As Prime Minister does Cameron really have a mandate?
I’ll admit straight off the mark; I’m a bit of a leftie, and a lot of my friends are lefties too. Since the Conservative majority was announced my Facebook news feed has been abuzz with anger. I am no natural ally of David Cameron but from the way anti-Tories have been going on you would think the world has ended. To be clear this is not me defending the Conservatives and there will be plenty of space in other articles to condemn their right wing fuelled savage cuts. What this article aims to explore is if having Cameron as our PM means that we have to roll over and keep our mouths shut whilst he cuts public services and wages war on the poor. Does David Cameron have a mandate to do as he wishes or at the least as he campaigned for, or is there still a force that can hold him back? Has David Cameron got a realistic claim to a mandate?
First off I wish to briefly cover the issue of turnout. The fact is that in British elections not all of those who are eligible to vote do. In this election the turnout was 66% which is becoming a pretty standard ballpark over recent elections. What this means is that David Cameron cannot claim a mandate from 34% of the people. To say the people have spoken would not be true as only a little more than half of them actually did. I don’t want to dwell on this for two reasons. The first is that all people have the opportunity to vote and were encouraged to register and vote. To not vote is a personal decision to stay out of electoral politics and not have one’s voice heard and contribute to or take from a PM’s mandate. The second is that we have no idea how that 34% would have affected the outcome. We could make assumptions based on the demographics of those who didn’t vote (typically the young don’t vote and they swing left), but that doesn’t mean we can disparage David Cameron’s mandate based on the assumed votes of those who choose to remain silent.
Now I turn to the voting system itself. David Cameron did not receive a majority of the votes from the UK electorate. Because of the way the UK system is arranged, the way votes are distributed, and the way constituencies are arranged a PM can be made and form a government and not be the preferred candidate of the majority of voters. In this election David Cameron received 36% of the general vote. This does begin to erode away at his mandate. We have to question how anyone can claim legitimate authority to make long lasting changes to a society without actually representing a majority of the population. One could argue that simply having a majority of the MPs in parliament is what constitutes a mandate. David Cameron is the head of the Conservative Party and as such every Conservative MP that is elected represents him and the party in the constituency. The majority of British constituencies want to be represented by those aligned with David Cameron and as such he can claim a mandate from his MPs. It seems legitimate but when we look closer at the constituencies themselves we see the picture is not so clear. Because of the First Past the Post system that we use and the diversity of local parties that stand in individual consistencies it is rare for an MP to receive a majority of votes. In fact in 2010 not a single MP did. If a PM’s mandate is rooted in the number of MPs he manages to win then it erodes when we see that MPs don’t even have the support of the majority of constituencies. What begins to emerge is the mandate based on majority is on shaky ground because wherever you look it’s hard to find the majority.
Speaking of MPs it is worth mentioning that a PM’s claim to a mandate should be questioned because at no point in any British election has anyone ever voted for the Prime Minister. David Cameron is an MP who is head of the Party that has the most MPs in the Commons, he received no votes from the electorate to hold the office of Prime Minister; his votes for that come from his own party who made him leader. To assume a mandate from being head of the leading party is somewhat ridiculous because every party has divisions and factions and disagreements. There is no guarantee that the people who voted for a Conservative MP support Cameron’s agenda, and there is no guarantee that the MPs themselves support him either. There are always MPs in every party who defy the leadership and who are selected more on their local grassroots work and contributions than by their affiliation with party leadership.
The fact is that for David Cameron to draw a mandate from his Parliamentary majority every MP would have to be a party loyalist elected with a majority in their constituency. This just simply is not the case.
My final objection to the concept of a mandate is the function of an MP, and by extension the PM. We do not elect unaccountable decision makers. We do not, as an electorate, vote in dictators for 5 years. The electorate select their representatives; the people who will take the concerns and needs of their community to Westminster and represent those views through debates, committee work, and voting. The parties are designed to act as guiding organisations to help identify the general principles that an MP may follow; they should not act as a mechanism for central dictates to be forced upon the representatives of the people. The Conservative party may have a majority of the MPs in their camp but those MPs work for the people. The influence of the public does not end at the point where the ballots are counted and no elected official has 5 years of free reign. Representatives were elected and so we should treat them as representatives, who can be talked to and influenced by the public. The Prime Minister does not have the right to enact every policy he wants because the people may not want every policy.
For all those who are scared those five years of Tory government mean five years of unavoidable hardship abate your fears. The majority of the people did not want a Conservative government, you did not elect a David Cameron dictatorship, and you have a voice every day you can breathe. David Cameron, and no PM before him has been able to lay a true claim to a mandate and if as a people we feel our views are being ignored then we need to utilise our representatives to their fullest potential. The only mandate that exists is the mandate to listen to the people.