The Apollo Project
Liberal Ideas for the 21st Century
Friday, March 17, 2006
The Education Bill and the British Political System
by Simon

A common argument for the First Past the Post electoral system in the United Kingdom is that it usually provides operational Parliamentary majorities for the winning party in a General Election, which in turn leads to stable government. It is true that in the period from 1945 to the present only one short-lived Parliament in 1974 has been without an overall majority from the outset and Governments have generally been able to get their legislation enacted.

A common argument offered against proportional electoral systems is that sometimes they do not provide operational majorities for the party with the most number of seats following an election, which in turn leads to unstable government, encourages horse-trading for votes, and discourages radical legislation and reform.

I heard Frank Field on the BBC News the night before last arguing that it was perfectly reasonable for Tony Blair to get support for the recent Education Bill from wherever it was forthcoming, including from the Conservatives. Frank Field is usually seen as being in favour of radical reform. Backbench Labour opposition to the Education Bill was because they thought it too radical (or radical in the wrong direction at any rate).

The Labour Government, of course, eventually had to rely on Conservative votes to pass the Bill. It seems clear that a Parliamentary majority of 66 - at one time considered to be a thumping majority - is not large enough for the current Prime Minister and the current Labour party in Government to guarantee to be able govern (i.e., command an operational majority). This is not to say that a different Labour Prime Minister would be unable to pilot similarly radical legislation with the same or even a reduced majority. The same can be said, perhaps, for a hypothetical Conservative Prime Minister. However, it is worth pondering the propensity within ALL parties to dissent from the leadership - and the increasingly incongruous agglomerations of disparate perspectives incorporated within those parties. Can we see the Cornerstone Group, for example, agreeing with a Cameroonian Butskellite consensus agenda? Can we see the Labour left following Brown into the lobbies when they realise he is not of the same position as them? Will corporate-state Lib Dems gladly follow a more market-oriented Liberal leadership?

No system of rules that seem to govern a political ecology last forever. All systems evolve. New rules are created and old assumptions must be cast aside. The Blair-Cameron accommodation over education paves the way for the kind of horse-trading needed to sustain coalition Government.

And so, one of the main arguments in favour of First Past the Post - that it provides meaningful governing majorities and stable government - falls away, just at the moment that the argument that radical reform cannot be sustained by operational coalitions begins to disintegrate also.

Those in favour of electoral reform won a big victory this week. They just didn't notice.
posted by Apollo Project @ 8:04 pm  
  • At 19 March, 2006 18:43, Blogger Ken said…

    I'm not convinced. It's not that Blair doesn't have a working majority, it's that that working majority doesn't support what he is doing. He could run a considerably different line and have no trouble with the majority of 66.

    If anything, this week is showing the strains that are being placed on the existing party system, rather than strains being placed on FPTP.

  • At 24 March, 2006 18:53, Blogger Edward said…

    Exactly, and the greater the strains on the party system the greater the strains on the legitimacy of PR, actually.

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"What is Liberalism?: I should say it means the acknowledgment in practical life of the truth that men are best governed who govern themselves; that the general sense of mankind, if left alone, will make for righteousness; that artificial privileges and restraints upon freedom, so far as they are not required in the interests of the community, are hurtful; and that the laws, while, of course, they cannot equalise conditions, can at least avoid aggravating inequalities, and ought to have for their object the securing to every man the best chance he can have of a good and useful life." C-B.


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