A Different Kind of Minority?

10 May

I have no particular expertise when it comes to British elections, and whatever I do know about the subject is forever colored by a 40-year-old episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Python’s “Election Night Special” sketch parodied a frantic BBC broadcast, cutting between anchors as they spouted nonsense about voting results. The “broadcast” would sporadically jump to live news reports from individual constituencies, where Silly Party candidates seemed to be scoring upset victories over their Sensible Party counterparts. In the sketch, competing local candidates stood together on stage, wearing large round multicolored ribbons on their lapels, as someone announced the voting results.

I used to think the ribbon-wearing and the standing-together-as-results-are-announced were Monty Python visual jokes, but when I watched my first actual live UK election night special on BBC Canada the other night, I realized they really do it that way. For instance, when incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke on election night from his Scottish constituency, all the other local candidates he had just defeated stood behind him. They included one guy with shades and a moustache who held his fist in the air the entire time Brown was speaking. Maybe he was from the Silly Party.

And yes, all of the candidates – Brown included – wore large multicolored election-night ribbons on their lapels.

I’m not sure why we don’t do that in Canada, given we inherited most of our democratic traditions from the UK’s “mother of all Parliaments”. Instead, Canadian candidates hide out in their own headquarters on election night, voting results get announced centrally via Elections Canada, and politicians’ lapels remain giant-ribbon-corsage-free.

Of course in this month’s vote, the Brits may have inherited a more recent political tradition from our side of the Atlantic: The Hung Parliament, as they call it, in which no party wins a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

We’ve had three straight federal elections with that result. In the UK, though, the recent national vote was their first one since 1974 in which no clear majority winner emerged.

As I write, several days after that vote, it’s still not clear who will be the next UK Prime Minister (although it won’t be Brown, who announced he would be stepping down as Labour Party leader. His party, which finished in second place to the Conservatives, could still maintain power by cobbling together an Israeli-like coalition of smaller parties).

The most likely scenario is a government led by Conservative leader David Cameron, supported by the third-place Liberal Democrats either in a formal coalition, or in some sort of a Parliamentary arrangement in which the Lib-Dems agree not to defeat the government for a certain period of time in exchange for some policy concessions.

Of course, we’ve had almost six straight years of minority parliaments in Canada without either of these types of arrangements. First Paul Martin, then Stephen Harper, maintained office by hook or by crook, surviving confidence votes through temporary ad hoc alliances with one party or another, through hardball political moves such as wooing over floor-crossing MPs and threatening or calling unwanted snap elections, and when all else failed, by using the extraordinary tactic of proroguing Parliament itself. Although these tactics have prolonged the lifetime of governments, they have been arguably unhealthy for our Parliamentary democracy.

In fact, the ongoing Canadian experience with minority politics prompted some British experts to describe Canada as a good example of what NOT to do when your country is faced with a hung Parliament. A British academic report called “Making Minority Government Work”, released last year by the School of Public Policy at the University College London, devoted an entire chapter to what it called “Canada’s Dysfunctional Minority Parliament”, and concluded that “for minority government to work in Canada there needs to be a dramatic shift in political culture which emphasizes cooperation and accommodation rather than conflict and partisanship”

Because minority parliaments in Canada, as in Britain, have been few and far between, political leaders have tended to see them as temporary aberrations. Maybe that’s why co-operation is so fleeting between parties. But the current minority era in this country has had staying power. Polls suggest it may continue indefinitely.

For the sake of our political culture, it may be high time for the silly and sensible parties in this country to take a lesson from the Brits and try harder to foster more accommodation and less cutthroat partisanship.

Also, I’m definitely in favor of giant round lapel ribbons.


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