The Alternative Government: A change of the process but not the system

David Rickard
17 May 2010

In the past few days, with the election of a hung parliament and the formation of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, we seem to have effected a transition from the go-it-alone, winner-takes-all, first-past-the-post system of establishing a government to an ‘alternative’ system. Now, instead of the party obtaining the most seats having an automatic right to power, we’ve moved to a situation where only a combination of first and second preferences – in this case, Conservatives and Lib Dems – is sufficient to create a majority with a legitimate claim to represent the voters.

It is fitting, then, that the voting system the two parties have agreed to put to the country in a referendum is the Alternative Vote, not full proportional representation: if we can’t now have our first choice (first past the post) when it doesn’t win a majority, then we’ll have to put up with a compromise, hybrid solution that determines a ‘majority’ based on a combination of voters’ actual preferences.

The voting system is a mirror of the system of governance in its totality. Under FPTP, what we have had in reality is a ‘plebiscitary autocracy’ rather than a true representative democracy. That is to say, the party in government, through Parliament, is vested with the autocratic power of the monarch, which it is authorised to wield on behalf of ‘the country’ by elections that function essentially as multi-issue plebiscites, in which voters are said to provide a mandate for a whole series of policy proposals (party manifestoes).

Just as First Past the Post favours two-party politics because any third or additional parties are squeezed out, as the recent election has again demonstrated, so it is the case that FPTP and the preference for two-party politics are themselves fostered by the plebiscitary character of UK elections. If there are only two real choices, then a majority of votes for one party and programme is possible or even likely, and the majorities in terms of parliamentary seats are more likely to approximate to the parties’ shares of the votes. In this way, the legitimacy of the plebiscite and the mandate it supposedly confers on the governing party can remain unchallenged.

This legitimacy has increasingly been thrown in doubt as the emergence of three-party politics, and outside of England multi-party politics, steadily reduced the share of the vote necessary for the winning party to secure a parliamentary majority. In 2005, a 36% share of the vote UK-wide was sufficient to give Labour a 66-seat majority. The system ‘failed’ to deliver an outright majority for the Tories on exactly the same share this time round, exposing just how bogus were the claims to legitimacy of previous governments elected on a minority of the popular vote. So now we’ve had to move to an alternative system for engineering the all-powerful parliamentary majority.

But is it an alternative system we’ve moved to or merely an alternative process for regulating the same system? It is true that, for the first time in decades, the parliamentary majority (exactly 66% of the seats) corresponds to a majority of votes cast, at least across the UK in aggregate (59.1%). And it is this aggregate majority that is now being taken as conferring a mandate to implement a compromise combination of the two parties’ manifestoes on exactly the same plebiscitary principle as before.

If anything, however, the working out of the plebiscitary principle is even less legitimate than in single-party government, in terms of the degree to which it reflects the popular will. For example, the Alternative Vote was in the manifestoes of neither the Conservatives nor the Lib Dems – but it was in the Labour manifesto. Now it’s been adopted as the system to be put to the people in a referendum, basically because the parties have struck a compromise on electoral reform. But on the plebiscitary principle, neither party has a mandate to do this. The referendum we’re going to be offered on AV will be just another two-option plebiscite that the two-option parliamentary system (with the government and ‘opposition’ roles in the system now occupied by the Con-Lib coalition and Labour respectively) has decreed from on high to be the only choice we the people are allowed to make, rather than an open choice between multiple possible systems.

The same point could be made about much of the new government’s legislative programme. Many of the policies were in only one of the Conservative or Lib Dem manifestoes. So in what sense can it be said that the two parties in government have a mandate to implement those policies given that only 36.1% or 23.0% of voters respectively voted for either of the parties to carry them out? Clearly, the claim to a legitimate mandate is again not derived by reference to vote share but is based on the plebiscitary principle that a parliamentary majority – created by whichever voting system – confers on the ruling party or parties the political power and moral authority to do pretty much whatever they want in government, subject to ratification once every five years by the electorate. Even PR would not transform these assumptions, in that the Single Transferable Vote would produce an outcome not dissimilar to this last election and would require the formation of a coalition government that would derive its mandate from the same plebiscitary principle.

In the context of the UK’s various national questions, the ‘right to govern’ on the part of a ruling coalition that enjoys the support of a majority of voters in England only, and the right of the coalition’s non-English MPs to participate in decisions on England-only legislation, are also established by reference to the unifying principle of monarchical sovereignty that Parliament instantiates. This principle is encapsulated in politicians’ endless references to ‘the country’, as exemplified in David Cameron’s and Nick Clegg’s announcements about the new government last night.

‘The country’ doesn’t in fact mean either ‘Great Britain’, ‘Britain’ or even England; it really means ‘the realm’ or ‘the kingdom’. By invoking the ‘national interest’ and the desperate situation of ‘the country’ as the prime motivation behind the formation of the new government, the politicians are in fact merely reiterating the self-validating foundation for their own claim to legitimate rule. ‘The country’ as such exists only in and through the system of government (a parliamentary kingdom) that it itself is. This means that whatever is in the interests of ‘the country’ is by definition in the interests of government; and it is ultimately down to the government – the sovereign rulers – to determine what those interests might be.

So I would differ from the more optimistic assessment of the ‘new politics’ made by Anthony Barnett and, in a more qualified way, by David Marquand. The new politics is in my view largely a new way to do the same old politics: politics being thought of as properly the domain of politicians rather than that of the electorate, who are called to participate only through five-yearly plebiscites – which will remain five-yearly with the coalition’s plans for fixed-term parliaments.

Five more years of this! No, it’s not good enough; and I hope and believe that the demand for a more participative, deliberative and genuinely representative democracy that was unleashed by the expenses scandal last year is now an unstoppable train that is going to smash through the safety barriers that Westminster is now hastily re-erecting.

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