Guide To British Politics Part 1: The Nuts And Bolts Of Parliamentary Democracy

For most Americans, under normal circumstances, it doesn’t really matter who the British Prime Minister is. That many Brits avidly follow U.S. politics is understandable. The U.S. has, after all, held the balance of global power since 1945. But whilst American focus shifted away from British politics sometime around 1776, there are times when such a posture is hard to maintain.

This is one such time.

So, let’s take a look at how the system actually works before we deal with the ramifications of the result. If you’re not a fan of political mechanics then feel free to hop on over to part two of this three-part guide.

Nobody will judge you.

Brit Pol 101

The most important thing to remember is that the role of the Prime Minister is very different from that of a U.S. President.

Here’s why.

The main legislative chamber — the House of Commons — is a bit like the House of Representatives in terms of composition but there are some significant differences. It is the senior of the two Houses; that is to say, it performs the function of the House but wields the power of the Senate.

In addition, the executive branch of government is not only chosen from its ranks but actually gets to sit in on and vote on legislation. In most cases, in order to pass a law, you need a simple majority. The second chamber –the unelected House of Lords — cannot block legislation, only delay it. They can be both a source of frustration — and at times an asset — to a sitting government but little else.

The Commons is where the power lies.

There are 650 members of parliament or ‘MPs’ who sit in the Commons, each one representing a constituency of around 70,000 people. During a general election, each constituency is allowed to vote for a range of candidates. The candidate who gets more votes than anyone else wins and is ‘returned’ to London as an MP. They are said to have won their ‘seat’ despite the fact that they all sit on green benches.

In most cases, people tend to vote along party lines.

The two largest parties are the Conservatives or ‘Tories’—who pursue a political agenda roughly analogous to moderate Republicans — and the Labour party, which represents a broad church of ideology ranging from moderate Democrats to somewhere left of Bernie Sanders.

Nil Presidente

The PM is an MP like any other and has to be elected to Parliament in the same way as everyone else. He or she gets to vote on the very legislation that they have themselves put forward. In this sense, we can see the office of Prime Minister as a kind of a cross between President Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) although thankfully, not literally so.

Because that would be hideous.

So how does one become Prime Minister?

Well, firstly, you have to become the leader of a political party. There are no primaries as such — each party has its own way of electing a leader. Labour, for example, operate on a system of one member one vote. If you are a member of the party, you get to cast a vote for who you want to lead it. If you are not. Tough.

The second thing you need to do is to be the leader of the party that wins the most seats in the general election.

I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to do some math now.

Prime Numbers

Remember that there are 650 MPs and that in order to pass legislation you need a simple majority. Half of 650 is 325. so, to get anything done you need 326 votes.

If in a general election a party wins 376 seats they would be said to have a working majority of 50 (326+50.) That means that even if every other party voted against a piece of legislation it would still pass with a comfortable margin. That margin acts as a buffer zone. If one or two MPs are off sick, or on an overseas trip, you don’t have to worry too much. More importantly, even if a few disgruntled members of your own party refuse to toe the line, the government can still get their agenda through parliament.

And it’s crucial that they do so. In the U.S. a failed Bill is something to lament but ultimately it’s no big deal.

Not so in the U.K.

Any government that is defeated on a major issue is deemed to be incapable of governing. A defeated bill can be treated as a ‘motion of no confidence’ and that can spell disaster for a sitting Prime Minister.

Confidence Clique

A motion of no confidence means one of three things. Firstly, a general election can be held in an attempt to win more seats. More seats mean that the PM’s legislative agenda can now proceed as if nothing untoward had happened.

Secondly, a leadership contest can be held. The nature of the contest depends on the party in question but ultimately it is an internal mechanism. The general public is not invited to vote. This raises the extraordinary possibility of removing a Prime Minister and replacing them with someone else. No election, no impeachment. Just a change of party leadership.

It happens more often than you might think.

Lastly, both those things can happen, a leadership election followed by a general one or — on occasion — the other way round.

So, if a humiliating defeat in the House of Commons often spells the end of the sitting Prime Minister’s political career, it’s easy to see why numbers are so important. There are no midterm elections (unless the PM decides to call one) and parliament is expected to last five years. You work with the majority you have got. Or even the one you haven’t.

If you fail, well, that’s politics.

The Number Games

Now, let’s just stick with that not so magical number of 326 for a little while longer. It’s not such the absolute demarcation it appears to be; it can be mitigated slightly. To start with, two MPs take on the role of moderators or ‘Speakers of the House.’

They don’t vote, so we can drop the number needed to pass legislation down to 324.

Then there’s Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein is a political party in Northern Ireland that desires independence from the United Kingdom. They win seats in — but refuse to show up for votes at– the House of Commons. An MP has to swear allegiance to the Queen and for such ardent nationalist, that’s more than they can stomach.

In the last election, they won seven seats, taking the number of votes needed to secure an overall majority down to 317.

Last week Prime Minister Theresa May’s party secured just 318 seats.

This is the most anorexic of majorities. An ill-timed holiday, an unexpected traffic jam, a faulty alarm clock, or Trump tweet that sends ministers into spasms of panic and the whole house of cards could come crashing down. Under such circumstances, the Prime Minister would do well to steer clear of controversial legislation and focus on those areas that have a chance of getting some cross-party support.

It’s a good job then that there are no divisive issues in British politic that have to be navigated right now.

Oh, wait, Brexit.

Ah, crap.

See you in Part Two.

Can’t wait for Part Two? Check out this video for more info on the British Political system (after the jump):

And this about British political parties:

Featured Image Via YouTube Video.

I'm a full- time, somewhat unwilling resident of the planet Earth. I studied journalism at Murdoch University in West Australia and moved back to the UK where I taught politics and studied for a PhD. I've written a number of books on political philosophy that are mostly of interest to scholars. I'm also a seasoned travel writer so I get to stay in fancy hotels for free. I have a pet Lizard called Rousseau. We have only the most cursory of respect for one another.