Photo by Karlie Hubbard on Unsplash

A series of polls during this election (and actually, for some time) have suggested the possibility not just that Labour will win the election, but do so in historic Canada 1993 terms - with a majority of hundreds of MPs and the Conservative party reduced to a fraction of its size.

There is a certain amount of disbelief at these numbers - but they are coming from so many sources that it is worth taking seriously thinking about - what does a Parliament where one party has 480 MP (and the “official opposition” only 70 MPs) look like?

Because our system generally gives near total control of government and parliament on even a small majority - after a certain point there is not a lot of extra benefit to more MPs, and this can start to cause problems (if ones that a government with a huge majority can generally handle).

This blog post is more of a brain dump than a comprehensive list - but just trying to catch the obvious stuff that falls out of taking the polling seriously.

Key points

  • Greater majorities give more power to party leadership because it prevents factions acting as veto players, but also means they can rebel publicly with less consequence.
  • Greater majorities mean more backbenchers as a percentage of the party - and less viable routes for promotion into government. There are fewer incentives for loyalty, greater low-level rebellion.
  • Greater central control and a bigger recruiting pool encourages higher turnover of ministers - increasing central political control at the expense of governing capacity. If this doesn’t happen - again, more disaffected backbenchers.
  • Need to find something constructive for backbenchers to do that is not causing problems - likely approach from party leadership is greater support and encouragement to do constituency work.
  • Main opposition gets status and some support regardless of the number of MPs - but is hurt in short money funding - making it more dependent on outside sources of ideas and funding.

Parliamentary and government control

While government and parliament are technically different things - in practice both become controlled by the dominant party’s decision-making structure. The large number of shared people (with high status MPs in the party occupying most important government positions), and a parliamentary agenda dictated by these high status MPs - means that these are deeply intertwined systems.

As a single party, or a coalition of parties, having a majority means you can form the government. Being the government means you have access to a range of powers and capacities that belong to the government, independently of your control of Parliament.

Having a majority also means you can work as a block vote to control Parliament’s processes and marginalise other parties role in decision-making. As long as all factions of the dominant coalition continue to see benefit in enforcing the decision of the bloc as a whole, it can have 100% of the decision-making power with 51% control.

The number of MPs in the governing party can go up and down. What doesn’t flex is government positions, and parliamentary time. In the UK system, the government already controls most Parliamentary time, MPs can’t usefully be put to work on legislation in additional schedule-time because it’s already spoken for. It already gets all the government jobs, and there’s a limit on those, so the controlled career path can’t expand to match the larger parliamentary party. This reduces the effectiveness of a key approach to party management.

Too many cooks

In the UK Parliamentary system, you want to have more than half the MPs - and when you achieve this you have transformed Parliament from a place where you negotiate with other parties to one where you negotiate within your party.

In general, a party is more stable with a healthy majority above 50%. Smaller majorities empower smaller factions (or even sometimes individuals) as veto players whose consent is needed on all decisions. The larger the majority, the less vulnerable the party/coalition is as a whole to any particular grouping.

So, in this example - a big Labour majority decreases the power of any particular Labour faction to threaten the leadership’s agenda and win concessions. It also decreases some costs of non-compliance, because rebellions do not risk the vote or the overall project. The inability to win concessions may lead to more public (but also ineffectual) rebellions against the leadership.

While initially more MPs increases the overall stability of the party, with too large a majority it creates new problems of having too many MPs with too little to do.

Musical chairs

A very large majority can be seen as a particularly literal version of the idea of “elite overproduction” - where too many elites (dominant party MPs) are produced that can be absorbed into the existing party power structure (government jobs) - making the overall system less stable (but again, not in a fatal way).

Not only can a much smaller percentage of the overall party be given government roles (the number of paid roles is fixed), it is much less plausible to backbenchers there is a good path to stepping up to cabinet positions - which is a key motivator for MPs adopting loyal (and quiet) behaviour. One of the carrots against rebellions has been taken away - again making persistent low-level rebellion more likely.

The government isn’t going to collapse because of this, but more MPs creates a persistent low-lying instability that reduces capacity. More MPs makes it easier to replace ministers - and more likely that this will happen more frequently. The Conservative-LibDem coalition had ministers staying in roles for a longer time, because this was more subject to internal negotiation than being the whim of the prime minister. Larger majorities both give a greater recruiting pool, and the prime minister has more leeway to annoy individual factions within the party by replacing specific people in government.

