It was in the Summer of 2017 – at the hedonistic setting of Glastonbury – that Jeremy Corbyn predicted he would be Prime Minister by Christmas. He later claimed he would do it within twelve months. Experts now agree that October will be an ‘Autumn of Discontent’ for the Tories. The door could indeed be opened for Corbyn. But as a new book outlines, minority governments are surprisingly durable and difficult to bring down.
Over the next three months, Britain will encounter political drama of the highest order. Theresa May – forced to test her strength in a meaningful vote on the Brexit deal – will rely on Labour rebels and Tory enemies to pass it through. She will raise the no doubt use the threat of a general election to stave off such a defeat. Labour’s hopes rest on a ‘single issue’ autumn election on the deal, extending article 50, a further re-negotiation and – perhaps – halting Brexit altogether, to bundle them over the finishing line. The October window will almost certainly be Corbyn’s last crack at a premiership. No Labour leader has lost two consecutive general elections and survived. History however, suggests that we will not be going to the polls this autumn. In The British Tradition Of Minority Government, Tim Peacock combats some of the myths surrounding the weakness of minority administrations.
The threat of imminent collapse has long lingered over post-war prime minister’s. It lingered over the tenures of Harold Wilson in 1964 and 1974, Jim Callaghan in 1976, John Major after 1994 and David Cameron’s Coalition in 2010. Indeed, in the aftermath of the 2010 election, the bookmakers offered 10/1 on the parliament lasting a full-term. Of the aforementioned, only Jim Callaghan was forced into a snap poll (and that was on the back of three years of tortuous deal-making with minority parties). Each administration proved to be surprisingly resilient. Theresa May now has the added security of the Fixed Term Parliament Act – which requires two-thirds of MPs to vote for a general election. That would mean Tory MPs asking the public to come out and vote again for the fourth time in four years.
This House Has No Confidence
Jeremy Corbyn’s case would be strengthened by a snap election on the back of a confidence vote win – just as Margaret Thatcher’s was in March 1979. His allies – such as Owen Jones – assume that a confidence vote can be easily won; claiming this week that “if he (Frank Field) had not voted with the Tories, the government would have collapsed.” Peacock argues that a loss of ‘any such vote normally leads to the prime ministers resignation’ – and it has largely been upheld since the first one – held back in 1782. The issue with the Jones argument is that the vote in question was not a confidence issue – and often when it becomes one, the government survives. Callaghan lost his – the first loss for a PM since 1924 – after surviving five previous confidence votes, three Queen speeches and three budgets – all passed without a majority. Labour would have survived in 1979 had they not broke the pairing system (which meant that Sir Alfred Broughton abstained due to ill-health. Labour lost by one, and the Speaker would have cast the deciding vote in favour of the government).
Peacock also highlights a scenario whereby the Tories can accept that a ‘confidence defeat is a consequence of not having a majority’. He points to ‘minority governments all over the world’ who have accepted defeat on key legislation and remained in office. After 1974, Harold Wilson lost eighteen votes while Callaghan lost thirty-four during the period of minority. One tactic – which has already been repeated by May – is to abstain on a vote that the government knows it cannot win. Another option is to modify policy; as Callaghan did in 1977, following a defeat on a contentious government inquiry. Labour lost a vote and subsequently promised to ‘accept the will of the House’ and adapt.
Much of the media focus on ‘imminent collapse’ is based on the idea that coalition and minority are anathema to the British psyche. The term hung parliament emerged from the 1970s ‘stop-go’ electoral cycle – a decade that saw six administrations (Wilson, Heath, Wilson, Wilson, Callaghan, Thatcher) interchange in an attempt to arrest Britain’s economic decline. Peacock argues that framing minority government as ‘hung’ is ‘a derogatory reference to the perceived powerlessness and weakness of these administrations’. Politicians have been inclined to agree. At each election, leaders reiterate their aim to govern only as a majority. In October 1974, Harold Wilson specifically called for a majority in the Labour manifesto:
“This election is inevitable since no clear majority emerged in February. Despite its minority position the Labour Government have made a good start. Now we ask for the return of a Labour Government, with a working majority, so that we can continue to tackle the great problems facing Britain. We have to come to the men and women of our country and ask for their mandate for industrial and social reconstruction”
In the run-up to the October 74 election, Wilson had succumbed to seventeen parliamentary defeats – giving him all the ammunition needed to dissolve parliament and call for a ‘strong and clear majority’. The public rewarded him with a meagre victory of three, which gave Labour enough leverage for five more years in power. Yet the experience of the administration led to a sea change in British politics. It delivered over thirty years of stable one-party government. Since the Callaghan collapse, the Tories have used the threat of a hung parliament to urge against Labour being elected in ‘through the backdoor’. The successful campaigns of 1992 – when Paddy Ashdown was potrayed as the doorkeeper to a Kinnock led Britain – and 2015 – when Ed Miliband endured weeks of speculation on a Labour/SNP deal – support the case for framing elections in such a way.
This raises a further problem for a Corbyn victory this autumn; it is difficult see a scenario in which he can govern with a majority. The toxic aftermath of Brexit has entrenched positions and alienated large swathes of the country for Labour. This will be heightened if the party adopt a Remain/second referendum position. The much hyped ‘progressive alliance’ between Labour, the SNP, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and the Greens would be fraught with conflicted interests from day one. It would force Labour to adopt a pro-EU stance, which would alienate the Labour Leave MPs and further diminish their numbers.
There are, however, benefits to holding such a tight coalition together and Peacock outlines how the lack of a majority has instigated radical policy change in the past. Wilson only had a majority of three – but had the skill to navigate big and radical changes, such as the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. This is all the more significant, considering it was the first minority government for forty-five years and little preparation had been made for implementing policy with such fine margins. In 1976, Callaghan steered Britain through the IMF crisis – arguably Britain’s biggest pre-Brexit crisis – without a majority. He did do by promoting lengthy cabinet discussion – managing big beasts as diverse as Denis Healey, Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Peter Shore – and allowing each to have a satisfactory input into the proceedings.
How Corbyn would govern remains a question for the future. Today, British politics remains stuck in a deadlock which seems increasingly difficult to budge. Labour are preparing for a snap poll, with the appointment of an election guru to spearhead another campaign. He could be preparing for a while longer yet. History shows us that a minority government – as the Major and Callaghan ones did – will cling on to fight to the bitter end. Labour can take heart from this. The paralysing experience of the Major and Callaghan years heightened the calls for a strong government. It led to landslide victories for the opposition parties when the elections finally came. The 1979 election led to eighteen years of Tory rule, triggering a decade of deep division on the Labour side that still remain. Likewise, after 1997 the Tories were kept out of power for the next thirteen years, dividing over Europe and alienating large swathes of the electorate. Since Major’s minority administration, the Tories have won just one clear majority in the six elections they’ve fought.
With each day that the Tories stumble on, the Brexit chaos should offer them up for the taking. By 2022 they will have been in power for twelve years. It would be astonishing to stretch it out for another five years. For that reason, the party will cling on to power for as long as possible. For Labour, eyes must re-focus on the road ahead; a tough and arduous four-year battle back to Number 10.
Book Review: The British Tradition Of Minority Government by Timothy Peacock. Available at: Manchester University Press