Last night’s debate in the Lords may – for once – fully justify the plaudits we get from the fan club for “wise, eloquent and dispassionate” discussion, contrasting with the hurly-burly at the Commons end of the building.
The subject? “Constitutional Implications of Coalition Government” may not sound that enticing (please stifle that yawn!), but I invite you to take a closer look. For example, there were very thoughtful exchanges on the legitimacy of the increasingly multi-party nature of the Commons in recent decades. The Committee Report we were debating summed this up neatly: “trends in voting behaviour, with fewer votes for the two largest parties and an increasing number of MPs representing smaller parties, make it increasingly possible that hung parliaments will recur.” Former Cabinet Secretary Lord (Gus) O’Donnell reinforced the point.
I observed that “this is the first peacetime majority Government since 1931. That is to say it is a Government whose MP supporters were elected by more than 50% of those who voted.” However, constitutional guru (Professor) Lord Norton of Louth took a different view: “The basic problem is that of a democratic deficit. Coalitions formed as the result of post-election bargaining lack the seal of electoral approval. Some argue that if party A gets 35% of the vote and party B gets 20%, then a coalition of the two parties enjoys the support of 55% of the electorate. It does not. It enjoys the definitive support of not one elector because nobody was given the opportunity to vote for A plus B.”
He was gently taken to task by the Minister Lord (William) Wallace – himself formerly a distinguished academic – who commented that there is a “difference between the Burkean view of parliamentary democracy and the populist view of popular democracy in which a general election is in effect a referendum to choose among the manifestos of the parties. I am for a parliamentary democracy; and in the British constitution as conventionally understood, it is Parliament that chooses the Government, and the Government rest on maintaining a majority in Parliament.
This may seem very remote from the day-to-day reality of people’s lives. But it does matter if, as Lord (Bernard) Donoughue clearly wished, politicians ignore what the public vote for and simply revert to single party government, even if it has the support of less than a third of the voters.
It is surely the job of Parliament to give life to what voters have instructed when there is an inconclusive result, by agreeing a government which can garner the support of a majority of the people’s representatives. That plainly occurred after the last election, and there is no reason to think it could and should not do so again.