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In the 2015 elections in the UK, the Conservative Party received 330 seats, and the absolute majority because it is more than half of the 650 available seats. This means there was all across the UK more voters who chose a particular party than voters who chose any other opposition party.

This raises the question (not for UK's case, but in general), does such a situation not endanger democracy? It means that chances for any other party but the ruling party to pass any law are slim to none, and the ruling party can pass whatever laws it wants as long as there is no internal opposition.

  • Objectively, the ever decreasing voter turnout at general elections in the UK does suggest that it is something of a problem for democracy. But a similar trend also exists in many countries with PR (including Switzerland!) so it's not that simple to interpret. – Relaxed May 31 '15 at 19:24
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    Surprised nobody's mentioned the Ben Franklin quote: Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. – userLTK Mar 2 '18 at 12:37
  • This is what an independent judiciary and an (unwritten) constitution is for. What is bad is when a parliamentary majority can lead to the rules being rewritten, which is what happened in Weimar Republic Germany and the enabling act. – Andrew Grimm Mar 2 '18 at 22:58
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Short answer: it seems unlikely, as almost every UK Government since World War 2 has been a single party majority government1.

Long answer: Firstly, to correct an error in the question:

This means there was all across UK more voters who choose a particular party than voters who choose any other opposition party.

No; the Conservative Party achieved 50.8% of the seats with 36.8% of the votes.

Such an outcome is a feature of the first past the post system used in the UK and other countries, combined with a purely constituency-based parliament, whereby a general election is, in effect, 650 separate elections, one for each constituency in the country.

The possible disparity between share of the vote and share of the seats tends to skew the latter in favour of the larger parties, and so some form of proportional representation is often called for, especially by the smaller parties.

In the meantime, the current system has tended to produce single-party governments in the UK. Whether this is a good thing or not appears to be a matter of opinion.

The hysteria in the media before and after the 2010 election, and especially in the run up to the 2015 election, suggests that it may depend on what you're used to. The UK isn't accustomed to coalitions, so many believe that single-party governments are better.

Conversely, in countries like, say, Germany, coalitions are the norm, and seem to function effectively.

To address a couple of other parts of the question:

It means that chances for any other party the ruling party to pass any law are slim to none

Not necessarily. In countries with a bicameral legislature, there is often no guarantee that the governing party also has a majority in the upper house, so some negotiation with other parties may still be necessary.

the ruling party can pass whatever laws it wants as long as there is no internal opposition.

That can be a very big problem. The new UK government has a majority of just 12 seats, which means that it is very sensitive to internal rebellions.

1. The exceptions being the Labour government of Feb-Oct 1974, and the Convervative-LibDem coalition of 2010-2015.

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    Sounds like the seat repartition mechanism in the UK is particularly awful. Small parties gets 4% of votes but gets only 1 seat? That's very painful for them. – Bregalad May 27 '15 at 19:50
  • I know the question is old, but here is a video explaining in detail the differences between votes and representation. The channel also comments (in other videos) alternative ways of voting youtube.com/watch?v=r9rGX91rq5I – SJuan76 Oct 15 '15 at 23:16
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I see where you are coming from but note that to many people socialised in a country like France (and, I think, the UK), clear-cut majorities and the possibility of an alternative, of a single election leading to a complete change in government and direction epitomises democracy. Parties are not expected to pass a law once in a while but to implement a coherent set of policies, succeed and stay in power or fail and be replaced.

On a deeper level, there is the notion that the people express a will and give a party a mandate for the next legislature period. In reality, it might only be 51% of the people who bothered to vote, but we still talk about it as if “we” wanted something and since “we” put the people offering it in power, we get it. No watering down or endless negotiations to reach a consensus or satisfy everybody, you go either in this or in that direction.

So single-party power is not seen as a problem, lack of change after elections is (say because there are no elections or elections are not free but also because the same coalition tends to govern or a single party stays in power a very long time like the LDP in Japan or the CSU in Bavaria).

It should be possible to “punish” a party/government and get rid of politicians who failed. This logic is also reflected in the electoral system. In both first-past-the-post or the French system, you don't get to elect a party that perfectly reflects your preferences. But you can't always vote against what is for you the worse option.

From this perspective, the Swiss system in which all the main parties share power at the federal level since 50+ years feels very undemocratic. Whatever comes out of an election, the same people are almost certain to remain members of the federal council, certainly the same political parties will continue to govern. Seemingly the only change is that the number of seats each party has gets adjusted once in a blue moon.

There is actually much more than this to the Swiss system and these considerations do not settle the question either way but I thought it was interesting to consider the difference in perspective.

Your question also touches upon another problem: The fact that first-past-the-post and other systems based on gaining a plurality of the vote in single-seat constituencies distort the vote and can be used to durably keep minority parties out of the parliament and government politics. It's difficult to find a convincing justification for that, mostly it's presented as a price to pay for effective government and transparent elections, but it's a somewhat distinct problem I think.

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Is there a danger to democracy in the short term? No. Your flavour of democracy worked as it is intended. The danger is not to democracy, but perhaps to some aspects of your country.

Nobody ever said that democracy (outside of direct representation) worked all the time. It was a neccessary facet of representational democracy that your direct influence on your representative for each and every vote may not be as you wished. That you will have voted for the person or party whose was closest aligned with you rather than attempt to run referenda on every legislative item that comes along.

