Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What life is like when no party wins a majority of the seats in parliament

Canada has had 18 elections since 1957, 9 of them have ended up with no one party having a majority of the seats in parliament.   In Canada we call this a minority government, in the UK this is referred to as a hung parliament.  

The UK has only had one post war hung parliament, that was in 1974 and it did not last long.   I thought today I would look at Canadian minority parliaments and what it might mean for the UK.   Canada and the UK are the two countries with Westminster parliaments and first past the post electoral systems.

Canada has seen a significant number of minority governments over the last couple of generations.  Some have last less than a year and some have lasted for several years.   The dynamic of any minority parliament in Canada is connected to the sense by one of the two major parties that they may be able to achieve a majority in the next election.

Here is a quick history lesson of minority parliaments in Canada since 1957, bear with it and consider the potential of what long term hung parliaments mean for the UK.

The 1957 Election
The 22 year long Liberal government was finally defeated, but only by a few seats.  The winning Progressive Conservatives (PCs) managed to win 112 seats but needed 133 for a majority, the PCs managed 38.5% of the vote.   The Liberals won 105 seats and 40.5% of the vote.   The left wing CCF held 25 seats and the populist right wing Social Credit won 19 seats, there were 4 other MPs from Quebec.    The parliament was well and truly hung.  

This parliament only lasted nine months.   The PCs chose to call an early election and PM John Diefenbaker won a huge majority in the election, 208 of 265 seats.

The 1962, 1963 and 1965 Elections
You would have thought that Dief would have been able to achieve back to back majorities, but no.  In the 1962 election the PCs and Liberals finished within 20,000 votes of each other and 116 and 100 seats respectively.  Social Credit held 30 seats and the NDP (the CCF renamed themselves the year before) won 19.

Diefenbaker should have been able to govern with the support of Social Credit, but his own party was choosing to engage infighting and ultimately lead to another election in 1963.

The Liberals improved their standing in the '63 election to 129 seats and Nobel Peace Prize Laurette Mike Pearson became PM.  The Liberals were four seats short of what they needed for a majority.   The Liberals managed to govern for two and half years because they needed only one of the three other parties to agree to vote with them or to abstain to pass legislation.

The Liberals tried for a majority in November 1965 but once again fell short by a few seats.  They continued to govern as a minority till the June 1968 election when the Liberals won a majority but not a huge one. Pearson had stepped down and been replaced by Pierre Trudeau as PM and he is created with winning the majority through his charisma.  Canada went from June 1962 to June 1968 with no majority governments.

1968 - 1984
Trudeau served as PM of Canada from April 1968 till June of 1984 with one break for nine months in 1979/80.   He did not manage to win back to back majorities even though he was PM for 15 1/2 years..  

His first return to the polls in 1972 left him with a hung parliament, the Liberals had 109 seats to the PCs 107.  Even with this very narrow minority government, Trudeau managed to govern for close to two years.   In 1974 he won another majority.

The 1979 election saw another hung parliament with the PCs six seats short of a majority.   This should have been a large enough minority government for PM Joe Clark to be able to govern for several years, but it turns out that he is a little bit math challenged.   He did not count the MPs in the house and allowed a vote to go forward that lead to his defeat.  The 1980 election saw the Liberals gain another majority government.

1980 - 2004
For 24 years Canada had six majority governments in a row.  Long enough for this to become an accepted norm in Canadian politics, but the elections in 1993 and 1997 had some dramatic changes to the Canadian political scene that allowed the Liberals to win majorities as the right in Canada was redefining itself.

May 2004 Election 
New Liberal PM Paul Martin, long time finance minister, called an election with the expectation of a majority. After all the dust had settled, he had been reduced to 137 seats, 18 short of a majority.  The right was represented by a single party, the Conservatives, and had their best result since 1988.

January 2006 Election
This was an election that was not one that the government wanted, but there was a vote of no confidence in the government and it succeeded.   he expectation was that the election would result in a status quo parliament - no significant change to party standings.   When all the dust had settled, Canada had a new PM and a minority Conservative government.  PM Stephen Harper was far enough from a majority to be in a situation where long term stability of the government was questionable.

October 2008 Election
The Conservatives called an election in the hopes of getting a majority and also to avoid having an election during the recession that was rapidly building up.    Harper increased the number seats the Conservatives held to 143, but that is 12 short of a majority in the new 308 seat parliament.

Analysis
Of the nine hung parliaments:

  • 3 lasted less than a year
  • 3 lasted more than 2 and half years
  • 3 elections occurred through government stupidity ('62, '79 and '04)
  • 5 elections happened because the government was trying for a majority, 3 times they succeeded
  • 0 coalition governments

In general, when it is clear there is little or no chance for one of the major parties to achieve a majority, there is no election unless the government is stupid.   Governments need to see strong polling numbers to risk an early election.

Parliament in Canada has generally been able to function well and pass important legislation during minority governments.

Impact for the UK
First of all, as Canada shows, there is no reason to have a coalition government.   Should there be a hung parliament and the Conservatives have more than 290 seats, they should be able to govern as a minority government but with a muted program.   I would assume that David Cameron would try to govern for at least a year to two years but be looking for the moment to go for a majority government.

If the Conservatives were defeated early by the opposition simply to defeat the government, this would be an electoral boost for the Conservatives in an election.   The opposition has to figure out how to oppose the government but not lead to a vote of no confidence.

The Liberal Democrats should be very wary of formally joining any government as a junior coalition partner if they come third in the seat total.   Nothing good comes of being the junior partner in a government.   It is much better to agree not to topple the government but also hold the PM's cajones over the flames.

If there is a real shift in the seats held by the three main parties, this election could signal the start of a series of elections in which no one can achieve a majority.
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