A possible dynamic here is a situation that empowers the prime minister and central party but creates a high turnover rate in government. This increases political control, at the cost of political capacity - where turnover both prevents ministers from developing too much of their own agenda, but also developing the expertise in managing their department that would make them effective at implementing the leadership’s agenda. Things fail, people are reshuffled, things continue to fail. The solution that usually appears a couple of years in (specialist ministers appointed as Lords) are even more controversial - because it’s a big statement when you have 450 MPs to say none of them are good enough for the job.

This dynamic isn’t destiny - looking at the average length of ministerial tenure, while 2010-2015 stands up compared to the term before that and all terms after it - it’s about comparable to 1997-2001. Parties with large majorities can try and find other ways of directing MPs energy.

Making Parliament much better at scrutiny and creating more career paths for MPs to advance in Parliament without government jobs would from an overall system perspective be a great idea - but not one in favour with the party leadership. From their point of view, MPs were elected on the leadership’s coattails, and it is their job to walk through the voting lobbies when told - not to get distracted by the idea they’re supposed to be scrutinising that stuff. As such, a potential compromise is to make it easier for MPs to be great constituency MPs, doing good work a long way away.

We’re in government, go back to your constituencies

The constituency role of MPs has increased a lot over the last few decades and this isn’t uncontroversial.

There are complaints that MPs have become super-councillors and advice bureaus - doing work that should be done by local authorities and ombudsmans, while the work MPs can uniquely do (asking questions and improving legislation in a way that avoids future case work) is neglected. Defences of the constituency function take a few angles - from the idea of MPs being mediators between citizens and a technocratic state (the case work rises with the 1950s expansion of government services, and takes a more general turn as this role is preserved through 1980s privatisation) - to a more general sense that MP may should be anchored in a public service, and keeping them anchored in people’s real problems is a useful and humbling exercise.

Just practically, the constituency role has grown not because MPs have made a choice between pointing at potholes and staring at legislation, but because of tight party control over MPs parliamentary activities and the former is something to do. Indeed, in countries like New Zealand where party control of MPs is even stronger, MPs have a stronger constituency focus.

The problem for new MPs is they want to demonstrate excellence and have a reason to talk to ministers, but do so in a harmless way around the government agenda. You want to be visible, seen as hard-working, but not someone who’s trying to rock the boat. Picking up a local cause ticks a lot of these boxes.

So if you have a large majority, a comfortable compromise would be to encourage this more. The government doesn’t need everyone present to vote all the time larger majorities mean a smaller fraction of government MPs can outweigh all opposition MPs. As such it can be more permissive with people not being in Parliament. The New Labour government had the concept of constituency weeks - where blocks of MPs in sequence might off in their constituencies, being busy, while enough MPs were in Parliament to keep the agenda going.

Again, this is not to say this is a great use of time - just a likely dynamic than falls out of a large majority. It’s a bit of a pain for me professionally because blocks of MPs being regularly absent complicated interpretation of voting records for tools like TheyWorkForYou - ideally this could be packaged with reform of voting processes. Better publication of party whipping information would help make some of these invisible party mechanics more transparent - but there also the question of if you want to tacitly accept the role of an MP can include frequent absence from Parliament. A question to dig into if we get into this scenario.

Something to note in this dynamic though is a big reason for the (premature) return to an in-person Parliament during the pandemic was MPs being off in the constituencies was causing problems for party management. MPs were talking/plotting outside the watchful eyes of party whips, and in general not being socialised in the Parliamentary culture of party control. WhatsApp makes it much easier for cohorts of MPs to keep in touch - and instead of atomised MPs coming from their individual constituencies happy to be party drones - they might develop strong lateral links within the party, with time away from the leadership to think dangerous thoughts.

Select Committees

Something that does straightforwardly increase as you get more seats is membership of Select Committees.

Select Committees are groups of MPs that scruntinise a particular area of government work (e.g. Health and Social Care Select Committee), or another specific issue (e.g. Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee).

The chairs of committees are (mostly) allocated in proportion to the number of seats received by the parties - with the allocations agreed between party leaderships, and then specific MPs elected by the house in a vote (although often candidates are unopposed). Parties are then allocated a proportional number of the remaining positions, and these are filled by internal elections within the parties. Several committees by tradition or rule require a chair from the opposition, e.g. Public Accounts Committee, Backbench Business Committee.

So the dominant party should always have a majority on all committees - but what changes with a bigger majority of more committee chairs (which are important and visible roles) - and the extent to which the committee is mostly a discussion between members of the dominant party.

The effects of this could be varied. On the one hand, scrutiny by the same party as the government is likely to be weaker and less probing. Some of the “Parliament should be better at scrutiny” reformers like the idea of stronger committee chairs as an alternative career path to being a minister, with an interest in holding government to account. But in practice chairs can transition into being ministers - and the ambitious may pull their punches.

