What the People Really Want: Narrow Mandates in Politics

Written by Ben Davies

Last week’s by-election in the Welsh constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire saw a reduction of Boris Johnson’s government majority to just one, as Liberal Democrat Jane Dodds won the seat. The result was an interesting one: more voters went for No Deal-friendly parties (mainly Johnson’s Conservatives and the Brexit Party) than for the out-and-out Remainer Lib Dems. Dodds won not because a majority of voters supported her, but arguably because the pro-Brexit vote was split, and the Lib Dem vote was boosted by Plaid Cymru and the Greens declining to field candidates (it can’t have helped that the Conservatives also simply reselected their candidate whose unseating for expenses fraud triggered the election).

The result generated two sets of comments by Conservative Chair James Cleverly. Cleverly’s first claim was that the Liberal Democrats had engineered a “back room deal” with other Remain-friendly parties – Plaid and the Greens – in a way that was, he implied, undemocratic.

While Dodds is an MP for all constituents of her seat, the traditional logic of UK politics says that she has received a mandate to pursue everything she campaigned for, wholeheartedly. It’s the same approach which sanctions governments for whom a minority of voters opted, and even governments with a minority of MPs. Cleverly’s comments reflected a majoritarian way of thinking that has traditionally been opposed by the Conservatives – and Labour – and supported by minority parties. The First Past the Post system throws up these kinds of results all the time, and may do so even more frequently if the Greens and Liberal Democrats decide to pursue more of these types of deals with Plaid, the SNP, or each other. Labour and the Conservatives can hardly insist on the superiority of the current system, and then condemn smaller parties for working within the constraints of that system.

Perhaps by refusing to stand two candidates whom voters might have wanted to back, the Remain-alliance did something undemocratic. But it’s hard to see why that would be true. After all, the only reason the Greens and Plaid stood down was because they saw little chance of winning. Parties aren’t obligated to stand in every seat. I might like the SNP’s politics the most; but that doesn’t mean I’m disenfranchised by their ballot absence in my North London constituency. And if Brecon and Radnorshire voters who favoured the Greens or Plaid couldn’t stomach voting for a Liberal Democrat, they could have abstained.

Secondly, Cleverly noted that a majority of voters had opted for pro-Brexit parties and, after gently chiding the 3,000 or so who had gone for the Brexit Party rather than his own, said that delivering Brexit was “what the majority…in that constituency want”.

Ignore the fact that a turnout of just under 60% means that such a close result leaves us with no real idea of what “the majority” want. Does the result give Boris Johnson’s government a local mandate to pursue Brexit, because the majority backed pro-Brexit parties? Conversely, should Dodds be more cautious in her pursuit of her manifesto pledges – including opposite to No Deal – due to the narrowness of her win?

I’m inclined to agree that the result suggests that the majority of voters still back Brexit. But it would be harder to endorse a broader application of this kind of thinking. People vote for many reasons, both national and local. Even in Brexit-dominated times, we can’t conclude that any particular voters backed a party because of a single issue. Nonetheless, I think Cleverly has a point, though it applies far more widely than he might like to admit. Individual representatives and national governments need to recognise that narrow or minority electoral wins might give a political mandate to manifesto promises in an unrestrained way, but they don’t necessarily offer a moral mandate to do so. Politicians should always be concerned with the interests of electoral minorities. But those whose wins are narrow should be far more willing to consider how they might pursue compromise positions. Given the complexity of reasons for voting mentioned above, that might require considerable engagement by MPs with local constituencies to understand which parts of their manifesto turned voters off.

Compromise can’t be achieved at every level – you can’t both back No Deal and reject it. Still, moving constituency politics beyond a simple rhetoric of winners and losers might help to reconnect some voters with politics. If being on the ‘losing’ side isn’t to mean the end of a chance to engage impactfully in politics, MPs should recognise that a narrow win means, in moral terms, a narrow mandate. But that applies almost as strongly to, say, Boris Johnson’s narrow majority (50.8%) in Uxbridge and South Ruislip as it does to Jane Dodds’s narrow minority win in Brecon and Radnorshire.

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