Your MP has less choice than you think

I commented earlier in this blog about the increased fragmentation of the British electorate. This is not a new development, but it is a striking one – in 1951 the two largest parties won 97% of the vote between them; by contrast in 2010 they won 65%! Rather than comment on how this has come about, I’d like to argue that voting for a party other than the big two is less of an alternative choice than you might think.

One of my lesser celebrated modules during my master’s course was called “The Theory of Voting” – but being a political anorak I thoroughly enjoyed it! The core of the course is how you use voting mechanisms to reach decisions – recognising that voting is the fairest way to resolve differences. And one thing that we have to bear in mind is this – when decisions are reached, it ultimately comes down to a binary decision of yes or no – either you support the measure, or you don’t. Let us take the Budget – in practice you cannot accept 60% of the Budget bill. You can vote yes or no on amendments, but when the whole Budget is submitted, it is either accepted or rejected.

Let me briefly illustrate why this is important. There are (usually) 650 MPs sitting in the House of Commons – so you need 326 to have a majority. Advocates for third parties like to argue that they can argue for a moderate position compared to the bigger parties – to use a fictitious example: Party A argues for a 20% base tax rate, and Party B argues for a 40% tax rate. Party C, which is smaller, argues for a 30% tax rate. However, let’s consider what that would look like based on a House of Commons loosely based on the 2005 election results:

Party A has 202 MPs
Party B has 355 MPs
Party C has 62 MPs
And there are 31 ‘Others’ belong to other parties

Even if you put Party A, Party C and all the ‘Others’ together, you can’t come to 326 votes. In short – Party B will always get their way. Now – I recognise the capacity of sections of Party B to rebel against the government and help the opposition to defeat a government motion – but by and large they won’t do this – they represent the party they do because by and large they agree with their party’s platform! It doesn’t matter that there are (at least) three different parties in opposition – their collective opposition cannot defeat the government and doesn’t impact the outcome.

Of course, we currently have a so-called ‘hung Parliament’ in which no party has a majority. I still maintain that despite this, variance in opposition has no real impact. In the first instance – you still have the ‘majority’ problem. The coalition parties (at least on government business) vote as one bloc. That bloc has more than 326 MPs, and so even if you put all the opposition MPs together, they won’t win. Secondly however, if the smaller coalition partner is willing to rebel against the larger party, as the Lib Dems did when they voted with opposition MPs to amend changes to the Spare-Room-Subsidy reform, this makes for extremely unstable government. No government can plan fiscally responsible government if they consistently have to accommodate demands from Parliament. The upshot of this and final complication, is that a coalition government therefore will seek tight and binding agreements when they form a coalition to effectively prevent such rebellions – again bringing back the majority vote problem.

Your MP really has only one choice – to support the government or to oppose it. That is why I have argued, and will go on arguing, that you should choose your MP based on whether they will endorse the government or not. Having a different flavour of opposition MP won’t actually make any difference to the outcome in Parliament.

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