Monday, May 10, 2010

Alex Salmond and the Puzzle of Measuring a Mandate

Alex Salmond, SNP claim mandate for "progressive alliance"

In the wake of a Kevin Maguire insisting that David Cameron and the Conservative Party have no mandate for austerity following Britain's 2010 general election comes a predictable turn in the post-election wrangling over who will be Prime Minister.

Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond has called upon Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and Labour Party leader Gordon Brown to join the SNP and Plaid Cymru in a "progressive alliance" as an alternative to the David Cameron Conservatives.

"There are alternative and more progressive options available if politicians have the will to seize the moment," Salmond announced. "The SNP and Plaid are indicating that we do."

The overture carries a clear resemblence to the ill-fated attempt to establish a coalition government in Canada -- although the separatist Bloc Quebecois was a more powerful element within that coalition than the Welsh separatist Plaid Cymru (who have only three Parliamentary seats).

The SNP and Plaid Cymru could put Labour and the Lib Dems over the top for a narrow overall majority -- something that Britons clearly expect that any government must have -- of 330 seats.

Altogether, Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and Plaid Cymru received the votes of 54% of Britons. Culmulatively, that could very well be interpreted as a mandate to govern.

But as discussed previously, interpreting a mandate can be extremely tricky.

In an arrangement such as the one that Salmond is recommending, Gordon Brown would clearly be the Prime Minister. Without Labour's 258 seats there is not even the foundation of a government.

But one must ask the question of whether or not Labour can realistically be a partner in such a coalition, or if Labour would be the kind of partner that Salmond imagines.

As previously noted, Labour has promised to cut the public budget more deeply than Margaret Thatcher did.

As Nick Robinson points out, this poses a challenge for the very notion of a progressive coalition.

"An arrangement between Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and Plaid could command a majority in the House of Commons (see the figures below)," Robinson writes. "The nationalist parties would, of course, extract financial and political concessions from Westminster."

But considering that Labour, holding the largest portion of seats in such a coalition, actually has an individual mandate for austerity, it quickly becomes apparent that these four parties would not possess a monolithic overall mandate.

Rather, such a progressive alliance would possess a diffuse overall mandate that would pit themselves at odds over key issues. The public chequebook is the most important of these issues, but only one.

Plaid Cymru, for example, has won an individual mandate to lead Wales out of the United Kingdom.

Just as Labour's austerity mandate is at odds with the individual mandates of the other three parties in the proposed coalition, so would Plaid Cymru's individual mandate be at odds with the others.

As Robinson notes, this renders such a progressive alliance inherently unstable. Clegg's push for electoral and political reform would be threatened by this instability.

"The key question Liberal Democrats have to consider is how stable such an arrangement would prove to be. Legislating for a referendum on electoral reform, staging it and implementing the necessary boundary changes could take over two years." Robinson continues. "So, if PR is the main goal for many Lib Dems they'd have to be sure that 'the progressive alliance' would last that long."

Moreover, Robinson notes that the electoral reform issue will bring some regional divides within Britain to the forefront.

"If it does come about it would highlight one little talked about but significant development in this election - the growing gulf between England and the rest of the UK," he explains. "In England the Tories secured almost 40% of the vote and 297 seats whilst Labour got just 28% and 191 seats."

Under such conditions, electoral reform could inflame regional tensions within Britain. Inflaming regional tensions while a separatist party sits within the government could not even begin to be a good or responsible idea.

It's on this note that Plaid Cymru's separatist mandate would challenge the Liberal Democrats' electoral reform mandate.

Whether or not Nick Clegg will opt for a "progressive alliance" will remain up to him. Whether or not he should is up to Britons to decide.

But whatever happens, such a progressive alliance could not claim to share a single mandate to govern. It's crystal clear that, within a Westminster Parliament, mandates aren't nearly that simple.


  1. The left support change if they benefit. If change affects their entitlements than "tradition" is evoked. The left want to keep changing how seats and power is won because they can't earn support outside their pockets.

    In Canada they tried in November 2008. The electoral map shows the WEST would have lost their voice. West( Lib 7 seats 16.3%, NDP 14 seats 22.3%, <21 seats @38%> vs CPC 71 seats 52.5%). Ontario went CPC in popular vote and seats in 2008. The addition of the seats, removal of the political welfare should go a long way in removing the impetus of frequent election @ $15-20 million each.

  2. The thing is that in Britain this isn't that much of a change. British political culture seems, to my reading of these events, demand that the government control an overall majority of seats in Parliament.

    To me, the question is what the nature and character of a mandate for such a "progressive alliance" would be. Just as it would have been in Canada, it would be untenable considering the conflicting individual mandates at play.

  3. By the way, the Digg buttons work now. So make like "Macho Man" Randy Savage, and digg it.

    Ooooh, yeah. ;)


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