Friday 14 May 2010

LibDems destroy defence of 55% rule

"You are right actually about previous Parliaments and you might be right about future Parliaments but this arrangement was made for this Parliament, to guarantee the stability that was required for this Parliament".

That was the astonishing statement by Lord Rennard on Newsnight about the Coalition governments proposal to require 55% of MPs to dissolve the House of Commons, billed as the introduction of fixed term Parliaments. The frank contributions from Rennard and LibDem negotiator Andrew Stunnell blew to pieces argument that critics have misunderstood the proposal to require 55% of MPs to dissolve the House.

But we now know that changing the consequences of a no confidence vote against a Conservative minority is precisely why the rule was agreed in the coalition talks.

Wasn't it most suspicious to propose a 'fixed term Parliament' which gives the current coalition (57% of seats) the ability to dissolve the Parliament, while giving the Conservative party (47%) the ability to block a dissolution if the coalition collapses?

Well, it isn't the least bit suspicious any more.

"It prevents a surprise attack on the Conservatives by everybody else: it is as simple as that", as LibDem negotiator Andrew Stunnell told Newsnight, admitting that it was to protect a minority party on 47% of the House from a future majority.

Has either party ever proposed 55% threshold? No.

Can either point to a 55% threshold anywhere else in the world?

In fact, it has also been reported that the LibDems proposed a 60% threshold and the Conservatives insisted on the 55% which gave them a single-party veto over dissolutions in a House of Commons in which they have a minority of the seats.

Stunnell then disingenuously said "I think we are getting really into the realms of hypothetical stuff" when asked about the very specific hypothetical (a no confidence vote, the LibDems leaving the government and wanting to join a majority for a new election) which he had just said that the Con-LibDem scheme was actively designed to disrupt.

It has been claimed that this is simply a sensible way to introduce fixed term Parliaments, which has nothing to do with the impact of no confidence votes. If that were true, the Coalition would happily protect no confidence votes by including the proposal for example that a no confidence vote leads to a dissolution within (say) a fortnight if a new government can not actively secure the confidence of the House on a new vote in a short timescale. A time-limited mechanism exists in the Scottish Assembly, at 28 days for a new First Minister to be elected to office under the Scottish rules.

Rennard even referred to a governing party losing multiple votes of confidence then having to realise it was in their interests to go:

"In practice, if the Conservatives could not get their legislation through Parliament, if they went into a minority, if they could not get a budget through, if they are losing votes of confidence, then they themselves would want a General Election, and those are exceptional circumstances".

Lord Rennard acknowledged that the 55% "fixed term Parliament" proposal was in fact designed to allow the Coalition to decide to dissolve the House without non-governing parties, since this "may be necessary" but simply for neither party to be able to do so "unilaterally". (Of course, nobody can do so unilaterally under the current rules: they need a majority of the whole House, which no party has, but no minority party has a veto either). Again, this is nakedly an arrangement in the interests of the two governing parties, disguised as a constitutional reform proposal.

Rennard seemed to imply that being in favour of a written Constitution in future gives the LibDems carte blanche to engage in any partisan political gerrymandering they like in the meantime. This is the new politics out of St Augustine.

We shall also see this argument used to pack the House of Lords.

The new government is keen to invite everybody to engage in its reform agenda, and is particularly promoting public consultation and online

This major 'new politics' reform is surely the first important issue on which they will want to put that into practice.


Vi_Sa said...

Please read this article. I will look forward to your response. Or are you like the others on the Left who seem to consumed by bitterness and rage that someone else has a chance to show what they can do. If they fail, yes, we the voters will kick them out. But till then, please atleast pretend to be a bit objective and balanced.

"There are other ways of doing this. In Scotland, dissolution of parliament requires a two-thirds majority – significantly higher than 55% proposed for Westminster, and that threshold was set by Labour-Liberal coalition. If it is a conspiracy or fix against the opposition in London, it is even more so at Holyrood."

Sunder Katwala said...


The Scottish Parliament is dissolved after a 50% no confidence vote if no First Minister is elected in 28 days.

Rennard ducked the invitation to support similar proposals. If Stunnell's account of why it has been introduced is correct, they will refuse to. The Scottish example will not then apply as a defence if there is an analoguos mechanism. This is part of the defence that seems to be to be destroyed by their candour about the particular fix for this Parliament.

Similarly, that the Scottish dissolution % is set higher. The UK Coalition has proposed "Fixed Term Parliament unless the Coaltion wants an election". This is because the Tories rejected a 60% proposal.

