Edward Peckston (Brasenose College, President-Elect), argues that smaller Parliamentary parties only have power when there is no overall majority, using it to argue for a system of Proportional Representation.
This current Parliament is perhaps the least productive in living memory. Tom Brake, MP for Carshalton and Wallington, certainly seemed to think so when he visited OULD back in Trinity Term 2018. The 2017 General Election lead to a hung parliament, with a Conservative government backed up by the DUP in a confidence and supply arrangement. In this context, it would seem clear that the smaller parties have the potential for significant power. Indeed, the DUP agreed to the arrangement on the basis of an additional £1 Billion in funding for Northern Ireland. As objectionable as this agreement is, it does go to show the potential power of the smaller parties, and the demands that they are able to make of the government of the day in a situation such as this. This influence, however, is significantly weakened – both through the parliamentary make-up created by First Past The Post, as well as the Westminster system itself. It is this inherent limitation that reveals a structural contradiction in the way a Parliament such as ours operates, and highlights the need for reform.
The recent vote to find the Government “in contempt of Parliament” may have been moved by Labour, but it passed only with the support of the smaller parties in Parliament, as well as two Conservative rebels. The Opposition in this Parliament, simply put, cannot hope to defeat the Government in Parliament without the support of smaller parties. Without the support of the DUP, the Government would have lost the vote of no-confidence. This suggests that the smaller parties have a crucial role to play. Neither the Tories nor Labour can muster enough support themselves to win such votes. Indeed, the Government’s failure to win over the smaller parties, or even their own backbenchers, was one of the reasons for the crushing defeat of May’s Brexit deal. Parliament finds itself in a weird stand-off. Perhaps the smaller parties are the key to breaking this deadlock?
This, of course, only tells part of the story. The nature of the Westminster system means that the powers of smaller parties to challenge the Government are limited at best. The Lib Dems, alongside the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens, tabled a motion of no-confidence in the Government before Christmas, following Labour’s failure to table such a motion in the manner required by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Without the support of Labour, this motion was brushed away by the Government. Labour may require the smaller parties’ support, but they conversely require Labour’s support. They simply do not enjoy the rights afforded to the official Opposition. The Liberal Democrats may be fighting hard, but their power in Parliament is largely limited to Private Member’s Bills, PMQs, and select committees.
This odd contradiction of an ability to wield some influence on the two main parties, while at the same time remaining largely powerless, demonstrates a fundamental flaw in our democracy. FPTP results almost exclusively in a duopoly. Smaller parties only ever will gain significant clout when this duopoly is fully broken down. You only need to think about the liberal legislation passed by the Liberal Democrats while we were in coalition to see that. When the Government has a majority, however, this disappears. This system needs to change. 17.6% (those who voted for a party other than the Tories or Labour in 2017) of the electorate should not be effectively powerless and voiceless in Parliament. A system of proportional representation would go some way to overturn this power imbalance. It would force more coalitions, thus ensuring more of the electorate is represented in government, while also ensuring that MPs from smaller parties have greater powers to hold the Government of the day to account and represent their supporters by ensuring that the two major parties are not over-represented in Parliament. The current mess of a Parliament proves that the system is broken.