What does a super-majority mean and is it something we should worry about?

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 18th June 2024

In the last week, the current defence secretary, Grant Shapps, has been appearing in the news to warn about the supposed dangers of a Labour ‘super-majority’. He told Times Radio “You don’t want to have somebody receive a super-majority” going on to say that “if Keir Starmer were to go into No 10… and that power was in some way unchecked, it would be very bad news for people in this country”.

Grant Shapps is right that an effective opposition is vital in a democracy, as you need people to scrutinise legislation that aren’t from the governing party. When people mark their own homework, the incentive is always there to skip over any mistakes.

The important fact that’s missed from this discussion though is that you don’t need a big majority of support in the public to win a big majority of MPs. It’s one of the problems with the way we elect MPs to Westminster.

Big majorities on less than half the vote are a constant danger with Westminster’s First Past the Post Voting system. So, you may think that if you were worried about a super-majority, you might look at changing the system that produces them. But, unfortunately (although perhaps predictably), Grant Shapps was merely suggesting people vote for his party.

What is a super-majority?

The phrase ‘super-majority’ is commonly used in the USA to describe what is technically called a qualified majority. Qualified majority provisions are used to entrench important pieces of legislation by setting a higher bar than a simple majority to pass legislation. Commonly, this level might be 2/3rds.

In the United States of America, Congress can overturn a presidential veto with a 2/3rds vote.

In New Zealand, if the parliament wants to change the length of a parliamentary term, the electoral boundaries or the voting age, they need a 2/3rds vote in the chamber.

The Scottish and Welsh Parliaments also requires a 2/3rd vote in favour to pass changes to how their members are elected.

These are some examples, but what would a super-majority mean in Westminster?

In Westminster, a simple majority is enough

Parliamentary sovereignty is a key principle of the UK constitution. Parliament can make or remove any law with a simple majority vote, and can’t pass any legislation that binds the hands of future parliaments.

Whenever parliament does pass a law that restricts their activities, they can simply pass another law to let them ignore the previous law. The Fixed Term Parliament Act, for instance, set a 2/3rds threshold for calling an election early. Unable to reach this threshold in 2019, parliament simply passed the Early Parliamentary General Election Act 2019 with a simple majority to call an early election.

Looking back at the international examples, there is nothing to stop parliament voting to change the way they are elected on a simple majority of the vote. When it comes to Westminster, a party with a majority of one can legislate on anything it likes, as long as it can keep its back benchers in line, just as a party with a ‘super-majority’ can. A massive majority doesn’t grant any extra privileges or powers.

100% of the power under First Past the Post

Of course, a massive majority in Westminster doesn’t mean a party has a massive level of support in the country. Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide is often the classic example of a massive majority. In 1997 Labour won a 179 seat majority, 63.4% of parliament, but only won 43.2% of the vote. In 2019 Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party won a higher share of the vote, 43.6%, but only won an 80 seat majority and 56.2% of parliament.

An MP can be elected on a minority of the vote locally, and their party win a majority of seats in parliament on a minority of the vote nationally. That majority in parliament means they can pass any law they like.

A commons majority is a powerful thing

While Grant Shapps might warn of the risks of a ‘super-majority’, all it would take is a majority of one to pass any legislation the next government want to pass. A majority of one which could be won on less than half the vote.

There is a lack of accountability when a party has a massive unearned majority, but the answer is to change the system which creates these artificially inflated majorities – and that system is First Past the Post.

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