It’s not about the most seats

Recently, I’ve seen a few comments and blog posts wherein the writer states that the party that wins the most seats in the next election (but not a majority of the seats) gets to form the next government.

As I’m certain I’ve written many times before, this simply isn’t the case.

The incumbent governing party (we’ll call them Party A) is the party that gets the first chance to see if it can form a government that would command the confidence of the House. In a situation where another party (Party B) wins an outright majority of the seats, this becomes a moot point – Party A could not command the confidence of the House no matter what machinations it attempted, and so it resigns, usually immediately.

However, if an election results in a hung parliament, then Party A is still given the first shot at forming the government, even if another party has more seats (but not a majority of the seats). If the leader of Party A determines that it is unlikely to be able to command the confidence of the House, he or she resigns, and then the party that did end up with more seats will be asked to try to form a government that will command the confidence of the House.

For example, let’s pretend that the May 2 Canadian federal election results in the following seat count:

Conservatives – 120
Liberals – 129
BQ – 33
NDP – 26

As the incumbent governing party, it would be the Conservatives’ right to try to form a government first, even though the Liberals won more seats. Of course, it isn’t very likely that the Conservatives could command the confidence of the House; it is doubtful that any of the other parties would agree to support them on confidence matters (and we all know how the Conservatives feel about coalitions). Thus, one would expect that the Conservatives would resign. Only then would the Liberals be asked to try to form a government. Of course, in such a scenario, it is very doubtful that the Liberals could command the confidence of the House for very long either unless they reached some sort of agreement with at least one of  the other parties.

In the 2006 general election, even though the Liberals won fewer seats than the Conservatives (103 to 124) Martin could have waited a few days to see if some agreement or arrangement could be worked out with one or more of the other parties that would have allowed the Liberals to continue to govern. He opted not to do that, conceded defeat, and informed the Governor General the next day that he would not form a government and resigned as Prime Minister. It was only then that Stephen Harper was called on to form a government (notwithstanding media declarations of a “Conservative minority government” before all the polls had even closed).

Similarly, the 2010 UK general election saw the Conservatives end up with the most seats (306 on election day) and Labour second with 258. However, because Labour was the incumbent party, it was Gordon Brown’s prerogative to try to form a government. Brown did not resign until five days after the election, once it became clear that no workable arrangement could be found that would allow Labour to form the government. However, if the numbers had been a bit different – if the Liberal Democrats had elected 15 more members, for example, that would have potentially allowed Labour to continue as the government with the support of the Liberal Democrats – as a coalition or some other arrangement.

My point here is simply that in the UK last year, the Conservatives were not immediately declared the “winner” by the media or pundits. It was recognized that it was still Labour’s right to try to form a government first. Our system works exactly the same way. If we end up with another hung parliament, it will be the Conservatives’ right to try to form a government first, even if another party ends up with more seats.

I strongly recommend this report from the UK House of Commons Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform to everyone, and in particular this chapter. Not all of it applies to Canada because our system isn’t completely identical to that of the UK’s, but there is enough in there that does apply.

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Radical Centrist