Is the Era of Single Party Rule Over?


The BBC’s Nick Robinson has it almost right when he says there are two ways of judging these elections – through the prism of the last three decades of British politics with its long-lived single party governments (Tories 1979-97; Labour 97-2010) or through the prism of 1970s one-term Governments. In the 1979-2010 period incumbent governments suffered mid-term slumps only to recover and win. In the 70s they suffered mid-term slumps and went on to lose at the next election.

But this is not the 70s, or the 80s, or 90s or noughties. The age of single party rule appears to be over, or at least on the endangered species list.

What we have seen is a very long-term, historic, trend away from single party government. The two main parties shared only just over two-thirds of vote in these elections, compared with almost 100% in the 1950s, and the end seems set to continue.

At the last election the Tories faced an unpopular, unelected, PM, leading an unpopular government that had been in power for 13 years and we’d just had the biggest financial and fiscal crisis in decades. Even then they couldn’t manage to get a majority. Does anyone seriously think that after 5 years leading a coalition that has delivered weak deficit reduction, even weaker economic growth and what could prove disastrous public sector reforms the Tories are going to win an outright majority in 2015?

Nor does it seem remotely probable that a new Tory-LD coalition is likely. The LDs are not going to recover substantially, certainly not to anything like their 2010 performance, and could easily be reduced to a rump in 2015. That is even if there was an appetite for continued Coalition on either side, which seems increasingly unlikely as both sides become increasingly fractious.

Nor does it seem likely, even on these elections results, Labour is really going to cruise to an outright majority. People voted yesterday mostly on national issues, despite it being local election, but they voted as a referendum on the Governments performance rather than as if they were making a choice of governments. If they had being choosing a national government, I doubt Labour would have done quite so well. This may change over the next 3 years, but it is not guaranteed or even probable.

On these results then nothing is certain, but what seems a real possibility is that 2015 (if the Coalition lasts that long) would produce Labour as the biggest party but without an overall majority, a reduced LD, and more smaller parties MPs. The question then would be what sort of Coalition would Labour form, or would they, 1960s or 70s style, try and form a minority government? Can Labour (or the Tories) adapt to what will become a politics of maneuver rather than of position, to use Gramsci’s famous phrase? Both main parties have decades of trench warfare tribal mentality to overcome if they are to be able to construct Coalitions in the future. Whichever main party succeeds in that will have the brighter future.

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About Colin Talbot

Professor of Government at the University of Manchester, England.
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3 Responses to Is the Era of Single Party Rule Over?

  1. I’m now approaching my 81st birthday but hope that is not a disqualifying defect. At least it may offer another perspective of sorts. And one paragraph from a 1969 talk still sticks in my mind. It was a memorial lecture given by John Stringer in a Tavistock Institute of Human Relations symposium. And he said this…

    “One cannot fail to be struck by the persistence of the legal model in public affairs even where they are not concerned with law and order. It is as though we still wished to be ruled by a king sitting in his court, hearing the supplications of his subjects and granting then redress or favour. Development of a scientific approach to decision-making has had little impact”.

    Thus I’ve always been fascinated to see how interesting innovations never survive once they start to threaten party political hegemony and patronage. Bob Hope’s great one-liner also sticks in the mind, “It doesn’t matter who you vote for the Government always gets in”! But the really serious and abiding example of this challenge at the center of our own constitutionality is well illustrated by the way we consistently manage to avoid any systematic link between public audit (what has happened) and budgetary control (what is proposed to happen).

    A classic example is how those who wanted to reform Gladstone’s Exchequer and Audit Department (leading to the creation of the National Audit Office) originally wanted to see public audit directly informing the parliamentary supply procedure. One has only to look at Dr Leslie Normanton’s Evidence before the Select Committee on Procedure (First Report 1977-78). He explained how this was good practice elsewhere – as in Germany where the state audit body is fully consulted by their Finance Minister at their budget’s preliminary stages and later by the Bundestag’s Budget Committee. But while this is now established good practice in so many countries – it was avoided – and it is still avoided – here in the UK.

    Thus, initially, it was a central issue with the 1994 Treasury Resource Accounting Green Paper. Indeed the then C&AG claimed that this “public expenditure planning” and proposed “Parliamentary Supply process” heralded the UK’s most important reform “since Gladstone’s reforms of the mid-19th century” (HC 123 Session 1994-95). And that had to mean parliamentary validation of supply! But following my own Evidence to the Treasury Committee (HC 378 June 1999) the Treasury called me in to explain that the (then) Chancellor was not very interesting in parliamentary innovations; that David Davis and his Committee of Public Accounts might be allowed to consider some statistical aspects of measurement but any overall parliamentary validation was not on the cards. And after much huffing and puffing Parliament was squared!

    So given the central constitutional importance of this issue one of the main questions now – or at any rate very soon! – is whether the Treasury is going to incorporate an adequate process of parliamentary validation within their current Alignment Project? And for those who think this is just a totally rhetorical question, then Colin’s questions about future Coalition governments may be especially relevant. After all the House of Commons did begin to exert greater influence over governments in the limited period following the Reform Act of 1832 when the political parties were all relatively weak. As Professor John Griffith used to point out, parliament then enjoyed greater influence – but that unfortunately Bagehot and others took that very exceptional period as typical when constructing their erratic theories of the UK constitution “on what they saw or what they thought they saw”! Time to get it right?!

  2. Labour-Green Alliance/Accord? What are the chances? Along with any other minor cross-benchers who might luck their way in…

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