So, why does Britain need an absolute majority in parliament?

In other words: help the stupid American figure out your somewhat confusing form of government!

As I understand it, there’s currently no absolute majority, meaning that the Labour and Liberal Democrat party combined have more seats in Parliament than the Conservatives, and the Conservatives are trying to convince the Lib Dems to…I’m admittedly not sure what, but something along the lines of “join us so that we’re the absolute majority over Labour.”

Also as I understand it, to get a bill through the House of Commons, all that’s needed is a simple majority: if there’s 100 MPs, than Bill X needs 51 votes for to be passed. And, again, as I understand it, whichever party has the most seats in the House of Commons gets to pick the prime minister from their own party - up until this current election the Labour party had the most seats, so they got to pick Gordon Brown (who…may or may not actually be prime minister at the moment? Your system is really confusing, guys.).

So: whoever has the most seats gets to be in charge by virtue of picking the PM. Everyone of all parties can still vote as an individual for the bills that come through the house, because all you need is a simple majority. Yes?

If no: what am I missing?

If yes: what exactly is the problem with not having a supermajority? Why isn’t it that the Conservatives get enjoy the couple more seats they have than Labor right now, pick the next PM, and everyone moves on?

(Bonus question: who, exactly, is in charge of the UK right now?)

ETA: I know there’s a GD thread on the election, but it’s really long and I’m just curious about the factual answers at this point, not debate and opinion.

Having the most seats is not the same as having an absolute majority of seats. If there are 100 seats and
Party A has 45
Party B has 35
Party C has 20

then party A, with the most seats, can always be outvoted by the combined strength of Parties B and C.

In the Westminster style of government, it’s conventional for the party members to vote as a block. That means that without a majority of the seats in Parliament, the party in power will only win votes in which they have enough support from other parties. It’s certainly possible to stay in power with this sort of arrangement (a Minority government), as Canada’s current situation proves. However, the Westminster system also requires that the party in power demonstrates that they have the confidence of Parliament. This means that any significant bill put forward by the PM’s party that gets voted down requires that a general election get called. One of the other parties can even put forth a motion of non-confidence, which has the same effect if it passes.

Prime Ministers presumably prefer to have a majority government so that they can get things done. It’s obviously detrimental to the ability to govern if you can’t do anything significant in Parliament without the agreement of sufficient opposition members.

George Brown continues to be Prime Minister until the Queen invites someone to form a new government.

The Prime Minister has to be able to get his bills passed through parliament, which, as you said, means he needs a simple majority. There’s no supermajority involved here. But what it is now is that no party has a simple majority by themselves. So, if the Conservatives, who right now don’t have a majority in parliament, get one of theirs (David Cameron) as Prime Minister, he wouldn’t be able to guarantee that right now, because he could propose a bill that all the Conservatives vote for, and the bill could still fail, because a majority of the members of parliament could still vote against the bill.

So what both the Labour Party and the Conservative party are trying to do is form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. A coalition is an agreement that they’ll vote together and support each other’s bills. So both Labour and Conservatives are trying to bring together enough members of parliament behind them so that they’ll get a majority.

And to answer your bonus question, Gordon Brown is still Prime Minister. He’ll stay Prime Minister until he resigns, loses a no confidence vote in parliament, or loses a vote on a major bill.

There are a few other threads going on right now that you may find helpful:

Governing as a minority party (U.K.)

What are the UK Conservatives’ options now?

A Question about Parliamentary coalitions

I was under the impression that the Liberal Democrats were to the left of Labour (if I am wrong please correct me). So why would they want to form a coalition with the Conservatives. Wouldn’t that be like the Republican Party trying to get the Greens to side with them against the Democrats. Sure, the Greens may not be fans of the Dems, but in their eyes anyway they’re at least the lesser of two evils.

See MarcusF’s explanation at post 17 of the thread Governing as a minority party (U.K.) for a good summary of the positions of the Lib-Dems.

Minor parties selling out their policies in return for a taste of actual power? It happens.

One example here in Australia is the Democrats (local minor party that used to be respected). They held the balance of power in the senate, and it was their collusion that enabled the ruling party to establish a deeply unpopular and widely opposed tax, the GST.

In the long run, it killed the party. The Australian Democrats haven’t won a single seat in the last two elections. Party membership has plummeted to pretty much nothing. They’re a spent force, and all their talented members have left and joined other parties.

So, yes, selling out your long-term viability for some short-term power is certainly a possibility, and (apparently) a tempting one.

That’s assuming that all MPs vote either for or against the bill. They can also abstain. As long as there are more votes for than against, the bill passes.

The reason why party leaders want to have an absolute majority in the House is that they can then pass any bill in their program, because of the strong party discipline in most Westminster systems. It is possible for the party/parties forming the government to have only a minority of seats in the House (a minority government) but it requires more negotiation than a majority government.

