A quick explanation of Parliamentary government

Following on from Heidemarie's comment on my last post, my answer started getting too long for a comment. Hence this post.

Heidemarie – (8 May 2010 23:40)
No matter how many times Parliamentary government is explained to me, I just don't get it.

To be fair, this is hardly normal Parliamentary government. Normal Parliamentary government is really simple. To wit:

The Prime Minister, as part of the vestiges of the Royal Prerogative, decides when to call a General Election. This must be within 5 years of the last one, though there is no formal minimum time. In practice, if a Prime Minister wants to call an election every 6 months, permission will likely be refused. It costs a lot to run an election, anyway, so no political party would be very happy with overly frequent elections. The Prime Minister must give at least 17 working days notice of the election date, to allow the other parties time to campaign.

The country (including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) is divided into constituencies, with roughly equal populations (more or less). This time there are 650 of them. (The number varies slightly, as they adjust boundaries to take into account changes in population based on the last census.) These are separate from the constituencies - and elections - held for the various national assemblies and governments that exist in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Each constituency elects a Member of Parliament (MP). Each of the main 3 parties (the Conservatives, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats) and a number of smaller parties (the British National Party, the Green, independant candidates, usually standing on local issues like hospital closures) put up a candidate and The People vote, between 7 in the morning and 10 at night on the day selected by the Prime Minister as polling day.

Once The People have voted, the votes are counted, usually overnight that night. There's a bit of a race to be the first constituency to declare, and it's usually Sunderland. The winner of each constituency is the person who got the most votes, and they become the MP. Each MP gets one seat in the House of Commons.

Usually what happens next is that the leader of the party with the most MPs becomes Prime Minister, and there's a whole rigamarole around the outgoing Prime Minister going to see the Queen and resigning, and the incoming person going to see the Queen to be appointed. (Unless the incumbent wins, of course - but then the PM still goes to see the Queen, I think, to be formally invited to stay PM.) This has almost always been the leader of one of the two main parties (the Conservatives and the Labour Party, since the inter-war period.) Different rules applied during the Second World War, I think, though I'm not sure quite what they were...

This time, no one political party has won an overall majority of seats in the House of Commons, which is rare, to say the least. Coalition government is not common in the UK Parliament, which is why there's a fuss about it. The two parties that got the bigger share of the seats in the House were the Labour Party and the Conservative Party (though Labour didn't actually get that many more votes than the Lib Dems, but that's one of the quirkes of our First Past the Post election system...) - they are now each trying to persuade the Liberal Democrats to support them, which would give the Tories (the Conservatives) an easy majority in the House, and would give the Labour party much more support - they'd still have to get some support from other minor parties, though, since the Lib Dems alone wouldn't give them a majority.

This reason it's a problem that no party has a majority is because of the way Bills are passed in the UK. If a political party has a majority of seats - if they can out-vote all the other parties joined together - they can pass the legislation they set out in their manifesto (these are known as "Manifesto Commitments" oddly enough), because - assuming their own MPs remain loyal to the party, and there's a whole system designed to ensure this - all the other MPs can't stop legislation passing by out-voting it, no matter how much they disagree with it.

If a party has a very small majority, they can have trouble passing Bills, particularly if the leader of the party is unpopular with his MPs. (John Major in the first half of the 1990s, for instance.) Even if the other parties put together can't out-vote all the Government MPs, not all Government MPs will necessarily vote the Government line. There are varying amounts of pressure and carrots dangled to ensure compliance, but on some issues, there are rebellions of MPs, where they vote against the Government, even if it's their own party. If there's a very small Government majority in the House of Commons, these rebels can tip the balance the other way and defeat Government legislation. Big rebellions can defeat even healthy majorities, though it doesn't tend to happen nearly as much.

I'm going to stop rambling for a bit. If you have any questions about any of the above, or anything I've missed out - or if I've got anything wrong - do give me a shout in the comments...

Tim  – (9 May 2010 at 20:16)  

Hey Nicole, could you explain "first past the post"?

Is it why the UK usually doesn't have to form coalition governments like most parliamentary governments?

Nicole  – (9 May 2010 at 21:10)  

Basically, yes. FPTP favours larger parties rather than smaller ones, and so tends to focus power in a smaller number of hands, so less coalitions. It's the system of election used in the UK, where each person votes once, for the person they want to elect, and the winner takes all.

Alternatives are all some form of proportional representation, where it's not a winner take all system - they are seen as fairer by some (I'm one of those people) because in FPTP, if you didn't vote for the guy who got the most votes (and usually, half the voters or more, didn't) then your vote doesn't count. In PR systems, like the Additional Member System that they use in the Welsh Assembly elections, the outcome more closely reflects the proportions of votes cast. (In that model, as I understand it, you vote for a person and a party. The person with the most votes wins in each constituency, but the parties are given seats in proportion to the vote they received across the electorate, working their way down a list.) There are other methods I prefer, but that's one that manages to be fairer, while maintaining a constituency link that's seen to be important.

Did any of that make sense?

Nicole  – (9 May 2010 at 21:12)  

I also don't know if I described the AMS properly, so don't rely on this for anything important! That's just going off the top of my head.

Fran –   – (9 May 2010 at 22:22)  

yes but on proportional representation, given that there are that many bloody people all trying to get their pennies worth in, and each being of equal weighting, with most people not having a majority and having to form coalitions to get anything passed by government, it doesn't take long before it all breaks down into a farce. Just look at Italy, 2001-2005 is the longest a government has lasted since the second world war..... Doesn't bode well for over here does it x

Nicole  – (9 May 2010 at 22:43)  

Yeah, but it doesn't have to be like Italy - Germany has a stable government, and they use PR *and* are a federal state. I could see the UK moving towards a German model without much trouble, with Scotland/Wales/NI and the English regions each having regional assemblies (whatever name they are given), together forming a UK Parliament along federal lines.

Heidemarie  – (10 May 2010 at 15:00)  

So essentially, when comparing it to the US system. . . .Parliamentary Gov't has multiple parties while the US system is basically a two party system. And with multiple party systems (compared to two party), it's much more difficult to get consensus on legislation because everyone is trying to further their own agenda. Of course in the US, legislation has to be passed by both the House and the Senate which can have different majorities. And if the President doesn't like it he can Veto it.

Nicole  – (10 May 2010 at 19:05)  

The UK has two chambers too - the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and legislation has to clear both of them. The HoL isn't elected (yet) though, so I didn't mention in when we're looking at elections...

In the most abstract of theory, the Queen can veto any legislation, even if both Houses of Parliament have passed it - in practice, though, that never, ever happens - couldn't, in fact, without leading to the abolishment of the monarchy.

Brown's quit now, so it will be interesting to see what happens next! For Labour, there will be a leadership election, where all members of the Labour Party can vote for their leader. That person would normally automatically become Prime Minister, if the previous Labour leader had been, but who knows at the moment!

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