Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Porky pie

The idea that a smaller majority makes for better government is deluded

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Governments with a small majority have to try harder and use it more skilfully. Those with a big majority just crash about; they are cocky and insensitive to others’ needs. Or so the popular myth holds…

Many on the left wished for Labour to have a smaller majority after the election. The desire to see Blair humbled made fellow-travellers of Tories and leftwingers. While the Tories wanted a smaller majority as part of an attrition of the Labour government, others wanted it as a means of creating a more plural and open political debate.

The idea was simple. A smaller parliamentary majority forces any government to consult with its parliamentarians more. In this attractive vision, parliament ceases to operate by herding MPs through the lobbies and starts to operate as a place of debate and conscience.

Instead of debates being a foregone conclusion, where people merely attend to barrack the opposition and to get a mention on the fourth page of Leamington South and Brackenbury East District Examiner, MPs will turn up to listen to each others’ arguments and weigh them in the balance. Perhaps at the crucial point in a key debate, a backbencher will stand to tell the sad story of a lonely old widow in his constituency, so changing the course of the day….

Sphericals! The experience of small majorities in the past, and abroad, is that they can be charters for headbangers and pork-barrel politicians.

Take John Major’s government. His small majority did not encourage a new caucus of moderate MPs. It emboldened the Eurosceptic fringe. Who can forget the sight of the Maastricht rebels, wearing their fantastic blazers? Major’s small majority was the making of Iain Duncan Smith’s career. Duncan Smith is hardly a man of the middle ground. He even managed, briefly, to drag his party off into the weird moors and heaths of his own political landscape.

Or look at Labour’s last small majority. Between the two elections in 1974 the government was defeated 17 times. In the parliament between 1974 and 1979, the government suffered 42 defeats, some on issues as fundamental as the income tax rate. It also had to face six votes of no confidence. Does anyone seriously think that that created a more consensual, listening politics? Or did it rather create a vacuum for Thatcher’s leadership cult style of governing?

Take the situation in the US, where parliamentary majorities in the House and the Senate are usually slender, and there is an established tradition of breaking party rank. As a consequence, Washington DC is the capital of ‘pork’. Pork is government money used to please a politician’s constituents, traded among legislators, and with the executive, for votes.

The ‘King of Pork’, Quentin Burdick, Senator for North Dakota, gained his title for, among other things, putting $500,000 (this was in 1990) into the middle of an agricultural appropriations bill to get a museum built for the bandleader Lawrence Welk. His motto was ‘I’ll get everything North Dakota is entitled to – now!’ This year, more than $47bn
dollars has been added to the US budget by senators on an ad hoc basis, without a vote on the floor. This in a country with record deficits.

Of course, the situation wouldn’t be quite the same here. It would be more Sir Humphrey-ish. After talking earnestly to the minister in question about a forthcoming vote, after discussing the principles at stake, an MP might just mention the need for a new swimming pool, or bypass in their constituency…

This is still a far cry from the Athenian ideal of debate, deliberation and judgement.

Labour’s third-term majority is neither a big majority or a small one. It is within the reach of the parliamentary Labour party to make it work like a small one. That would be a mistake. The tools of our parliamentary system are too brutal: votes of confidence, voting down whole bills. The operation of a small majority also empowers parliamentary gamers – those pork merchants and headbangers.

 If the Labour party is going to become more plural and outward facing, it is not going to be through a series of close votes in parliament. Parliamentary drama excites the swivel-eyed politico and the propeller-headed wonk, but it leaves the public even colder than before

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