Darren Kramble writes to ask:
As a Canadian ex-pat, I know that the Tories currently have a minority government, but I have no idea how that is going. Anyway, I live in the UK, and the country seems to be freaking out at our hung parliament, as if it is the end of the political world. I’m fairly happy with it, as Labour is now out, as they inevitably would be, but the Tories don’t have a majority that would allow the more batshit crazy things they might want to try. So, any advice to the UK? How is having a minority government working?
Short version: not very well.
Longer version: In the past, Canada’s had very productive minority governments. Lester B. Pearson, for example, gave us major policy changes with a minority government, which included universal healthcare, armed forces unification, and our new flag. There’s nothing in a minority government that inherently says that they have to be unproductive or bad.
However, our recent minority governments, while certainly not outright disastrous, is less than satisfactory. There’s a few reasons for this, some of which are specific to Canada and some of which I’m pretty sure are universal.
What’s specific to Canada is that here, our parties have become regionalized to a certain extent – the Liberals in the eastern half and more urban areas of the country, the Tories in the western half and more rural areas, the NDP competing mostly with the Liberals for space. There’s less incentive to cooperate because excacerbating cross-party and therefore regional tension is, frankly, better for your electoral prospects. (In a UK context, this seems like it could potentially be an issue, given that Labour and the Tories have their regional strongholds to an extent.)
What’s not specific to Canada is this: in a minority government, somebody has to take power. This seems like it’s not an issue, but it is because the minority government, Parliamentary power or not, is in charge and therefore can determine when an election takes place, either by calling one or by putting forth a bill which gets defeated.
This seems like a precarious position, but in practice it isn’t, because in Canada the Tories have figured out something which is obvious on its face but which has no real applicable context beyond a minority government position, which is this: the electorate mostly doesn’t like elections. Which isn’t surprising, because elections tend to be vast resevoirs of bullshit expunged forth combined with general nastiness and pettiness, made even less pleasant thanks to the omnipresence of mass media. (This is my general theory as to why electoral participation has steadily trended downward in most democracies over time.)
So if voters don’t like elections, what do they want? As few elections as possible. But what do minority governments generally guarantee? An election sooner rather than later. So whenever the minority threatens to bring down the government over an issue, you get the endless caterwauling about “endless elections” from both the citizenry and the media willing to complain about it (and they are more than willing, believe me). Which in turn means that the minority is generally blamed for the extra elections which come with minority governments, even when that doesn’t actually make sense given the track record. (Note that the 2006 and 2008 federal elections were both called by the party in power trying to seize electoral advantage; the former failed for the Liberals, the latter succeeded for the Conservatives.)
So there’s essentially a built-in political downside to forcing an election if you’re in the minority. What happens? Well, in Canada we mostly have feckless dipshits for political leaders (really – David Cameron looks good in comparison), so their natural political cowardice combines with the disincentive to call a federal election and thus you have a minority government more or less governing as a majority government, which just pisses off and disenfranchises everybody who didn’t vote for them. (Which, in Canada, right now means more than 60 percent of the country.) This just perpetuates the vicious cycle: voters are disillusioned by their lack of control over political process, so they don’t vote, which results in them having even less control, and so on and so forth.
In short: first-past-the-post systems are terrible for minority governments. A proportional system like Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems want is much better for producing responsive minority governments because they basically require cross-party cooperation to work in the first place; that’s what you want.