In 1976 Lord Hailsham coined the term ‘elective dictatorship’ to describe the extent to which the Government controls the Parliament of the day. Essentially, the term implies that in the UK political system, when elected, a government can essentially take whatever actions it wants without effective scrutiny.
There is no doubt that, generally, the elective dictatorship does exist. However, depending on the make-up of Parliament and the circumstances of the day, it can subside in certain circumstances. For example, Theresa May’s premiership, in which she lost two votes on her Withdrawal Agreement, can certainly not be described as ‘elective dictatorship’. Equally, until the General Election of December 2019, her successor was not in control of Parliament. As Prime Minister Boris Johnson lost his first four divisions (parliamentary votes) and became the first Prime Minister since 1894 to lose their very first parliamentary division.
So, given Elective Dictatorship normally exists, what factors lead to it?
- The UK Electoral System tends towards firm majorities
The First Past the Post system has the effect of creating a clear two-party system. First Past the Post is also a ‘winner takes all system’, this means that minor parties find it incredibly difficult to establish a presence in Parliament. This is because votes cast for smaller parties in most constituencies are unlikely to topple one of the two major parties. For example, in the 2019 General Election the Conservatives won 365 seats and the Greens won 1 seat. Nationally, it took an average of 38,264 votes for each seat the Conservatives won, but 865, 707 votes led to the Greens winning just one seat.
The fact that minor parties find it difficult to make an electoral impact means that power swings between the two major parties and the swing between them is usually enough to ensure a majority in Parliament. The average majority in Parliament since 1945 is 58.4 seats with only three hung parliaments in this time. Added to this is the fact that landslide victories are not uncommon in the U.K. system. Some of the biggest are:
Clement Attlee (Labour) – Majority of 147 Seats in 1945
Margaret Thatcher (Conservative) – Majority of 144 in 1983
Tony Blair (Labour) – Majority of 178 in 1997
In cases such as these, it is clear that the government will be almost impossible to control.
2. The Government controls the parliamentary agenda
The agenda and activities of the House of Commons are largely controlled by the Government as dictated by Standing Orders (the rules of Parliament). It is Standing Order 14 (1) that outlines that the government usually have control of the parliamentary agenda:
“Save as provided in this order, government business shall have precedence at every sitting.”
Other time allocated in Parliament that is not controlled by the government is limited to:
- 20 Days for Opposition Business
- 35 Days for Backbench Business
- 13 Fridays for Backbench Private Members Bill
3. The House of Commons dominates the House of Lords
Further to the fact that the Government largely controls the House of Commons, the House of Commons is dominant over the House of Lords. There are a number of reasons for this:
Parliament Acts (1911 & 1949) – The Parliament Acts mean that the House of Lords can no longer block legislation, but merely delay it for one year. If the House of Lords blocks a bill they the House of Commons wants to pass, it can invoke the Parliament Act. This means that if the same bill were passed by the Commons in the subsequent year, it could be forced into law. The Parliament Act has only been invoked four times since 1949 (most recently for the Hunting Act 2005) but the very fact that it exists makes the Lords more reticent to challenge the Commons.
Salisbury Convention – Since the 1940s it has become a well established convention that the House of Lords does not vote against a bill that was clearly a part of the Government’s election manifesto. The reasoning behind this is that if an issue was in the manifesto of the winning party in the election it is fair to infer that the policy has a mandate from the people. As an example of this, the 2019 Conservative Manifesto said that their government would bring in “An Australian-style points-based system to control immigration”. This means that if this policy appears in a bill, the Lords will assent to it under the Salisbury Convention.
Financial Privilege – By long-standing Convention the House of Lords does not vote against any bill that is raising money, for example a bill to raise taxes or the Government’s Yearly Budget.
4. Party Loyalty
One of the most important factors that create the impact of ‘elective dictatorship’ is party loyalty. In the UK political system it is exceptionally difficult to become an MP without standing as part of a political party. Currently, there is only independent MP in the House of Commons, however, Neale Hanvey was on the Ballot Paper as an SNP member, but was suspended just before the election. The last true independent in the U.K. was Sylvia Hermon who was elected as an Independent MP for North Down between 2010 and 2019.
Not only do MPs rely on their parties to be elected, they also rely on their party for their career development. Most MPs want to advance their career, either becoming a Select Committee Member or a Minister or Shadow Minister. To become a Minister or Shadow Minister they have to keep their party onside, whilst becoming a Select Committee Member will be much easier with the support of their parties.
As a result of this, rebellions in the House of Commons are rare. Although there are naturally rebellious MPs (Jeremy Corbyn famously voted against his own party 428 times when he was a backbencher) most MPs ‘toe the party line’ and vote the way that their party whips want them to, enhancing the power of political parties and contributing to the elective dictatorship.
The fact that Britain has a fusion of powers means that if the executive can keep their own party onside, they will normally be able to carry out most of their agenda. This is different from the United States, where there is a separation of powers. Often, in the United States there is a ‘divided government’ meaning that the party of the President does not control the Senate and House of Representatives. This makes it very hard for the President to carry out any agenda they may have, as President Trump has found.
There can be no doubt that the elective dictatorship is a concept that fits the U.K. political system. Between 1945 and 2019 there have been 19,919 divisions (votes) in the House of Commons. Of these, only 148 have been lost by the Government. This means that 99.2% of all divisions have been won by the Government – a clear indication of the power of the executive. The effects of the ‘elective dictatorship’ depend on a variety of factors, particularly the size of a parliamentary majority and the cohesiveness of the governing party. Following a period under Theresa May when she had no majority and struggled to reconcile her own party on Brexit, with Boris Johnson’s majority of 80 it is likely the elective dictatorship is back.