Gordon Brown being currently prime minister, he has first shot at trying to build a government that can command the majority of the House, at least for the first scheduled confidence vote (the Throne Speech). But both Nick Clegg and David Cameron seem to agree that the Conservatives having the greatest number of seats, Cameron should get the first shot. Gordon Brown knows that if he ignores the will of these two parties and tries to form a government by himself, he will lose his first confidence vote.

If a government only has a plurality of seats in the House, instead of a majority, all opposition parties can gang up to defeat its legislative program.

The Australian Democrats are a very salient example for the Lib-Dems.

Yes, the GST was opposed, like any change to a tax system. I don’t think it would be categorised as “widely unpopular” now, though business makes it case about compliance costs. Any party now offering to repeal the GST and replace it with a direct tax would probably cop an electoral shellacking.

Yes, The Democrats did only ever won one lower house seat (in their stronghold South Australia), and no Senator was re-elected after 2000. But their GST wasn’t the sole reason for that. Success, in becoming politically relevent killed them.

At one stage every one of the eight Democrat senators was either an ex-Democrat leader or candidate for the leadership. Being able to name the Democrats who were never the party leader will label you as a serious political junkie.

The problem they faced (and the Lib-Dems will face) was that they had to make a choice between being the perennial party of protest or a party of government. The “a plague on both your houses” philosophy is untenable when you become one of those houses. The point being that you can promise anything if you know you don’t have to deliver.

As a minority party it was standard TV theatre that a Democrat like Meg Lees or Cheryl Kernot or Natasha Stott Despoia would appear on a politial forum expousing a clear, rational logic for reform. Then later when the policy they promoted was tried and found lacking they would join the chorus with clear rational logic why the government position should be reformed.

I have a thought that the UK Labour hard heads might make a play to retain government by offering Clegg the Prime Ministership and support for electoral reform in exchange for a return to Cabinet government with a 2/3rds majority Labour Cabinet (without Brown).

The discipline necessary for government does not come easily to a protest party. Given a taste of power, I’d think it likely that that power would be their downfall at the next election. Their supporters want the party to be pure, not pragmatic.

It’s not necessary - but it is desirable. Nobody wants to be in a minority government because it would be very weak, and would find it difficult to legislate due to opposition from the other parties. So the desirable situation is a majority government, which leaves you free to legislate - and to pass the budget, and to withstand votes of no confidence, and the like.

So the parties are haggling over outcomes which they find desirable; they’re trying to create a majority government, preferably one which involves their own party.

It might fail - I don’t think it will, but it might - but if it fails a minority government can be formed, and will if it really has to be. But the hope - and likelihood - is that a majority government can be formed.

As for who’s in charge - in a hung parliament the incumbant remains in charge for the period of time while this is being done, which hopefully won’t be more than a week or so.

As pointed out, a majority is needed for confidence motions. Passing a budget is generally the most important one.

Back in the 1980s, your analysis would probably be spot on. The Conservatives are traditionally the right-wing party of the rich; Labour are the left-wing party of the working class; and the Lib Dems are the party of the middle class, but with a lot of very liberal views. And back in the day those divides were enormous: you had Thatcher on one side who slashed taxes for the rich and deregulated everything in sight, while significant numbers of the Labour party were genuine socialists. But nowadays both those parties have moderated a lot: Tony Blair remade Labour as a centrist party, and David Cameon has tried to do the same with the Conservatives. British politics now is actually very moderate, and there aren’t many red-line policy disagreements between the Tories and the Lib Dems any more. If you look at the major issues:

1) Education: The parties are very similar. Both want to delegate more responsibility to head teachers, and both want a ‘pupil premium’ that gives schools grants if they take on poorer students.

2) Health: Both parties have prioritized our national healthcare system, committing themselves to cutting bureaucracy while protecting front-line services.

3) Environment: The Lib Dems are traditionally very focused on protecting the environment, which the Tories traditionally don’t care for very much, but David Cameron has changed the policy. The Tories now accept that climate change is real and that humans have contributed and they argue for serious action to combat it. There’s no major disagreement any more in the party lines.

4) Human rights and foreign aid: The Lib Dems are traditionally much more focused on these issues than the Tories, but again David Cameron has changed the party line, ring-fencing the ‘foreign aid’ budget and speaking out in defense of human rights.

5) Taxes and spending: Both parties argue that Labour has been spending too much. They both want to cut the deficit by cutting spending while protecting public services. One of the Lib Dems’ main proposals is to raise the income tax threshold from just over £7,000 to £10,000 for anyone earning less than £100,000, which is effectively a large tax cut for the working and middle classes. Tax cuts are obviously something the Tories can jump on board with pretty easily. They have disagreements about how quickly to cut the deficit, but nothing too major. The Conservatives want to raise the inheritance tax threshold (essentially a tax cut for the richest 1% of the country), which the Lib Dems would probably make them scrap, but I think David Cameron would concede on that point. The Lib Dems want to scrap tuition fees for students and the Tories don’t, but the Libs have accepted that the money isn’t there to do it right now.