Alternatively, more dominance of committees might make them interesting organs for party backbenchers. With criticism and what committees choose to pay attention to reflecting internal party concerns and, potentially be more politically influential on the government.

This dynamic might be interesting in Public Bill Committees. In principle these are where MPs scrunitise legislation, but in practice membership is controlled by the party whips, who avoid appointing specialists. The motivation for this is the partisan idea of what MPs are supposed to be doing. In this framework, it’s not government MPs job to sit down with opposition MPs and make deals to change government legislation - it’s their job to pass the legislation they were voted in to deliver. Greater majorities on these committees might shift these dynamics a bit, with more opportunities for parliamentary processes to be used for intra-party discussions. Against that is the continued control of the membership of committees, and that there are plenty of other MPs to invite next time if someone gets ideas above their station.

Scrutinise someone else

There are plans to use MPs as a form of scrutiny of existing and future mayoral combined authorities. This in principle is bad, but in practice solves a party management problem from a different direction.

Scaling this up and using these panels of MPs as part of devolved scrutiny arrangements hits a sweet spot of being at least slightly useful, and indirectly putting a greater centralised check on increasingly independent mayors (again, this is bad for devolution - but probably good from the point of view of party leadership). It might also create the idea that some of these MPs’ career trajectories might take them in this direction.

In general, an oversupply of government MPs brings out the ongoing questions of what MPs are meant to be doing, and if their time could be better spent. If you have ideas on this, there would probably be some interested ears in finding purpose in a job with a shelf-life (assuming this is a high tide mark), and limited advancement prospects in a Parliamentary term. The constituency service MP might be the easy answer - but there may be those interested in exploring other ideas (such as really testing the powers of the Backbench Business Committee).

What about the opposition?

Having far fewer opposition MPs changes how effectively the opposition works, but some platforms are given regardless of the size of the party. If the Conservative Party ends up with 80 seats and the Lib Dems with 50, the Conservative Party still is the official opposition, which both gives them the few paid parliamentary opposition positions (leader, whip, deputy whip) and more parliamentary time and profile compared to other parties.

Parliamentary opposition is rarely practically significant (in the sense of stopping things happening) - but it is politically significant - where the official opposition is trying to demonstrate its capacity to be the government, and signal differences and disagreements with the government. Failing publicly to change government plans is part of this signal - and platforms like Prime Ministers Questions elevate the opposition as a challenge to the government regardless of the seat difference.

This political component of opposition does change a bit depending on their overall level of MPs. A smaller parliamentary party has less talent to draw from, and less people paid to be full time politicians. Short money is the support given to opposition parties to assist in their scrutiny functions (effectively state funding of their functions to counteract some of the enormous power of being the government). Short money is based on a formula that includes votes received and seats won. If the government wins a big majority, opposition parties collectively will receive less support than if they won a small one.

Using the YouGov poll as of 2024-06-05 and the 2023 formula, annual short money (not including travel) is down in general £1.9m and the Conservative party receives £2.2m less a year than Labour did in 2023. They still get about £4m - but this difference would have practical effects. It leads to fewer support staff around the party and shadow cabinet, makes parties more dependent on external think tanks for ideas, research, or we’ll see more of the trend of outside groups and companies paying for researchers in shadow cabinet offices.

An outcome of this situation might be a change to rules to give more time to small opposition parties - publicly as a point of fairness (collectively could be equivalent in size to largest opposition party), privately to reinforce the diminished status of the Conservative Party. On the other hand, this would also work against Labour when in opposition in future - so change is not a guarantee.

What if anything do we learn from this?

This is a lot of words on a hypothetical - there’s a reasonable possibility that the outcome is a much more normal looking result. But if it’s not, then it reflects that the electoral system and parliamentary system is not set up to handle the kind of public opinion being thrown at it.

No one is predicting that Labour will get outright majority of votes - the idea that it’s plausible for them to get such a majority that their MPs are bored seems weird - but this is a result of both the electoral system giving more seats than due, and Parliamentary system that give far more power to the government (even a minority government) than is due from their actual seats. There should be some reward for government parties getting higher majorities - or put another way, parliamentary time should be more equitably distributed among the parties in the first place.

A more general lesson is that this kind of result would represent increased volatility - and we have a parliamentary system that expects a certain kind of result. We need institutions that can react to this, rather than assuming at some point we’ll snap back to normal (unless things do snap back to normal, in which case, great assumption - good job).

2024-06-15: Added select committee section