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There's something everyone has missed about the DUP and the Fixed Term Parliaments Act

The Unionist party has more scope to bully the Conservatives thanks to the 2011 law.

How much leverage do the Democratic Unionist Party have over the Conservatives?

The traditional conservative party that is Northern Ireland’s largest is negotiating an arrangement with the Tories to keep them in office, after Theresa May fell short of a majority in the election last week.

There’s one reading that says that the DUP have precious little leverage. Their antipathy to Jeremy Corbyn due to his historical meetings with the IRA during the 1980s means that, unlike with previous Labour leaders, they cannot do a deal with Labour. Nor can they go back to their voters having put Corbyn in Downing Street.

So they’re stuffed, right? Whatever the Conservatives put on the table, they have to accept. Well, not really.

The DUP have already agreed in principle to a “confidence and supply” deal – that is, they will support the government on budget votes and votes of confidence – but the details are still to be hammered out.

But what is being missed are the consequences of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2011, and the increased leverage it gives to the DUP.  Under the act, a parliament runs for five years unless there is a two-thirds majority for an early election or the government loses a vote of no confidence and no-one is able to form a new government within 14 days.

The really important thing about that is it significantly reduces the scope of what “confidence and supply” means. When Labour ran a minority government for five years from 1974 to 1979, they were both more vulnerable (they could have fallen almost at any time) and more powerful (as they could turn difficult votes into “back me or sack me” issues). And it was assumed that finance bills and Queen’s Speeches were confidence issues.

Thanks to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, “confidence votes” have been explicitly drawn to exclude votes on the Budget or the Queen’s Speech. A government only falls if it loses a vote of no confidence. It no longer falls if it loses a major vote, a Budget vote or even the Queen’s Speech.

This obviously increases the leverage of the DUP – and Labour’s ability to harry the government day-to-day. The DUP can hold the government up, by backing them in confidence votes. But they can also let them down by deserting them on essentially everything else to secure bigger concessions from the Conservative Party.

Far from being trapped by the Conservatives, the DUP have more leverage over them than a minor party has ever enjoyed in a hung parliament before. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.