—Tom Quinn, Essex University
[Cross-posted from UK Constitutional Law Blog]
One of the most important assumptions underlying this view of British politics since 1945 was that governments were given mandates by voters in elections. That followed from the fact that they were directly elected by voters, as there were no post-election coalition negotiations to intervene between voters’ choices and government formation. Mandates followed from voter endorsement of governing parties’ manifestos. The winning party was assumed to have a mandate to implement its manifesto in office.
The hung parliament of 2010 and the subsequent coalition government challenged these assumptions. If no party enjoyed a parliamentary majority, what sense did it make to speak of mandates? What was the role of manifestos if no party possessed a majority to implement one in full? What was the legitimacy of coalition agreements if they have never been put to the electorate? Ultimately, is it necessary to rethink the relationship between voters, parties and governments in the UK political system?
The Traditional Mandate Doctrine
The traditional ‘mandate doctrine’ of British government is, in essence, a very simple one. Two major parties, Labour and the Conservatives, compete with each other to form majority governments to implement their preferred policies. This two-party system was upheld by a first-past-the-post electoral system that made it hard for small parties to win seats. The first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system would help to turn electoral pluralities into parliamentary majorities. Elections were opportunities for voters to decide whether Labour or the Conservatives would form the government.
To facilitate this choice, the parties would offer manifestos before the election. These are detailed policy programmes setting out what each party would do in government. Voters could consult these manifestos and vote for the one they most preferred. The party that won a majority of seats in parliament would have a mandate to implement its manifesto. That is, it would have both the right and the obligation to do so. At the following election, voters could decide whether the governing party had been true to its promises: if it had, they might vote it back into power; if it had not, FPTP made it easy to ‘send the rascals packing’ by voting in the other party. Thus, Britain’s party system was based on the direct election of governments by voters, ensuring strong bonds of accountability. Manifestos were an important hinge, linking pre-election promises with democratically mandated post-election governance.
The clarity and simplicity of this theory is a large part of its appeal. In reality, it begs a number of questions. First, no party has won a majority of votes in a UK election in the post-1945 era. At best, the winning party secures a plurality of the vote. In 2005, Labour won the election on only 35% of the national vote, implying that almost two-thirds of voters refused to endorse Labour’s manifesto. Yet Labour still claimed a mandate because it had a parliamentary majority. In 2010, the Conservatives won 36% of the vote but had no parliamentary majority. Was their mandate weaker than Labour’s five years’ earlier? Secondly, manifesto pledges are offered to voters on a take-it-or-leave-it basis: in voting for a party’s manifesto, the party will assume voters have endorsed everything in it, even if it contains things they do not like. Thirdly, most voters do not choose parties on the basis of manifestos. Nowadays, they are much more likely to vote on the basis of party leaders and overall party competence.
The mandate doctrine has exerted a strong influence on thinking about British politics since 1945. The apparent demise of the old two-party system, with the hung parliament in 2010, has finally forced us to confront some of these problems.
Demise of the Two-Party System
From 1945 till the mid-1970s, Britain was an almost classic case of a two-party system, with Labour and the Conservatives winning 90% of the votes and almost all seats. Those days are long gone. Since then, we have seen the rise of the SDP-Liberal Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats, who now hold 57 seats out 650 in the UK parliament. Nationalist and unionist parties win about 30 seats. We have reached a point at which somewhere between 60 and 80 Westminster seats are likely to continue being won by parties other than Labour and the Conservatives, making it harder for one party to win an outright majority. Hung parliaments will become more likely, though not guaranteed.
A shift to a multi-party system would require a rethinking of the process of government formation in Britain. If hung parliaments became more frequent, coalition or minority governments would become more likely. The notion of a manifesto-derived mandate becomes even more problematical than it already is when no party manages to win a parliamentary majority.
Minority governments are a frequent occurrence in Europe, though they are also common in another FPTP nation, Canada. Minority governments have weaker mandates than majority ones and do not have the parliamentary numbers to implement their entire manifestos. Unless they enjoy supply-and-confidence agreements with an opposition party, minority governments may find themselves at the mercy of those opposition parties waiting for the right moment to bring them down. Compromises may have to be sought if any legislation is to be passed.
The other alternative is a coalition government. Coalitions can occasionally be offered directly to voters before an election and receive voters’ direct endorsement, as with Britain’s ‘coupon election’ of 1918. More usually, coalitions are formed after electors cast their votes. For supporters of the two-party system, post-election deals by parties violate the principle of the direct election of the government by the people, as coalitions are chosen by political elites.
Coalition Agreements and Manifestos
When no party wins a parliamentary majority, then no single party has the means to implement its manifesto pledges. If a coalition is formed between two or more parties, the government’s policies will usually involve a combination of the participating parties’ preferred policies. The practice in Europe, followed in Britain in 2010, is for a coalition agreement to set out the government’s policies. Coalition agreements are negotiated policy deals between parties in government and they’re intended to reduce conflict within the coalition, as well as signalling to voters the direction of policy. They tend to work more smoothly as the ideological distance between the coalition parties narrows. If there are significant differences between the parties, devising a coalition agreement is more difficult and it may contain more gaps, as conflict is postponed by ‘agreements to disagree’ or the establishment of commissions of inquiry.
