What is a so-called 'supermajority' and should we be worried about it?

The Tories are increasingly warning of a 'supermajority' in the House of Commons for Sir Keir Starmer's Labour.

The Tories have been warning against a Sir Keir Starmer 'supermajority'. (PA)
The Tories have been warning against a Sir Keir Starmer 'supermajority'. (PA)

Amid dire general election poll ratings, the Tories have gone on the defensive.

On 12 June, just three weeks after Rishi Sunak called the election, defence secretary Grant Shapps became the first senior party figure to warn of a Sir Keir Starmer “supermajority” for Labour, suggesting the Conservatives were focused on damage limitation rather than winning the vote on 4 July.

Now, in election week, even Sunak - who has repeatedly insisted the Tories can still win the poll - is starting to use the "S" word.

"I don’t want Britain to sleepwalk into the danger of what an unchecked Labour government with a supermajority would mean," the prime minister said on Monday.

He followed that up on Tuesday by posting a doom-laden video, entitled "48 hours to stop a Starmer supermajority", suggesting a Labour administration would be characterised by power cuts, tax rises and further inflation.

But what is a supermajority and is it really something to be worried about, as Sunak has warned? Here, Yahoo News explains.

Technically, a supermajority doesn’t exist in UK politics. As per the Electoral Reform Society, it is a term “commonly used in the USA to describe what is technically called a qualified majority. Qualified majority provisions are used to entrench important pieces of legislation by setting a higher bar than a simple majority to pass legislation. Commonly, this level might be two-thirds.”

Instead, the Tories are referring to a “supermajority” in the figurative sense: essentially saying Labour could win an enormous majority of MPs.

To have a simple majority of one seat in the House of Commons, a political party must win over half the 650 seats: at least 326.

Grant Shapps in conversation with Sir Keir Starmer - the focus of his supermajority concerns - at the D-Day event earlier this month. (PA)
Grant Shapps in conversation with Sir Keir Starmer - the focus of his supermajority concerns - at the D-Day event earlier this month. (PA)

This is where the Tories’ dire polling comes in. A major YouGov study last month said the Conservatives are projected to slump to their “lowest seat tally in the party’s almost 200-year history” at the election.

YouGov said its study – based on the multi-level regression and post-stratification (MRP) technique and the responses of 36,000 people – projects Labour to secure 425 seats, the Tories 108, the Liberal Democrats 67, SNP 20, Reform UK five, Plaid Cymru four and the Green Party two.

It noted such a scenario would hand Labour Starmer a 200-seat majority in the Commons. This is the “supermajority” that the Tories are worried about.

The Conservative strategy, backed by a social media advertising campaign, is aimed at persuading Tory backers tempted by Nigel Farage’s Reform party not to risk giving Labour a majority which could eclipse even the 1997 landslide under Tony Blair.

Sunak said on Monday: "If these polls are right, and Labour are in power with a supermajority, you have to think about what that will mean: a Labour government unchecked, no one to hold them accountable, no one to stand up to them in Parliament and all of the impact it would have on all of your lives."

When the PM and frontbenchers like Shapps are urging voters, amid dire polling, not to give the opposition party a “supermajority”, it’s not a sign of confidence in their own electoral prospects.

Instead, as the Electoral Reform Society has said of Shapps' comments, it is more likely “Grant Shapps was merely suggesting people vote for his party” to minimise seat losses.

Not according to some. As the Electoral Reform Society points out, "all it would take is a majority of one to pass any legislation the next government want to pass" anyway.

Technically, there is no difference between a majority of one or a majority of 200, as the YouGov study projected.

It is true that it would be hard for an opposition Conservative Party to make an impact within the House of Commons under such a scenario, but it has also been hard for an opposition Labour Party to make an impact in the Commons since the 2019 election, when Boris Johnson won an 80-seat majority.

"The Conservative argument that a Labour supermajority would lead to a sudden dramatic loss in the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny is untrue," the Institute for Government (IFG) said.

(L-R) Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Britain's Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair attend the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph on Whitehall in central London, on November 14, 2021. - Remembrance Sunday is an annual commemoration held on the closest Sunday to Armistice Day, November 11, the anniversary of the end of the First World War and services across Commonwealth countries remember servicemen and women who have fallen in the line of duty since WWI. (Photo by TOBY MELVILLE / POOL / AFP) (Photo by TOBY MELVILLE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson and Tony Blair have won the biggest majorities in recent years. (AFP via Getty Images)

"This is first because the rules of the House of Commons have always provided significant advantages to the party of government - being one of the most executive-dominated parliaments in the world."

The IFG said a government's "attitude to scrutiny" is more important than the size of its majority.

"Will Keir Starmer ensure ministers turn up to be grilled by select committees? Will he allow time for challenging debate over Labour’s legislative plans, including the idea of changing the voting rules? Will ministers shift the balance back from secondary to primary legislation, even where the previous government has handed it the tools to proceed without allowing MPs a say?"

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