Mandates and who has them

It will tickle you if you are of a constitutional cast of mind and also like saying the word “mandate” repeatedly to note the following:

On the one hand, Prime-Minister-by-the-end-of-tomorrow Theresa May arguably doesn’t have a popular mandate (yup, never gets old) to govern. This is only arguable in an angry-person-on-twitter sense, of course. I feel as broadsided by her coronation as anyone, but her lack of mandate is something one feels rather than knows to be true. The fact is British representative democracy doesn’t work like that and never has. Not only do we elect MPs rather than Prime Ministers, and entrust them with the capacity to make decisions on our behalf (including nominating a new PM if they like) but also the twentieth century was stuffed with “unelected Prime Ministers” who subsequently called elections at times of their own choosing. It’s the last forty years that seems to be the aberration.

So it feels to some like Theresa May doesn’t have a mandate, but constitutionally speaking she sort of does.

On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn appears to enjoy a big popular groundswell of support (groundswell is pretty funny too). It’s hard to tell how big this is, how politically active it is, or how well it would translate into an election situation. Polling behind the Don’t Knows is probably not a good sign, but those tens of thousands of people joining the Labour party may or may not be being reached by polling (although likewise they may or may not be intending to vote for Jeremy.) Anyway, at the very least, you can say that Corbyn’s supporters reckon he has a popular mandate – in fact it’s the argument they make repeatedly, in defiance of the idea that he might need the support of the Parliamentary Labour Party or indeed a functioning shadow cabinet. But in this they are technically incorrect:

While ‘confidence’ as a concept is difficult to define with precision, it does not rest directly on the support of voters. Normally, it involves being the accepted leader of a party with a majority in the Commons.

So it feels to some like Jeremy Corbyn does have a mandate, but constitutionally speaking he sort of doesn’t.

It’s interesting this contrast has come about now because it feels like the God of Constitutional Reform is toying with us (he probably wasn’t one of the more successful gods, got turned into a gerbil by Athena all the time, that sort of thing). Massive constitutional upheaval was inevitable from the moment the referendum was won, but this adds another ingredient to the sticky mix. If we’re going to tear up some things (which we have to) why not tear it all up while we’re about it?


  1. Also notable to me how many MPs from Remain areas feel that the 52% vote overrides their need to represent the views of constituents when voting on e.g. Art.50 (should that vote come.)

    1. Yes, that is an interesting one isn’t it. I’m pretty sure at least one Remain MP whose constituency was also Remain has declared their intention to vote against Brexit, though I can’t think who it is for the moment.

    2. Well, but what “need” is there to do that? MPs are certainly expected to *represent* their constituents, but that doesn’t necessarily mean representing their *views* and it certainly doesn’t mean voting in accordance with a local plebiscite. (In many cases, of course, MPs don’t actually know how their constituents voted because votes weren’t collated at that level.) Tory MPs, certainly, were elected on a manifesto that promised not only to hold an In/Out referendum but to implement the voters’ decision. If we’re going to talk mandates (oo, you’re right, it is funny), the obligation on a government to carry out its manifesto promises is usually a relatively uncontroversial aspect of that. (Look, we’re *not* going to talk about tuition fees again…)

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