Why should the biggest party govern us?
All this hung Westminster chat recently allows us Scots to suddenly feel experienced. The idea of confidence and supply was, I think, first discussed at Holyrood by pre-2007 Greens. It is now beginning to enter the Westminster lexicon – busting the idea that only a coalition government can be stable if an election doesn’t deliver a majority.
There is, I think, another thing we need to get straight pretty fast.
If a Parliament is hung I see no reason whatsoever why the biggest party naturally gets first refusal at forming a government. Nick Clegg’s argument that it does demonstrates, I think, a surprising degree of arrogance about politicians.
Politics is not about leaders, and it’s not about political parties. Politics is about choosing between policies, values, and visions for this country. Every different party represents a coalition of people and of movements, of ideas, and, crucially, of voters. It is the number voting for these ideas which matter, not the party label of the person representing them. If the majority vote for a set of ideas which more than one party share, but the minority view is concentrated in a single, bigger party, why does the latter have a right to impose this policy?
For example, it looks likely that a majority of people at the next election will elect candidates from parties which oppose immediate cuts to public spending. Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid, and Greens all hold this position (though there is less consensus on post-election fiscal policy beyond that). If this is the case, and yet the Tories happen to win 1 more MP than Labour, why should we end up with a government imposing fast spending cuts on a people who have voted against them?
Let’s look at a less likely scenario. Imagine that the Tories end up the biggest single party at Holyrood after the next election. Imagine, say, that the make up of the 129 MSPs is as follows:
Lib Dem 20
OK, I’m not saying I think this is likely, but try to suspend your disbelief.
In Scotland, local elections are now conducted with the Single Transferable Vote. As candidates are ranked in order of preference, we can see who, on the whole, voters for each party tend to like second best. It seems a reasonable assumption that, on the whole (though I accept not always), this is the party with which they would most like their favorite party to agree a coalition deal.
Much of my dissertation was spent trawling through the rounds of the STV transfers in these Scottish local elections to see who transferred to and from Greens. But, in doing so, there was another clear trend, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone involved in Scottish politics. People consistently put the Tories last. In fact, Tory candidates across Scotland regularly came within the top three on first preferences, but failed to be elected, as, round after round, SNP, Labour, Lib Dem, and Green votes transferred to each other – canny Scots used their votes to keep Tories out.
The fact that many people have a preferred party does not mean each other party is equally bad. This is a basic argument for STV – it allows us to express degrees of support. The biggest recipient of transfers from SNP voters, for example, was Labour – both are essentially social democratic parties, and so this isn’t that surprising.
If the above scenario led to Annabell Goldie being Scotland’s first Tory First Minister, there would be outcry – the vast majority of Scots would have voted for parties with a fairly similar vision for Scotland (Lib Dems, SNP, Labour), while a reasonable number would have voted for Greens – whose policies areas about as far from Tories as you could get (and whose voters only rank Tories second less than 10% of the time).
Does Nick Clegg really believe, in this circumstance, the Tories would have the moral right to first refusal at forming a government? If not, surely he has every right to look at what those who voted Lib Dem were voting for, and try to secure as much of this manifesto as possible? As the chat about hung parliaments continues, we must challenge the idea that the biggest party should necessarily get to govern, because ultimately, it doesn’t matter which party(ies) we elect. What’s important is the policies they implement.