Constitutional crisis? But is it the electoral machine that is not fit for purpose?

Yesterday, the House of Lords decided it would not rubber-stamp the government’s changes to tax credits.

For some, the Lords’ have committed an act of constitutional vandalism. For others, it is the reasonable response of a chamber with the constitutional duty to consider the wider impact of government policy.

One line of argument put forward by government peers is that the House of Commons had been clear in its own decision: that is, the Commons had voted for the statutory instrument in question. The Conservatives had gained their majority through a democratic process. The Lords, however, is just an appointed House.

There is much in this argument. Though the Commons has shied away from reforming the House of Lords when it has had the chance, and so must be reasonably content with its being, and its way of working.

The argument is developed that the nation spoke in the General Election and its decision was that there should be a Conservative government, enacting a Conservative manifesto.

The House of Commons is, then, part of a machine for converting popular will into government action.

Good machines convert their input into output in consistent and coherent ways. So how good a machine have we got?

The chart below draws on election results since 1945. On the x-axis is the share of the vote won by the party that provided the subsequent prime minister. On the y-axis is that party’s majority (in a couple of cases, a lack thereof) as a percentage of the seats in the House of Commons.

GE-output-input

This is hardly a smooth relationship between popular will – the share of the electorate backing the ‘winning’ party – and the seats outcome. And, as turnouts vary from election to election, the chart could look even less ‘smooth’!

Note that in 2005 Tony Blair won a majority of 66 seats with barely 35 per cent of the popular vote, and on a turnout of 61 per cent. In 1992, with a turnout of 78 per cent, John Major secured a majority of 21 seats with just shy of 42 per cent of the vote.

Any engineer would be horrified to find their machine with such unpredictable response to its input. So why do we tolerate such erratic behaviour from our electoral machine?

NB The sources of data on seats won, majorities, vote shares and size of House of Commons overall are the Wikipedia pages on the UK general elections from 1945 to 2015.

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