Saturday, May 08, 2010

David Cameron and the Puzzle of Measuring a Mandate

Pooled authority must mean a shared mandate

As Britons wait expectantly to find out who will form the government following May 6's election, the Mirror's Kevin Maguire has a message for British Conservative leader David Cameron:

You have no mandate for austerity. He writes:
"The progressive political parties – Labour and the Liberal Democrats, two parties united by much – easily polled more votes between them.

Cameron secured no mandate to unleash an age of austerity on those without cash to buy private education or health.
It's the kind of knee-jerk reaction that one should expect from the relentlessly adversarial left. One can see it right now in Greece: even as the state of their fiscal ship threatens to drag the bulk of Europe down with it, the Greek left rioted against austerity.

Maguire makes a logical error when he treats each vote for Labour and the Liberal Democrats as a vote against the Tories, as opposed to a vote for the political programs offered by Labour and the Lib Dems. It's a logical error frequently replicated in Canada.

Maquire assumes that neither Labour nor the Lib Dems would be prepared to tolerate austerity measures, despite the state of the British chequebook. Ergo, no austerity at all has been mandated by the 2010 election.

But the nature of the British and Canadian pstliamentary systems tends to cast doubts over such simplistic interpretations. The function of the Westminster system in both design and actual social function complicates such matters severely.

In the Westminster system, governance is assumed by the coalition that can best hold the confidence of Parliament. Such coalitions normally emerge from party caucuses -- in cases where no party holds a majority of seats, a coalition that can hold the support of other parties and individual MPs is called upon to govern.

In the most official sense, voters in a Westminster system directly elect a Member of Parliament. Their votes are also accompanied by an indirect function imposed by the institutionalization of political parties. Their votes count toward the accumulation of caucuses that will ultimately decide the government.

Voters cast their ballots diectly for individual Members of Parliament, and indirectly for the government and Prime Minister. Numerous dynamics can be at work within the kinds of decisions voters can make. (Citizens can vote in favour of a government by voting for, or in some cases even against that particular party.)

But the need for a government to be able to hold the confidence of the House of Commons means that the authority to hold government accountable is pooled amongst all the members of Parliament.

But in a system wherein the authority to hold government shared amongst all the Members of Parliament, then the mandate of government must, in turn, be shared by all the members of Parliament.

The adversarial nature of the Westminster system makes exercising this mandate cooperatively very difficult. Governments are elected to exercise their program as their mandate to govern -- opposition parties are elected to exercise their program as their mandate to oppose.

But under a hung Parliament/minority government scenario, government must become a collaborative and cooperative process. If the government's mandate were decided by popular vote, none of the parties in a hung Parliament would have a mandate at all -- unless it was understood that each party has a mandate of its own, as defined by the number of citizens who vote in favour of each party's program.

So for Kevin Maguire to assume that no mandate exists for any austerity whatsoever would be fallacious. In fact, 36% of British voters voted in favour of the Conservative political platform, featuring vigorous austerity measures.

Maguire's argument is further tattered by Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Alastair Darling's promise to cut the British budget more deeply than Margaret Thatcher.

29% of British voters voted for the Labour Party. So it could in fact be said that at least 65% of Britons voted for austerity measures.

Regardless of which way Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats cast their lot in terms of supporting a government, one of the parties that promised austerity will sit on the government benches. Another will sit on the opposition benches.

Part of the government will have an individual mandate to cut the budget. The opposition will have an individual mandate to push for those cuts as well.

Only the Lib Dems will have an individual mandate to oppose austerity.

So how will the austerity question be settled?

Educated speculation from Britain is that Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems will have to accept some austerity measures in the course of an agreement to annoint a government.

The Tories wouldn't have an overall mandate to cut 6 billion Pounds Sterling from British budget. But nor would the Lib Dems have an overall mandate to cut zero, or increase expenditures.

In a responsible Parliament, responsive to the dynamics at work within the voting choices of Britons, a figure somewhere in between zero and 6 billion pounds should be trimmed from the budget, regardless of the protests of Kevin Maguire and the entrenched adversarial left.

Of course, negotiating a shared mandate amongst the various parties in a Westminster Parliament is, due to the adversarial nature of the system, not an easy task. It relies on a government and opposition that are willing to collaborate and cooperate.

Historical experience demonstrates that parties -- particularly ones from differing ideological camps -- are all too frequently unwilling to cooperate at all.

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