Respect the mandate

Posted: June 30, 2016 in politics and ideas
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I don’t really know what I’m doing here“.

Irrespective of how much money he was on, it was a bit much to make Roy Hodgson conduct a press conference the day after he’d resigned as England manager. What was all that about? His legitimacy evaporated when his exciting young players failed to beat (or even compete against) Iceland. He forfeited the authority due to him by virtue of his office when he read out his resignation statement at a press conference after the final whistle. And yet the very next day he was seemingly required to face the press once more in his capacity as…well, no one was quite sure.

It was a strange coda to a curious chapter in England’s footballing history, and very much in keeping with one of the weirder weeks in England’s and the UK’s political history. After all, the day after Hodgson briefed the press as a resigned England manager, David Cameron took Prime Minister’s Questions as a resigned PM across the dispatch box from a very much not resigned Leader of the Opposition whose parliamentary party had just rejected him 172-40 in a vote of no confidence and whose Shadow Cabinet had pretty much all quit in protest at his leadership.

It seems to me that the concept of mandate is central to the current power struggles in the Conservative and Labour parties. In this post I want to explore the different types of mandate being claimed by the various actors in our contemporary drama and suggest some possible ways forward for Labour and for the UK in its relationship with the EU. Executive summary: some people are going to have to grow up.


Who should wield political authority and what – if anything – can make that authority legitimate? This is arguably the fundamental problem of political thought.

In medieval times the answer was simple: the authority of kings was ordained by God and all kings traced their lineage back to Adam. A version of this theory underpins the authority of some of the world’s fruitier autocrats to this day.

Over time the divine right of kings was challenged in the west, perhaps most notably by John Locke in his Second Treatise of Civil Government in the late 17th century. Locke argued that government must rely on the consent of the governed. Where a government acts against the people’s interests, Locke argues that there must be a right of revolution to replace the tyrannical government with something more benign. Locke’s ideas would later influence the US Declaration of Independence.

These days, the typical source of legitimacy for governments in most of the world is victory in a democratic election. If a political party or coalition of parties proposes certain policies in a manifesto and then carries sufficient popular support to win an election, it will generally be seen as appropriate for the government to enact that legislative programme. Challenges to this underpinning authority tend only to arise if (a) a coalition government enacts legislation proposed to the electorate by junior coalition partners that received little popular support, or (b) when the government adapts the legislation from the form it appeared in its manifesto or deviates entirely from what it proposed to do in office. And sometimes a government will consider a decision – usually pertaining to the country’s constitution – to be so momentous that it requires additional popular underpinning by referendum.

Two other compelling sources of authority may be identified. The first is might. Stalin was said to have asked “how many divisions does the Pope have?” when challenged by Churchill on his policy towards Poland. In international law a premium is placed on the capacity of a regime to exercise de facto authority within its territory even if it is not the de jure government. Think of the Soviet tanks in Budapest in 1956; it was pretty hard to argue with their authority. Now, it may be argued that I’m describing a “might is right” philosophy – articulated in Plato’s Republic by Thrasymachus – that has everything to do with pragmatism and nothing to do with legitimacy. Well, quite – but you try having that discussion with a Soviet tank and let me know how you get on.

And political authority has also been asserted on the basis of expertise. Plato presents (via Socrates) and argument for rule by the wise in the Republic, and Schumpeter has more recently argued for what’s known as the elite theory of democracy where the citizenry chooses between different groups of informed and well-connected types rather than getting involved in politics themselves. Fans of far Left exotica will recognise a version of this strain of thinking in the attitude of the Tankies, Trots and Sparts that follow Jeremy Corbyn around. If you haven’t encountered them, they’re all convinced that they alone hold an authentic political analysis – one that the voters would fall over themselves to support if only they could be cured of their false consciousness and saved from the massive conspiracy being prosecuted against Bolshevik ideas by…well, I better not give away the details eh?

So you can try to assert your legitimacy as a ruler on the basis that God said you were His best guy, or because you won’t abuse the people’s trust, or because you won an election, or because you’re harder than everyone else, or because you know best. But what happens when you claim a democratic mandate and someone challenges you on a different basis? Or someone challenges your democratic mandate with a different democratic mandate? We can usefully explore these questions by thinking about the EU referendum aftermath – and also about the challenge to Jeremy Corbyn from his parliamentary party.

