The 55% rule

Of all the proposals put forth by the United Kingdom’s new governing coalition, perhaps one of the most controversial was the new requirement for 55% support in the House of Commons for a dissolution of Parliament to occur.  Traditionally, this has come either when the government loses a vote of confidence, which runs according to majority rules, or when the Prime Minister asks the Queen to dissolve Parliament.  In both cases, the result is a new general election.

The proposal coming from the coalition is part of a broader policy to implement a five year, fixed-term parliament.  A complementary measure is that David Cameron is giving up his right to ask the Queen for a dissolution of Parliament, which

55% was chosen likely because it is both less than the 56% of seats the the coalition holds in the House of Commons and greater than the 53% held by non-Tory MPs,  giving the Liberal Democrats the power to topple the coalition and form a new coalition or confidence and supply deal with the other parties in parliament without forcing an election.  Of course, if both parties want an election, they can force it.

The overall effect will be to increase the stability of the coalition as neither the Conservative Party (through David Cameron asking the Queen to dissolve Parliament) or the Liberal Democrat Party (through siding with other parties in a confidence vote) can force an election if the polling trends are blowing in their direction.

However, it does lead to the danger of chaos in the House of Commons should the coalition fail.  Of the possible governments given the arrangement of seats in the House of Commons, the current coalition seems to me to be the most stable.  A Lib-Lab coalition would require the support of nationalist parties, which would be a hard pill for the coalition to swallow, and even then, they would only enjoy the tiniest sliver of a majority.  If the Liberal Democrats were to side with the opposition in a confidence vote, it would seem that a coalition including nationalists would be the only option.

Of course, in the case of such chaos, a majority of the House of Commons may decide that an election is necessary anyway and vote for dissolution shortly afterward.  Of course, the government is hoping that none of these scenarios gets tested, but if they do, it should be interesting to see how Parliament reacts.

Overall, I think it’s a good arrangement.  I was initially skeptical when I had heard it reported as a 55% threshold in a confidence vote, but as the government still requires confidence of the majority of the House of Commons, I think that its role in increasing government stability outweighs the risk that it poses of a zombie government.

Obviously, it’s a break with UK tradition and one that is amenable to the coalition politics championed by the Liberal Democrats, so it’s aroused suspicion from some Tories and many in the Labour Party.  However, I agree broadly with the Liberal Democrats’ contention that the current political system in the UK is badly in need of reform to allow for a government that is more representative of the desires of the British public and this move is one of the necessary initial steps in that direction.


About Meng Bomin

Real name Benjamin Main, I am a graduate of Grinnell College with a degree in Biological Chemistry.
This entry was posted in Current events, Opinions, Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The 55% rule

  1. Eric Proces says:

    Well, I’m a little disappointed. I have always thought the vote of no-confidence and related measures was the best part of the Westminster system, and I’ve been jealous of it. Being in a place where we can operate a state without a budget for 2 years, whereas not passing a budget bill on time is an automatic vote of no confidence under the Westminster system, I can’t help but get jealous.
    I understand the stability argument, but I feel that the vote of no confidence, or rather the threat thereof, has kept the British Parliament (well, the MPs) accountable more directly than the 6 year senators we have in the U.S.

  2. Meng Bomin says:

    That is a fair point. Quite honestly, I think this is a case of wait and see how it works. If this does indeed lead to a deadlocked, non-government situation where no grouping of MPs can pull together a government and pass a budget, yet it is impossible on the other hand to pull together a grouping of MPs to dissolve parliament, that problem may arise.

    However, I think that the 5% margin between the two is small enough that we won’t see that situation arise too often. Keep in mind that 50% is still the threshold for no confidence, so if a government can’t pass it’s budget, it will fall–there just won’t be an election unless there is also a 55% vote for dissolution. So, if the government fails a confidence measure, and there isn’t a deal to form a new minority government or coalition, I suspect that there would be at least 5% of MPs who voted for the government in the confidence measure that now recognizing the lack of a viable governing option would vote for dissolution of parliament. But that’s a situation that’ll have to be tested once it arrives.

    Now, to be clear on this, my bias comes from a democratic perspective, not one of effective governance–I find single member district plurality to be a rather poor representation scheme. As an aside, I don’t like the proposed IRV system (AV in Brit-speak) that will be put to referendum much better and would hope that if it passes that it would serve as a transition to a more representative system like STV (IRV is simply the single member district form of STV).

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