by GK Strategy 16th June, 2017

Reflections on Minority Government from 1997

Original article published on linkedin

From 1995 – 1997 I was a parliamentary researcher working for David Blunkett in Labour’s shadow Education and Employment team.

In April 1992, John Major had won the election with 336 seats to Labour’s 271. In September 1992, sterling crashed out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and the Government lurched from one crisis to the next, with the 21 seat majority gradually eroded by a string of by-elections.

By 1997, Major had lost eight by-elections and presided over three defections.

I vividly remember the buzz on the shadow benches when Ben Chapman won the Wirral South by-election, thus thrusting John Major into a minority Government, at that time dependent on the support of nine Ulster Unionists and three Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs. Sound familiar?

While a lot has changed since 1997, and the underlying political context is clearly very different, there are some lessons that can be learnt from that period that are worth some reflection:

Party discipline is critical – In a minority administration, rebellion is not tolerated, the whips are feared and powerful. On every issue of importance, the whips will need to be 100% clear about the position of every MP under their watch and take responsibility for ensuring that they toe the line. Groups of MPs can hold the Government to ransom. Individual MPs and groups of MPs are powerful. The nature of governing in a minority is that discussion about rebellion, defections and resignations will become a focus for Opposition and campaigners as they try to play off an individual’s personal integrity on an issue against supporting the party. There will be occasions where for some the compromise is too great.
Every vote counts – By 1997 the tradition of pairing MPs from different parties off against each other had completely broken down. This meant that key votes saw MPs wheeled in on their hospital beds, pulled out of constituency and other engagements to race to Westminster to vote. This makes individual MPs extremely powerful – expect to see deals to secure votes. The US has a strong tradition of “pork barrelling”, watch out for local investment pledges to assuage MPs worried about their majorities.
Procedure matters – Small majorities mean a powerful Parliament and understanding how Parliament works in practice is an absolute must for any public affairs practitioner. In particular, the timetabling of votes is absolutely critical. If the opposition can force a vote earlier than expected, it can catch the Government by surprise.
Policy suffers – While governments with big majorities can drive through their policy platform, weak leaders and weak governments can only govern by building or forcing consensus in their own parties. This is exhausting; more time will be spent to secure each and every vote. Less can be achieved overall. Most of the Government’s manifesto will already be on the rubbish heap. Expect more to follow.
Watch out for Europe – Major’s Government was beset by rebellion over the Maastricht treaty and it stalled Government operations to such an extent that he called some of his own Cabinet “bastards”. Given Europe is once again the issue of the day and the Great Repeal Bill has to make its way through an unstable Commons, the issue that has hung over the Conservative Party for years shows no signs of fading. How Theresa May can marshal new First Secretary of State and pro-EU Damian Green into the same lobby as the “three Brexiteers” in Cabinet, now also joined by Michael Gove, remains to be seen.
For lobbyists and campaigners – Cross-party engagement is key. It’s hard to say what will happen to Government or what would happen if there’s another election, but engaging with all parties is the only sensible approach. Worth also remembering that whilst getting things passed is harder, stopping things you don’t like becomes easier. A great campaign can achieve real change.
It will certainly be interesting to watch, but given trust in politicians and the media is already at an all-time low, I wonder how this parliament will help rehabilitate the perception of politics and politicians among the general public.

A minority Government means that there will be more politics and less policy, more back room deals, tribalism and subterfuge and less collaboration and partnership between parties.

I’m not sure anyone voted for that!

Don’t hesitate to get in touch with emily@gkstrategy.com for chat about what may lie ahead.

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