***

Let’s consider the EU referendum result first. I think we’re all clear that internal party dynamics and a palpable fear of MPs defecting to UKIP were David Cameron’s motivations for committed to the referendum in the first place. Nevertheless, when the Conservatives unexpectedly won the 2015 election there was a mandate from the voters to go ahead with the referendum whether Cameron liked it or not. Because he then campaigned personally for Remain and staked his political reputation on the outcome, his legitimacy evaporated as soon as it became clear that Leave had sneaked it. One democratic mandate was trumped by another, seemingly deeper democratic mandate. (Ignore the associations of ‘trumped’).

There are three intriguing implications of the ensuing power vacuum for government mandates, each of which points to a new Prime Minister calling an Autumn General Election.

First, not only did Cameron lose his personal mandate to be Prime Minister, the entire House of Commons has in a sense lost a degree of legitimacy. The views of MPs across the House have been demonstrated to be out of step with majority opinion in the country on EU membership so there must be a question over their suitability to implement the referendum outcomes. A new election can provide a renewed democratic mandate to the Commons to set about its work.

Second, there currently exists no viable mechanism for implementing the referendum outcome since the PM is now in Downing Street in name only. Until and unless a new Prime Minister takes office with the intention of triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty we’re essentially in limbo. Interestingly, Cameron could easily have started the process and overseen its early stages without anyone challenging his authority to do so – but he forfeited any residual mandate to act in this way by, well, deciding he didn’t want to.

So, implementing the referendum outcome will require, in the immediate term, a new PM prepared to do it. Intriguingly, with or without a new General Election there will be MPs – perhaps many, many MPs – who will exercise their judgment or follow the preferences of their constituents to oppose Brexit. And who knows what the next Tory leader will think about all this – the political landscape has changed unrecognisably even since I started typing this blog post.

Third, if there is an Autumn general election, this not only renews the authority of the Commons to act, it might provide a rival democratic mandate to oppose Brexit altogether. If a party or parties – or even an aggregation of candidates from across the board – campaigns successfully for re-election on a platform of remaining in the EU, then we have a fascinating clash of mandates. In that scenario it could be argued that the additional sources of legitimacy that accrue to Parliament (expertise, and might) would reinforce the democratic mandate provided by the voters in the autumn election – and outweigh the referendum result. It could be argued. Could.

So how do we get out of this mess? Well, the referendum result was very close: 52 vs 48. That’s not a thumping majority in anyone’s book. The electorate is wise and the political class must listen to what it is telling them, which in this case is not quite what the political class is hearing. Instead of seeing the result as a slight majority insisting that we leave the EU, what the electorate actually said is that there is a majority insisting that we slightly leave the EU. So after a new PM convinces the House to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (and good riddance to it) and calls an Autumn election, the next government should agree a deal whereby we slightly leave – by which I mean we stay in the EU under revised conditions appropriate to the referendum outcome. And if the next PM can’t sell that to the public and to Brussels then they’re not fit for high office.

***

Which brings us to poor old Jeremy Corbyn. As I write, Corbyn is refusing to resign despite his Deputy pleading with him to spare himself and the Labour Party any further embarrassment. It appears that he will face a leadership challenge, having lost the confidence of a parliamentary party steeling itself for the hypothetical election I keep referring to.

Where does Jeremy’s mandate come from? As his team reminds us regularly, it comes from his overwhelming victory in last year’s leadership election (and how long ago does that seem?). So he has an internal party election win to his name, and it seems plausible that a majority of the membership continues to support him. A democratic mandate, then.

What else? He also claims a mandate on the basis of expertise. Corbyn and his supporters are convinced that they are right and everyone else (seemingly including Gordon Brown, amusingly enough) are these things called Blairites. The very idea that other wings of the party might have a legitimate part to play in the policy setting process is dismissed as backsliding to illegitimate, conservative and idiotic forces.