When government policy is based on a coalition agreement, parties’ individual manifestos become starting points for negotiations between the parties, with pledges tradable or liable to dilution. The UK coalition agreement of 2010 combined elements of both Conservative and Lib Dem manifestos. The Lib Dems identified their priorities as the four key themes of their manifesto – fair taxes, fairness in education, a green economy and political reform, with signature policies such as raising the threshold on income tax, introducing a pupil premium and electoral reform. The Conservatives focused more on their ‘red lines’ in the negotiations – immediate action to reduce the budget deficit, toughness on defence and immigration, and no further transfers of sovereignty to the EU without a referendum. In the end, both parties secured gains on key policy areas, with clear ‘wins’ for each party on particular policies. The Conservatives won out on their red lines; the Lib Dems made progress on their four priorities.
Coalition agreements are programmes for government and so they must be internally coherent, particularly on plans for taxation and spending. That may mean the negotiating parties go beyond specific policies in their manifestos. A manifesto’s tax-and-spend policies may all fit together, but if only some of those pledges make it into the coalition agreement, while others do not, there is no guarantee that they will continue to add up. There would have to be compromise and that might involve watering-down manifesto pledges or even creating wholly new pledges. For example, all spending plans in the coalition agreement were subject to the proviso that deficit-reduction was the government’s fiscal priority.
The pledge to hold a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) electoral system provoked some debate because neither the Lib Dems nor the Conservatives had mentioned AV in their manifestos (though, ironically, Labour had!). However, it seemed a reasonable half-way-house between a referendum on proportional representation (the Lib Dem position) and the maintenance of the status quo (the Tory position). This pledge was vital in securing the formation of the coalition.
Perhaps the most contentious feature of the coalition agreement was the section on university tuition fees. The Lib Dems’ manifesto pledged the party to ‘scrap’ tuition fees but the reality of deficit-reduction made that extremely difficult. The coalition agreement declared that the government would await the Browne Report on university funding and that Lib Dem MPs would have the right to abstain – but not vote against – any rise in fees. After receiving the Browne Report, the government brought a bill before parliament to treble the ceiling on fees to £9,000 p.a. Most Lib Dem MPs voted in favour of the increase. Vince Cable, the Lib Dem secretary of state responsible for universities, later denied that this volte face involved a broken mandate:
We didn’t break a promise. We made a commitment in our manifesto, we didn’t win the election. We then entered into a coalition agreement, and it’s the coalition agreement that is binding upon us and which I’m trying to honour.
For supporters of the two-party system, this episode encapsulated the illegitimacy of coalition government: a minister producing a bill that directly contradicted his manifesto, but which he justified as the price of coalition government.
There is no doubt that this controversy badly damaged the Liberal Democrats’ credibility. But we should be careful before seeing it as an inevitable feature of coalition government. There were many other pledges on which compromises were struck that were not nearly as contentious. On this one, the Lib Dems’ original policy was not merely watered-down; it was directly opposed to the one they implemented in government. The pledge to scrap tuition fees was one of the key identity-defining policies of the post-Ashdown Liberal Democrat party. Along with opposition to the Iraq War, it helped define the party’s ideological identity as left-leaning. Reneging on it would inevitably damage the Lib Dems. But it’s hardly characteristic of most policies in the agreement.
Single-party majority governments are just as capable as coalitions of breaking their manifesto pledges. Tony Blair’s Labour government did not hold a referendum on electoral reform despite promising to do so in its 1997 manifesto. New Labour also announced operational independence for the Bank of England to set interest rates just five days after coming to power in 1997. This policy had not been mentioned in Labour’s manifesto on which the party had just fought and won an election, but a chorus of approval from the financial markets ensured that it came to be seen as a masterstroke.
If we accept the assumptions of majoritarian democracy, then the advent of coalition government is an unwelcome development. It blurs lines of accountability between voters and governments, and hands too much power to party elites, especially those in small parties. Government policy becomes based on coalition agreements that have not been directly endorsed by the voters and that undermines their legitimacy. Small parties may find themselves still in government playing a king-maker role even as they lose popularity.
In reality, there were already serious flaws in the traditional mandate doctrine. The concept of an electoral mandate becomes more ambiguous the closer one looks at it. It relies on some heroic assumptions about manifestos and voters, assumptions that are never satisfied in the real world. A party winning 36% fails to secure a mandate in one election, but in the previous election, another party won 35% and its parliamentary majority, created by FPTP, endows its manifesto with the mystical qualities of a mandate. The hung parliament of 2010 shone a light on the weaknesses of the mandate doctrine of British democracy, weaknesses that had previously been concealed by a procession of majority governments. Asking whether coalition agreements enjoy electoral mandates, therefore, is not really the right question. Of course, they don’t; but in all likelihood, neither do manifestos, at least, not en bloc, as a set of pledges. The real questions are: do they represent a logical compromise between the rival positions of the coalition parties; and, do they remain true to the spirit, if not always to the detail, of those parties’ manifestos? If coalition government is deemed necessary, a formal coalition agreement at least offers voters an outline of future government policy. The experience of 2010 is that most coalition pledges will have some origin in one or other party’s manifesto.
In this process, trust is a key ingredient. In the mandate doctrine, voters must trust governing parties to implement their manifesto pledges, but if they don’t, voters must wait till the next election to punish them. The same is true of coalitions. Some pledges may have to be traded, but if parties are seen to renege on major pre-election pledges, they can be punished at the ballot box.
We have probably entered an era in which majority governments, minority governments and coalitions are all genuinely possible. But it does appear that the old two-party system has largely gone and that in turn requires parties, voters and political observers to think beyond the old mandate doctrine about how we might conceive of the democratic legitimacy of government in a new era of the British politics.