I’ve been irritated by the apparent failure of BBC journalists, in questions put to both the Liberal Democrats and the SNP, to understand what a minority government is or how it works. It’s not difficult: we’ve got a minority government at the moment, we’ve had minority governments before (e.g. under Wilson in 1974) and the SNP is technically a minority government in Scotland. The 2010 Coalition was not a minority government; it had a majority.
Every question which asks minority parties, “who would you support for Prime Minister?”, is irrelevant. The whole point about minority governments is that they don’t have majority support. All that has to happen is that there is not actually a vote of no confidence – that minority parties abstain.
In principle, a minority government should work by selecting policies or legislation which can command support – policies that will get through Parliament. This approach has been undermined to some degree by the present Conservative administration’s refusal to compromise or act as if is in a minority, but there’s nothing wrong with the principle; the current government has simply demonstrated, through repeated losses, how ridiculous it is to ignore the parliamentary numbers. This election has been called because of the government’s refusal to compromise – not on the Withdrawal Agreement, which had reached a second reading, but on the sweeping authoritarian powers (“Henry VIII” powers, in the jargon) that they were determined to enact. Any majority government which took that position would represent an existential threat to our democracy.
A minority government is not a bad thing; it can be a good one. Lacking a majority forces governments to common ground or compromise, and in our present predicament those are positions devoutly to be wished. Unfortunately, no-one can actually vote for a minority government; it’s not on the ballot. All you can do is to vote for a minority party, in the assurance that if there are enough minority parties, there won’t be a majority government. And that promises a better outcome than any prospective majority government is likely to offer.
2 thoughts on “A minority government is a government that is not supported by a majority. The clue is in the title.”
This misses the main point. The Lib Dems and SNP both say that their top priority is to stop Brexit and the only way this can be done (unless the Lib Dems achieve the very unlikely outcome of an absolute majority) is to get a second EU referendum. This can only be got from the Labour Party. Therefore if they mean what they say, their only choice is to positively support a Labour government (aka ‘put Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street’) at least for long enough to get the referendum done. But the Lib Dems are saying they will not do this under any circumstances, while the SNP is saying it will only do so on the basis of conditions which Labour could not accept (e.g. scrapping Trident and an immediate second independence referendum). It is this contradiction which the media are quite rightly exposing, as Andrew Neil did very effectively with Nicola Sturgeon on Tuesday 25th.
That might be more persuasive if we had not already seen a long series of parliamentary defeats inflicted on the government on Brexit-related issues. The decision of any government is not decisive. Common action in parliament is what matters.
Labour, of course, has already committed itself to a further referendum, and ‘remain’ will be on the ballot if Labour has a say. So the argument that the outcome can only be achieved by doing a deal with Labour about other issues doesn’t carry any weight.