Anthony King has written the introduction for our new report, The politics of the new Parliament. In it Professor King predicts that the next Parliament will be the least experienced, in purely Parliamentary terms, since 1945.
Here is the introduction in full.
Far more than usual is already known about what the UK Parliament will look like after the next election. Roughly ninety MPs close on one in eight of all MPs have already announced they are standing down, and the Conservative Party seems all but certain to become the largest single party in the new House of Commons, though not necessarily with an overall majority. One way or another, the cull of sitting Labour MPs will be on a prodigious scale.
How exactly the various parties are spread out across the new Commons chamber will depend, of course, on how people cast their ballots; but it will also depend on the workings of the electoral system. Although the Conservatives lead Labour by wide margins in all the opinion polls, their performance over the past two years has been by historical standards less than impressive. Their support currently hovers around 40 per cent, seldom much above that. Thirty years ago, on the eve of the Tories’ victory under Margaret Thatcher, that party’s support hovered around 50 per cent. Prior to the 1997 election, the Labour Party under Tony Blair was doing even better.
What matters, however, is not the winning party’s absolute level of support but the gap between it and the second-placed party and by that standard the Tories’ position looks secure. Their lead over Labour during the past eighteen months has seldom fallen below 10 percentage points and occasionally has risen above 20. It is worth remembering that Labour won the last election handily with a lead over the Conservative opposition of only three points. Crude arithmetic, based on existing opinion-poll figures and assuming uniform vote-switching among the parties across the country, points to an overall Tory majority after the next election of roughly thirty seats.
However, crude arithmetic may not be enough. For more than a decade from the mid 1990s onwards, voters on their own initiative operated an informal anti-Tory, pro-Labour alliance. Labour supporters in seats where the Labour candidate had no hope of winning voted for the local Lib Dem. Lib Dem supporters in seats where the Lib Dem had no hope of winning backed Labour. Because there were far more seats where the Lib Dems were no-hopers than seats where the Labour candidate was a no-hoper, the Labour Party by a wide margin was the net beneficiary.
But in 2009 that informal alliance has evidently broken down. Thousands of former Liberal Democrat voters have already decamped to David Cameron’s more liberal-sounding Conservative Party. More to the point, whereas at the last three elections a substantial majority of Liberal Democrat supporters, forced to choose between the two major parties, said they would prefer to see a Labour government rather than a Tory government in power, that position no longer holds. A majority of Lib Dems now say that, if they had to choose, they would prefer to see the Tories in power. A comfortable electoral cushion has thus been pulled out from under the Labour Party. The redistribution of constituency boundaries has also made life somewhat harder for Labour, though on a smaller scale.
The upshot is that, although an outright Conservative victory still cannot be guaranteed (a lot can happen between now and polling day, including a change of Labour leader), the chances of the Tories winning a whopping majority when the time comes look almost as good as the chances of their winning on only a modest scale. Quite apart from anything else, the Tories at a general election look more likely to recover support from erstwhile Ukip and BNP supporters than Labour does from among Greens and other leftward-leaning electors. Almost everyone predicted a relatively narrow Labour victory in 1997. That was not what happened.
Because so many sitting MPs are standing down voluntarily or otherwise and because there will almost certainly be a substantial swing to the Conservatives, the newly elected House of Commons could well turn out to be the least experienced, in purely parliamentary terms, since 1945. It could turn out to be the least experienced in almost every other respect as well. After all, most of the new MPs in 1945 had done something serious apart from politics: they had fought in the war.
The consequences could be serious. One consequence is likely to be that places on Commons select committees will be harder to fill. By whatever means the members and chairs of select committees are chosen in future, it will be harder to find experienced men and women to take charge of them. More serious is the near certainty that David Cameron’s Number 10 and the whole incoming Conservative government, while full of bright ideas and bright young things, will be largely devoid of governmental experience (as well as of most other kinds of experience). They are likely to hit the ground stumbling rather than running and possibly to stay that way. Critics maintain that the inexperienced Blair government, first elected in 1997, never stopped stumbling.
Consider the numbers. Suppose that after the next election there are, say, 360 Conservative MPs. More than half of them on that scenario would be new to the House. Only some 175 would be holdovers, and the great majority of them would never have served in government at any level. Unless David Cameron decided to reduce greatly the size of his government (from the present roughly 100 ministers) that would mean that, unless a very large proportion of the new intake were appointed, every holdover MP would have a better than fifty-fifty chance of finding himself a minister. Potentially competent or at least not incompetent MPs would have an even better chance given that a considerable proportion of the holdover MPs would inevitably be dim, drunken, doubtfully sane, politically unreliable or whatever.
It follows that a confident prediction is that the rate of ministerial turnover in a new Tory administration will be very high as high as it was in Tony Blair’s early days. Another confident prediction is that quite a few Tory ministers will arise from, or be deposited into, the House of Lords. A third is that, for almost the first time in history, calls will begin to be heard for ministers in Britain, as well as in many other countries, to be drawn, not just from among parliamentarians but from among knowledgeable people with practical experience in every relevant walk of life. Most large organisations do not choose their managers and other top executives from among their sales force.
The post-election House of Lords will as business people like to say undoubtedly pose challenges and offer opportunities. The main challenge will be to find enough people willing to top up the Conservatives’ ranks in the upper house. The current convention is that the governing party, while no longer in a majority in the House of Lords, should at least be the largest single party. To achieve that effect, without expelling any sitting members, would mean David Cameron’s having to appoint some thirty new peers, possibly more. Finding serious people willing to serve and to be active in the House could prove difficult. Another challenge facing David Cameron, if he becomes Prime Minister, will be to decide whether or not to go ahead with œreforming the Lords (whatever that might mean). The easiest way of responding to that particular challenge would be not to respond to it that is, to do nothing. If he does become Prime Minister, Mr Cameron’s outstanding opportunity vis-Ã -vis the Lords will be to appoint a number of able ministers from that body, possibly from among the newly appointed peers.
As for the House of Commons, whoever is Prime Minister in the latter part of 2010 will have to decide whether MPs in general and backbenchers in particular are to be taken seriously or not. Ministers will say that from now on they do intend to take Parliament seriously. They will undoubtedly accept reforms designed to strengthen the position of select committees, to give those committees greater independence and to offer their chairs something like a proper career structure; but whether ministers will, in reality, pay more attention than now to rank-and-file MPs and the opposition is another question. Both precedents and power suggest otherwise.
All of the above assumes, of course, a traditional British-style single-party government, one with an overall Commons majority. And under present circumstances that remains the most probable post-election scenario. However, the present House of Commons already contains some seventy-five MPs who are neither Conservatives nor Labour and, although that number is unlikely to increase substantially as a result of the next election, the Conservatives or Labour for that matter could find themselves dependent on the support in Parliament of either Nick Clegg and his body Lib Dem MPs alone or of some other combination of parliamentary parties. Whether the outcome would then be a second general election following quickly upon the first, as happened in 1974, or a long-lived minority administration dependent on other parties’ committed support, or a formal coalition no one at present can possibly know. As events in Scotland and Wales have shown, multiparty politics is politics at its most unpredictable.