Why is a parliamentary majority so important? Is it really of benefit?
At least partly because the First Past the Post voting system, the UK has a strong tradition of majority governments, and relatively little experience of the kind of temporary coalitions common in many other European systems of government. Moreover, the only oversight over the House of Commons is the House of Lords, which, provided the Commons is resolute, can fundamentally only delay the implementation of legislation. As such there are two obvious dangers for a weak minority government:
- The government may fail to legislate at all.
- The parliament may legislate inconsistently.
In the first case, the government, realising that it risked Commons defeat if it tried to do anything, would severely curtail its own law making, while using parliamentary procedure to avoid private member's bills. This particular parliament makes this option especially worrying due to the intention to leave the European Union, and thus the obligation to pass a number of new laws to replace ones which will no longer apply post Brexit. There had been talk of using so called "Henry VIII clauses" to allow ministers to legislate directly, but this is likely to be more difficult given the election result and the limits of a minority government.
In the second case, legislation is passed only if it is popular, either by the Government itself, or after opposition amendments. While that might sound brilliant as a principle, it leads to some fairly obvious problems due to the splitting of fundamentally interrelated matters. The classic example is passing an Education or Health bill which significantly increases public spending, while at the same time also legislating a significant tax cut.
Whether either of these will actually be a problem is obviously unknown, but the Conservative party probably have enough votes to force through non-contentious legislation. It's certainly possible that much of the British fear of non-majority government is just unfamiliarity.
This raises a further question: For whom is a hung Parliament bad?
It is clearly bad for the main governing party, in comparison to a majority government.
In a majority government, it is relatively straightforward for the ruling party to propose and pass legislation. In addition, the government can reasonably expect to serve a full five-year term if it so chooses.
In a hung Parliament, the main party will be forced to compromise with other parties in order to pass legislation. It is unlikely to be able to enact all of its policy priorities. It may be forced to call an early election. This is a particular concern in the current Parliament, which will manage the process of Brexit and make decisions with unusually serious long-term consequences.
Whether a hung Parliament is bad for the country as a whole is much less simple. There are arguments both ways:
- A government in a hung Parliament may have difficulty implementing a coherent strategy, as it could be derailed by a Parliamentary defeat.
- It is uncertain whether the government will be able to keep any commitments it makes. This is particularly relevant in the context of Brexit; any deal the UK government makes with the EU will have to be voted on by Parliament.
- Government decisions will depend on post-election negotiations between party leaders, which may not reflect what each party's voters thought they were getting. (Very few Liberal Democrat voters in 2010 wanted or expected a Conservative/LibDem coalition, and the LibDem vote accordingly collapsed in the 2015 election.)
- If an early election is forced, it will be time-consuming and disruptive, and the election outcome might not be any better for stable and effective government.
- A hung Parliament better represents differences of opinion within the country, compared to a majority government which might have received as little as 37% of the popular vote.
- If winning a vote in Parliament cannot be taken for granted, the result may be a higher quality of scrutiny and debate, and ultimately better decision-making.