Will a minority government be less bureaucratic than a majority?

10 05 2010

Every new government, even one which aims to make widespread cuts in the public sector, will expand some parts of the central bureaucracy. The apparatus of state is too well-oiled to avoid this. In a majority government, unchecked by constitutional practice or public opinion, this can occur at breakneck speed – as they UK saw after Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997.  Each minister, each department, and each senior civil servant, looks to expand in influence and power. Who begins a new chapter in government without a desire to do this? The motivations may not be sinister, but the lack of any meaningful opposition or check, means that the outcome is usually inefficient, centralising, and bureaucratic government.

The minority government cynic:

Minority governments require consensus. The parties do not hold the same priorities, so the only way that any party can achieve anything is to give another party something that it wants. Government business is conducted essentially as a stitch-up; you back our bill, and we will back yours. Threats to withdraw support from both sides are frequent and loud. The central bureaucracy creeps outwards, as both parties must give more to each other in order to get more in return;  a cycle of buy-offs ensues.

The minority government optimist:

The parties do not hold the same priorities. Each party acts as a check on the other’s expansion, so extensions of the central bureaucracy are vigorously resisted, and only those which are very popular or extremely important can gain traction. Political capital is defended by preventing the other party from furthering its aims, and from protecting the most significant of one’s own positions.

Will a minority government be a more post-bureaucratic government?

A minority government will have neither the constitutional ability nor moral standing to take unilateral decisions; a process of primary consultation will have to be embedded into the ongoing workings of the state bureaucracy. This invites a shift in power back to localism, to self-regulation, and to emerging post-bureaucratic governmental structures, for all but the most fundamental national issues –defence, taxation and spending, Europe. It will be substantially more difficult for a minority government to interfere from the centre, especially in issues which are not governed exclusively on a national level.

What should be done?

It is possible that the transparency agenda will be sidelined discreetly, as neither party will be keen to advertise their backroom deals. On the other hand, keep an eye out for overt displays of collaboration between the parties, especially if the issue in question is especially important to one of them. When it seems too good to be true – it probably is.

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