On Coalitions and Mandates


I have great respect for the veteran political commentator Peter Riddell, and his new book, “In Defence of Politicians, in spite of themselves” deserves to be widely read. It contains much sage analysis and wise advice and much I agree with.

But there is one issue where I think we disagree – the issue of the current Coalition government and whether it has a mandate, or not.

Peter argues, I think rightly, that some of the criticism of the Coalition has been misplaced. Coalition policies are inevitably compromises and one or other, or all, parties to the coalition almost certainly had a lot in their manifestos that looks very different once it has been through the coalition negotiation mcat-grinder.

Proclaiming loudly that “no-one voted for this” is both true and fatuous – not enough people voted for any one party so compromises become inevitable in co within situations. Our continental cousins have been doing the coalition two-step for years and no-one would even dream of raising the ‘mandate’ ploy.

However, Where I think Peter let’s the current Coalition off the hook is in seeming to say that because no-one got a majority, then anything goes. Perhaps that is not what he meant, but that is certainly how it comes across to me.

Let me digress. There is a game that is apparently taught to Japanese school children to get them to think creatively about problems – it is called ‘pillow learning’.

A square pillow is placed in the floor and the children are invited to think as one side, A, as representing one side of a dilemma, choice or merely a difference. The opposite side, B, represents the other ‘side’ in the dilemma, choice or difference. They are then invited first to think about what a third side would look like if it represented A+B or A and B. Finally they are asked to consider the fourth alternative of neither A nor B.

So, if A is black and B is White – what does A+B look like, some shade of grey? And even more thought provokingly, what does neither A nor B look like?

What’s this got to do with Coalition government? Well, for a Coalition to really have a mandate it has to look something like side 3 – that is it has to be some combination of, or compromise between, the elements A and B. A combination, in other words, of the wishes and preferences expressed in the vote for the policies of parties A and B – shades of grey.

On a number of crucial policy issues this Coalition looks more like side 4 – neither A nor B. The two biggest examples are the deficit and the NHS. Neither of the two Coalition parties proposed anything even remotely like the original NHS reorganisation proposals. Indeed the Tories specifically promised no big reorganisation and the Lib Dems only minor adjustments.

Similarly with the deficit. Neither coalition party promised to eliminate the deficit in one parliament – the Tories merely said they’d go further than Labour, and the Lib Dems said that would be too much. Their combined policy could therefore have been expected to be somewhere near to Labour’s “halve the deficit” but instead it came out, again, as far more radical than either had said in the election.

Coalitions that pursue policies that are neither A nor B nor some compromise between them can quite legitimately be said not to have a mandate. As Peter points out elsewhere in his book, politicians of former eras who thought it was perfectly OK to dupe the electorate by saying one thing in the election, knowing perfectly well they would do the opposite in government (e.g. Baldwin and rearmament in 1935), do huge damage to politics. Quite right. Having two parties do it doesn’t make it any better.

Obviously in other areas the Coalition is a comprise – an A plus B – and therefore has a legitimate mandate. But there are enough big issues, and quite a few small ones, where it is a neither A nor B government that has no mandate for what it is doing to raise serious issues about it’s legitimacy. Technically, of course under our ‘constitutional’ (I use the word loosely) set-up they are a perfectly legitimate government as long as they command a majority in the House. But as Peter’s book points out itself sticking to formal rules isn’t always enough – governments’ legitimacy derives as much from popular approval, or at least compliance, as it does formal rules.

The crisis in trust in politicians, which is essentially what his book is all about, has not (yet) translated into a crisis of the state – as he says laws are still obeyed and taxes are paid. But this Coalition has been pushing the boundaries. We all saw what happened when a Government with perfectly legitimate formal authority pushed through a policy – the Poll Tax – that lacked popular consent. It did indeed soon turn into a situation where laws were not obeyed and taxes not paid. Let us hope the Coalition does not push us to the same brink.

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About Prof. Colin Talbot

Professor of Government (Emeritus). Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, England.
This entry was posted in Politics, Whitehall. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On Coalitions and Mandates

  1. Dr Catherine Haddon says:

    Fascinating points Colin. I think the point about legitimacy is two-fold. First there is the mandate in terms of how it affects the Lords and Common’s approach to defining ‘the Government’s business’. And in this case we are somewhat entering new territory, so Parliament may well have to work out the conventions for itself (based on whichever precedents are applicable). I think there the point about some representation in one or other of the manifestoes will have an impact (but you always had a case of government policy developed subsequent to an election). However, the second aspect is popular legitimacy, and in this I think we need to remind ourselves that in some respects the political accountability works, albeit it can be a painful process. The fact that governments are punished politically (whether by media, public protest or electoral results) for when they are seen to have pushed legitimacy (either because of their orginal mandate or because the public no longer accepts that mandate), is the form of accountability that should exist. Thus, the coalition will likely be punished by the public if it is seen to have gone beyond its mandate (such as over tuition fees for the Lib Dems as has already happened). The issue is therefore whether we need to allow this latter process to take its course, and how far we can seek to change procedures to address the former.

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