Peter Bye

The UK’s general election on 12th December resulted in a majority of 80 for the Conservative Party, a larger number than anticipated. Some had expected a much closer result or even a hung parliament. The way is now open for the UK to leave the EU at the end of January. It would take a totally improbable revolution on the Conservative back benches to stop this happening. Whether it will ‘get Brexit done’, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been promising, is another question; a new relationship with the EU still has to be worked out. Mr Johnson aims to complete an agreement by the end of 2020 and is even planning to make it illegal to delay for another year or two, as is currently possible. Serious doubts have been raised about how much can be done in such a short time.

During his speech in the early hours of the morning of the 13th December at the count in his own constituency, Mr Johnson said[1] that this ‘one-nation Conservative government has been given a powerful new mandate to get Brexit done’, and to ‘respect the democratic will of the British people’. He was speaking before the full results were known but exit poll predictions were later confirmed. Subsequent coverage in the media makes other references to the size of the mandate, including the phrase ‘a great stonking mandate’[2].

I’ll pass over the remark about the will of the British people; I’ve made my views known on that idea in earlier pieces. Here, I’d like to take a look at the word ‘mandate’. Chambers dictionary provides a number of definitions, the most appropriate being ‘the sanction held to be given by the electors to members of parliament to deal with a question that was before the country at the election’. The definition suggests that a mandate requires the support of the electorate to deal with the question concerned. The recent UK general election was about a wide range of policies, not a single issue, although it was clear that Brexit would be of great significance. Does the election result really provide the ‘powerful mandate’ to implement the party’s policies that Mr Johnson claims?

For a mandate to be called powerful – or ‘stonking’ – there should be a majority of votes cast for the winning party. And the elected government obviously needs the power to be able to implement its policies. Therein lies a problem with the UK’s electoral system. The ‘first past the post’ approach in each of the 650 constituencies means that the overall winner of the election may have a minority of the popular vote. The recent election has delivered the power provided by a big majority (80 seats) but with a minority of the votes, at 43.6%. The Conservative government can do more or less what it likes even though more people voted against it than for it.

In fact, every UK general election since 1945 has delivered power to a party with a minority of the popular vote[3]. Some have been close to 50%, for example Labour in 1945 (47.7%) and the Conservatives in 1959 (49.4%). There have also been parties winning the election with a lower share than the other major party. Labour in 1951 got 48.8% of the vote and 295 seats while the Conservatives got 321 seats with 48.0%. In 1997, the Labour Party got a majority of 179 with just 43.5% of the vote, very much the same proportion as the Conservatives got in 2019 to give them a majority of 80. The UK is not alone with the eccentricities of first past the post. US presidential elections can deliver a winner in the Electoral College but with a minority of the popular vote. Donald Trump notoriously had over 2.8 million votes fewer than Hilary Clinton but more votes in the Electoral College[4].

Does it matter that the UK voting system delivers such results? I think it does, for two reasons. First, it’s very difficult for parties other than Labour or Conservative to make progress[5]. The Conservatives got 365 seats with 43.6% of the vote while the Liberal Democrats 11.5% of the vote gave them just 11 seats. The SNP, which only stands in Scottish constituencies of Parliament, got 48 seats with 3.9% of the overall UK vote. And the Green Party got just 1 seat with 2.7% of the vote. The effect is to disenfranchise large numbers of people.

The second reason is that it exacerbates divisions in society. If the two main parties are each relatively close to the centre, it does not matter too much if one of them gains a big majority with a minority of the popular vote. This was the case with the Labour government from 1997 to 2010, for example. But at present, the country is polarised, with Brexit as a significant source of contention. In addition, the Labour Party adopted a series of policies well to the left of anything seen in the UK for a long time, while the Conservatives moved to the right. The chances of healing the rifts look slight.

There is a strong case for proportional representation (PR), but, given that the UK had a referendum in 2011 on a proportional system[6] and rejected it, there seems little chance of getting PR in the UK any time soon. But without PR, the UK will continue to have prime ministers claiming they have a ‘powerful’, even ‘stonking’, mandate when more people voted against their party than for it.

Notes and sources

[1] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYyNDT11TeY’ for a short video of some of his speech.

[2] See for example the report on the Spectator’s website: https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2019/12/a-huge-great-stonking-mandate-boriss-tory-hq-victory-speech/

[3] There are many sources for the election results in the UK and elsewhere. Wikipedia contains a number entries, for example, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_Kingdom_general_elections

[4]. Two of the last five US elections have produced a winner with a minority of the popular vote. It’s hard to understand why the election of a US president is not just based on the popular vote as it is in France, for example.

[5] Parties can decline significantly, as the Liberal Party did after WW1. Others can rise: the Labour Party under Ramsay MacDonald formed its first government in 1924. But in general it’s difficult for new parties to make gains unless they are regionally confined, such as the SNP.

[6] The approach in the referendum question was for an alternative vote. For the result, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parliamentary_Voting_System_and_Constituencies_Act_2011

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