6) Europe: Traditionally there’s a chasm between the parties on Europe. Up until 2008 the Lib Dems wanted to join the Euro, while a lot of Tories were ferociously opposed to allying with Europe and wanted to leave the European Union altogether. David Cameron has said his party will not compromise at all on Europe. But with the recession and the recent crisis in Greece, the leader of the Lib Dems, Nick Clegg, has walked back his own position, saying that joining the Euro would have been a mistake, and the whole issue is pretty dormant right now.

7) Immigration: Another chasm between the parties. The Lib Dems want an amnesty for illegal immigrants who have been here more than 10 years; the Tories want to cap skilled annual migration, both controversial policies for opposite reasons. But both parties got hammered for these policies in the campaign, and I suspect they can find a compromise somewhere in the middle.

**8) Defense and Nuclear deterrent: ** The leaders clashed on our nuclear deterrent, called Trident, which is a set of 3 nuclear-armed British submarines. The system is nearing its use-by date and will need to be replaced soon. David Cameron says that we must replace it like-for-like, and that retaining a strong nuclear deterrent is non-negotiable for him. The Lib Dems have said the system is designed for the Cold War and we do not need it any more. But they haven’t actually suggested scrapping it, just ‘reviewing the alternatives’ (though there aren’t any good alternatives really), and I think Nick Clegg will simply acquiesce on this point. The Lib Dems opposed the war in Iraq and are generally much more dovish on war, but they’ve accepted that British troops may need to be in Afghanistan for at least a few more years, so there’s no disagreement there.

9) Economy: The Lib Dems want much tougher banking reforms, arguing for breaking up the banks in the campaign, which the Tories disagree with. But I think that policy was campaign rhetoric more than anything, and they seem to have shifted it recently to “reforming the economy”. I don’t think there’s any red-line differences on the economy.

10) Crime and Justice: The Tories want to introduce elected local police chiefs. The Lib Dems disagree, but they do want to delegate more responsibility to local police forces and reduce state control, so I think they’ll find a compromise. The Lib Dems want to end prison sentences shorter than 6 months while the Tories don’t, but while that’s a big difference I don’t think it’s big enough to threaten a coalition.

11) Electoral Reform: This is the big one. Our current voting system is called “first past the post”, which essentially creates a two-party race and usually results in a strong majority government, but it shuts out 3rd parties like the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems have been committed, for decades, to getting a national referendum on introducing a system closer to Proportional Representation, which would create coalition governments that might be weaker but would be fairer on 3rd parties. Such a system would seriously threaten the Tories and they oppose it. I can’t see how the parties are going to compromise on this point to be honest.
Bottom line is the parties actually agree on a lot of things, and most of the issues where they disagree are either dormant issues right now or are not important enough that the parties can’t compromise or back down on them. The problem is electoral reform. Personally I think whether they form a coalition or not comes down to whether Nick Clegg is willing to back down on electoral reform. If he did, his party base would be apoplectic.

fantastic post Great Philosopher. Enjoyed reading it.

You should always remember that the British constitution, such as it is, has little to say about political parties*. From the constitution’s point of view, Parliament consists of 650 independent MPs. If they then wish to organise themselves into parties, with Whips and manifestos and so on, that’s their business. This is one reason we don’t have PR in Britain. PR requires the role of political parties to be enshrined in law.

  • other key positions such as the Prime Minister are likewise barely mentioned in constitutional law. In the British system, convention is almost as important as law.

That’s exactly how nazi germany started.

So, in this analogy, Nick Clegg is Hitler?

Not to mention that Hitler was the leader (sort of, the politics of the Weimar Republic were different from Westminster politics) of the largest party in the Reichstag, not the third largest one. And before 1933 all democratic parties in the Reichstag were keeping a cordon sanitaire around the Nazis and Communists. Hitler was named chancellor only because this policy was becoming unworkable and Papen though he could control him. I’ve never heard the Liberal Democrats being called a threat to democracy.

Coalitions where the junior party has the prime ministership and a handful of ministries, while the senior party has the bulk of the ministries, are actually fairly common.

This isn’t quite true. There aren’t that many rich people in the country. It would be more accurate to say that the Conservatives are traditionally the right-wing party of those who are rich and those who aspire to be rich. Think Harry Enfield & his Loadsamoney character. This is one of the things that made Margaret Thatcher so successful: she reconnected with those people. Selsdon Man, I think they classed him.

I would actually put it that the Tories are the party that doesn’t object to people being rich. One of the things I dislike about the left is that they seem to spend more time worrying about all those nasty rich people than they do caring for the poor people that they’re supposed to look after. Hypocrites. Their actions actually hurt the people they think they’re helping.

The idea that nobody votes Conservative unless they are a fox-hunting Eton-educated twerp is arrogant and insulting. I vote Tory because I sincerely believe that it is the best thing for everybody. I don’t vote for rich people or corporations or anything like that, and I am affronted by the implication that I am selfish or greedy because I do. I’m voting for what I think is best for everybody.