And there’s also an attempt to demonstate a degree of might. The Momentum group, which was formed after his election as a sort of Corbynite praetorian guard, seeks to intimidate his party opponents with threats of deselection and the occasional deftly-timed rally outside their offices. And as the recent pro-Corbyn rally in London demonstrated, a striking proportion of Corbyn’s activist base are not Labour members and are in fact supporters of rival parties. Quite what they think they’re trying to achieve is open to question. Nevertheless, there has been a mobilisation of angry people from the far Left in an attempt to quell dissent and enshrine Jeremy’s roundhead socialism as the only legitimate version of Labour politics.

(A quick thought experiment to help you decide if a political protest is good or bad – ask yourself who the equivalent group of protesters would be from the other side of the political spectrum and what you might think of them. I would suggest that the right wing equivalent of the recent Corbynite protesters would be Bill Cash, the Taxpayers Alliance and the National Front).

Even though it can be seen to be deriving legitimacy in the above three ways, Corbyn’s team only really asserts its authority on the basis of numbers: votes received last year in the leadership ballot and support claimed in the present on the basis of, well, a hunch. On this basis the mass resignations of the Shadow Cabinet and the vote of no confidence he received from the parliamentary party can be deplored as anti-democratic.

But is that fair? It seems to me that the parliamentary party is acting entirely reasonably on the basis of a rival mandate. MPs are elected by, y’know, the electorate at a General Election. Their authority derives from their own democratic mandate, which it must be said was granted by the electorate as a whole rather than just the internal Labour membership. So Corbyn’s legitimacy is internal to the party, and the parliamentary party’s legitimacy is derived externally from the electorate.

What else? Well the parliamentary party also claims authority on account of expertise. The most interesting resignation letters from former Shadow Cabinet members sought to justify their rebellion in terms of Labour’s history and future prospects. They claimed to understand better than Corbyn and his supporters what needs to be done, and called on him to put the party before himself. So there’s a rival claim on legitimate knowledge that is at least as worthy as that made by the Corbynites.

And there is also a show of might. The coordinated walk-out from the Shadow Cabinet, the vote of no confidence and (I assume) an imminent leadership challenge are designed to show muscle. This claim to de facto authority rivals the extra-parliamentary intimidation tactics of Momentum.

But crucially the parliamentary party claims its mandate from a fourth source as well. Remember I mentioned Locke and the right to overthrow a tyrannical authority that loses the consent of the governed. This is a key plank of the case for removing Corbyn. It’s quite clear that there is an attempted take-over of the party by the far Left and a refusal to tolerate dissent. The parliamentary party is not just claiming its own popular legitimacy or capacity to act – it’s asserting its right to overthrow a bad ruler. In effect they are saying that Corbyn is making everything about himself, refusing to tolerate alternative opinions to his own and claiming the right to lead in perpetuity regardless of results: they are opposing the divine right of King Corbyn. And this to me is the most compelling argument in favour of the move against him.

So how do Labour get out of that mess? Well, there is a fairly clear resolution but it requires a number of people to grow up a bit. First, Corbyn needs to appreciate that he can only consolidate his influence by standing down elegantly. There is a deep desire across the membership for the humane form of socialism he came unexpectedly to personify last year.

Most of the opposition to his candidacy is specific to him – his lack of charisma, his…ambiguous relationship to militant politics, his obtuse refusal to listen to advise. It’s not actually about the core plank of his ideas. And anyway, I’m not sure his ideas are actually all that far away from the Brownite vision, or even from Ed Miliband’s policy platform (and it’s interesting to me that he has never sought to build bridges with the residual Brownite tendency in the party).

There can and must be continuity between Corbyn’s policy priorities and those of the next leader – and he can secure this by influencing the choice of successor and rallying his base behind them. It amazes me that he can’t grasp this. At the same time there must be an appreciation by the rest of the parliamentary party that Corbyn’s gentler vision must not be ditched wholesale as soon as the Campaign Group are coaxed out of office. It also amazes me that some of them can’t grasp this.

Now more than ever, Labour needs a leader elected by the membership, backed up by the expertise and might of a parliamentary party elected by the public. Surely that would be better for everyone than listening to opposed camps warning each other to respect their mandate?

But as for what you do about the England manager’s job, Christ alone knows.

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