Study Notes

Elective dictatorship (executive dominance)

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

An elective dictatorship (also known as executive dominance) is a state in which Parliament is dominated by the government of the day. The legislative programme of Parliament is determined by the government, and the nature of the majoritan first-past-the-post electoral system, which almost always produces majority government means that, with party discipline, government bills virtually always pass the House of Commons.

This is further compounded by the absence in the UK of a codified constitution, which means that this tendency towards executive dominance is added to by the Salisbury Convention and the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 which restrict the ability of the House of Lords to block government initiatives.

Under our uncondified constitution, ultimate legislative sovereignty resides in Parliament, which can pass any legislation it wishes, without a need to be concerned with fundamental constitutional rights. For a bill to become an act of Parliament, it needs to be passed by the Commons and the Lords before going before the Monarch who has formal discretion whether to assent to the bill. In practice this Royal Assent has become a formality.

The House of Lords no longer has equality with the Commons, and once the same bill has been passed by the Commons and rejected by the Lords in two different sessions of Parliament, the third introduction of the bill will require only the consent of the Commons. So the Commons has become the dominant component of Parliament.

So, given the party commanding a majority in the House of Commons forms the government, they can pass any bill they wish through Commons as long as the whip system provides voting discipline.

However, some of these governments have tiny majorities. The phrase “elective dictatorship” was used by former Lord Chancellor Lord Hailsham in a speech at the BBC in 1976 to describe how the Labour Government of the time was using its slim hold of the Commons to pass bills. Given Governments with small majorities don’t reflect wide enough support in the country, this according to Hailsham, is undemocratic. Hailsham, a Conservative, may also have felt the same way about his own party’s Governments of 1992-1997 and 2015-2020 which operated and are operating on very small majorities too (Cameron’s government got 37% of a 67% turnout, which translates to 24% of the electorate).

This is why constitutional reformers have suggested a change of the electoral system to proportional representation, and the pressure group Charter 88 have argued that a codified, written constitution with appropriate checks and balances would help. The Power inquiry in 2006 reported that the democratic deficit inherent in the UK system of governance affected political participation.

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