So does the current government lack a meaningful check or balance to their power as long as they don't try to pass something so egregious that their own party revolts? Yes. Is that a danger "to democracy", no - unless they try to suvert the institutions that protect your democracy prior to the next election. But those that abuse their positions tend to find themselves unemployed the next time the voters get their say, because democracy is inherently self-correcting to the general wishes of the governed.

  • +1 for the "no unless" paragraph. – Jontia Jan 10 at 16:47
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Some years ago, I built a model that measured the chances of a parliamentary government going into a dictatorship.

The first piece of the model was just the "tilt," T, in favor of either the left or the right. If the tilt was greater than 25 (that is, the difference between left and right either way), that was potentially troubling.

The second piece of the model was the percentage of the parliamentary votes represented by either extreme parties, or by extreme members of the moderate parties, E.

The danger point came when T*E was 15 or greater.

Example (using rounded numbers) in Weimar Germany. The right-wing Nazis have 45% of the parliamentary vote, the left wing Communists have 20% of the vote, and the centrists have 35% of the vote. Then the tilt factor, T, is 45%-20%=25%.

The two "extreme" parties (Nazis and Communists) have 65% of the vote, E, between them. Then the product of T*E= 65% (extreme factor)*25% (tilt factor)= 16.25% >15%.

So the danger comes when a large majority combines with a large extremist, anti-democratic sentiment.

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Why? A government gets a 4 or 5 year term to govern. If they mess it up, democracy kicks in and kicks them out. Yes, a 50%+ proportion in a lawmaking body (let's generically call that a parliament for expediency) allows them to pass laws by simple majority, but that still runs against a country's constitution and/or supreme court equivalent. And possibly even from the party's own representatives voting against government positions. Sufficiently unpopular choices will also surely see that government lose its majority in the next electoral cycle.

On the other hand, a hung parliament can make occasionally it impossible for a government to govern and result in a dearth of law-making decisions being carried out, hardly the outcome that voters typically wish for when they elect a government.

I realize some voters prioritize day-to-day accountability and scrutiny over laws getting passed, but not all do and some consider that a government should, within reason, be trusted to govern until the next election. That's a different view of democracy and each voter needs to see where they are on that spectrum and how the electoral system should be tweaked to balance things.

The US Congress has this issue in spades, sometimes called gridlock. Sure, no really bad laws get passed, but not much gets done either. Voter confidence in Congress as a whole is generally abysmal, and I am pretty sure gridlock is a big part of that.

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Nearly every government in the UK and many in the US have had majority control (for the US, to make it similar, I am including only when the President and both houses are from the same party).

Is democracy dead? It might be imperiled, but hardly due to majority rule.

Unless the majority starts to change the playing field to unfairly extend their majority in time, is it a problem. But, there are protections against this. So, in the end, the voters will get to vote soon again, and if they aren't happy with what the majority did, they will get kicked out, and a new majority can undo what they have done.

Because it is never good to whipsaw back and forth, a responsible politician has to walk a fine line, even when in an absolute majority, between making the most of the power they have, and on the other side, not going so far that you will anger the voters and ensure your laws will all be repealed.

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It depends on what kind of democracy you have. Liberal Democracies are characterized by checks and balances intended to protect the rights of the minority party in any government and are generally what western society thinks of when they think of Democracy. The United States was relatively stable with single party majorities for most of it's history (the most dangerous time for the U.S., the Civil War, was partially a result the U.S.'s Second Party System (period of political history from 1828-1856 elections) having a strong majority Party in the Democrats and a weak opposition coalition made up of the Whig Party (which was loosely assembled from the failed National Republican Party, a break away from the Democrat party (then called the Democrat-Republican party), and the Liberty and Free Soil Parties (abolition parties) and the Anti-(Free) Mason Party (no points for what they were about). The time was noted for a period of 5 democrat presidents (including James Buchanen) only one of whom served two terms (Andrew Jackson) and 4 Whigs who all combined served for 8 years of this period (two died in office, one within a month of his inauguration and the remaining two were ascended vice presidents who were voted out of office come the term's end). Democrats by the end of the Second Party System had worn out their welcome, with James Buchanen's almost impeachment (investigated but the committee charged with the investigation voted to not recommend Impeachment, but did say that Buchanen was the most corrupt president since the Constitution was ratified) paved the way for Lincoln to win the Presidency for the new Republican Party (which had adsorbed the dying Whigs and the single issue abolition parties under one banner) and gave rise to Democratic southern states attempting to leave the Union... and we got a Civil War.

Keep in mind that the U.S. government was designed to "not work" as much as possible, and divided congress or executive-legislature party splits are quite common in U.S. Politics. The last time a super-majority controlled the government (controlled filibuster proof house and senate as well as Presidency) was from 2009-2011 with the Democrat's control. Even then, they were only able to pass one major piece of legislation (the U.S. system tends to favor individual's politics rather than party politics, which means that both parties tend to behave more like coalitions with their internal politics than a single ruling party. There are moderates who might be more in favor of the opposite side's solution than their own radicals solution) as well as making it easier for the minority to frustrate the majority. This is largely due to the moderate seats tending to be the ones that will flip during major power changes, so the minority tends to be more ideologically pure to the party than the majority, which has it's moderates that need to be pleased as well as it's radicals. And in any system, it's easier to say "No" than it is to say "Yes".

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