vote in parliament, effectively challenging his rivals to bring down the government. While the uncertainty has prompted warnings of political instability, Anthony King, a professor of government at Essex University, argued that a weak minority government might be no bad thing.
“It might actually do good by doing nothing in particular,” he wrote in Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph. “‘Keep calm and carry on’ was a good wartime slogan. It might be an even better slogan under present circumstances.”