Theme: Parties & Elections | Content Type: Blog

What Could True Majority Rule Look Like?

Albert Weale


Luca Upper

| 3 mins read

Democracy is a system of majority rule, but that raises the question of what majority rule actually means.

In the last decade, we have had three elections that have highlighted how the votes cast can translate into seats in the House of Commons in three different ways. In 2010, you had a hung parliament in which no one party had a majority share of the popular vote or the necessary number of parliamentary seats. This resulted in a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition whose parties had received approximately 59% of the votes and had around 57% of the seats.

In 2015, the system reverted to type: the Conservative party had the largest number of MPs, and was able to form a majority government alone, despite not receiving a majority of the votes cast.

Finally, in 2017 no one party had a majority share of the Commons or the popular vote, but unlike in 2010, a minority government ended up being formed by a single party, hoping it could pass legislation using ad hoc majorities.

In the Westminster system prior to 2010, it was typical for national vote share to be magnified into a winning majority in the Commons. But this can only really work in a two party system where the debate is essentially about taxation and spending, and that world has gone. If we’ve learned nothing else from Brexit, one thing we do now understand is that parties can be united on the vast majority of their programmes, but very divided on particular issues. Parties are like people in that regard; you will have many things in common with a spouse or close friend, but there will always be issues where you are far apart.

How can we fashion an idea of true majority rule? Ideally, a government would need to be able to command a double majority; a majority both in the Commons and amongst the electorate. One idea that I quite like is the idea of a minority government that seeks to form majorities on particular measures, as often happens in Nordic countries. But I believe the best way of finding that double majority is through reform of the House of Lords.

Electoral reform of the House of Commons seems a lost cause, but it is possible to imagine an elected House of Lords, chosen on a highly proportional system. This new House of Lords would not be able to deny confidence and supply to a government, but could put a majoritarian brake on individual laws being proposed by the Commons. This would create an incentive to compromise with minority groups and I hope would create a culture of policy deliberation and compromise.

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    Albert Weale

    Albert Weale is Emeritus Professor of Political Theory and Public Policy at University College London. His latest book is Modern Social Contract Theory (OUP, 2020). 

    Articles by Albert Weale