Chris said...

I may be wrong on this but wasn't the Scottish two-thirds set in the original 1998 Scotland Act - - before the parliament was elected, as opposed to the Scottish parliament being elected and its members looking around, crunching the numbers and then making the two-thirds rule?

Vi_Sa said...

Sunder, appreciate your response. I may be wrong here but we are just splitting hairs. Right now, if I left my anti-Labour bias aside(reasons: see Jack Straw's article yesterday), I want to give this coalition a chance - at least a 2-3 year period if not the full parliament.
If this rule/law makes that possible and gives this country some stability, I am all for it. I do not think that it is anti-democratic.

Anonymous said...

Also Scotland has PR and the 2/3s rule was established with this knowledge...

It does not follow that arguments for Scotland apply to Westminster.

Vi_Sa said...

gimpyblog - you mean the rule was established by the Lib Dems and Labour agreeing things between themselves AFTER the election then. Nothing different here...!

fondant said...

As Wham said - if you're going to do it do it right. The 55% proposal is unfair.

It's like divorce, it should be equally easy, or equally hard, for both parties to dissolve the marriage.

You either make it easy - 50%+1 or hard - 66% - for everyone. This proposal protects the coalition (legitimate in a fixed term parliament), but also allows them to dissolve parliament at will (not legitimate).

Have your cake and eat it - no thanks.

Sunder Katwala said...

Love fondant's Wham reference.

I think Chris and gimpyblog have also set out several reasons why the Scottish example weakens Vishal's case, rather than proving it.

Firstly, the 66% rule was in the rules, not a convenient partisan arrangement or deal on the basis of a result.

Secondly, it was perfectly possible to broadly predict the shares of the vote, and that is why a threshold was chosen well over any likely two-party coalition in a four-party plus election. I expect we will find this was a key LibDem point at that time in making Fixed Terms real. Labour and the LibDems then formed a coalition with around 55% of seats and votes! So they did not have a form of "fixed" Parliaments which would let a coalition government dissolve at will.

Thirdly, they kept a no confidence provision to dissolve the Parliament by one vote if stalemate resulted. The LibDem statements strongly imply the Coalition will refuse to do this.

If the Coalition wish to propose the Scottish rules (on confidence and threshold), they can employ this defence and analogy.

Otherwise it rather highlights the contrast with their own "fix" in this case.

Sunder Katwala said...


The coalition itself is quite legitimate. I am perfectly willing to give it a chance, though it can of course expect scrutiny too. As it has a majority of nearly 80 in the House of Commons, it has every chance to govern, simply by not falling apart, which is in the interests of the parties who have formed it.

I see no legitimate case for it to seek to fix the rules to "give it a chance" on a different basis to that which the minority governments of the 1920s or 1970s had.

Certainly, there would have been outrage at a "Rainbow Coalition" arguing something similar to give itself a chance to govern,

John said...

'Of course, nobody can do so unilaterally under the current rules: they need a majority of the whole House'

This isn't true, is it? I thought the Queen dissolved Parliament on the advice of her PM, no Parliamentary vote being necessary. If I'm right, this means that as so often this is a power which the PM exercises at will, under the cloak of the royal prerogative. A dissolution certainly *ought* to require a Parliamentary majority, although requiring 55% puts the power back in the PM's hands - old politics?

But the crucial issue here is - and, who knows, this may become important in the next few years - under what circumstances can/should the Queen refuse the PM a dissolution? Arguably, when another party leader might be able to form a government. This may well happen in a non-majority Parliament when coalition partners fall out. If this happened, wouldn't the Queen be obliged to send for the Labour leader rather than giving Cameron a dissolution? Could happen. (there must be a mandarin's memo dealing with this) A new rule stipulating that there can be no dissolution without a (simple) majority vote in the Commons would in effect write this into law.

Ben said...

John -

Vernon Bogdanor explains about dissolutions and royal prerogative here:

The basic answer is that you are quite right. The PM can ask for a dissolution at any time, with no vote required, and the Queen can refuse, though only under certain limited circumstances. The oft quoted example is that had the second election in '74 failed to provide a majority the Queen may have refused to dissolve parliament again if asked.

Braveheart said...

The key point is that this is an attempt to change the constitution piecemeal, by legislating for a small part of it.

But once it stops being part of the constitution, obeyed by all as the rule of last resort, it becomes a law or statute which can be changed by a succeeeding parliament.

As I say here,

it's a short-term fix in itself and a dangerous precedent for our democracy.