A post on politicalbetting.com this morning by the always excellent David Herdson about the tedium of the Labour leadership contest got me thinking.
David’s point was that the contenders just aren’t really talking about anything. They can all do platitude, but none of them is seriously raising a genuine policy agenda for what they would advance as an alternative during their opposition wilderness. It’s a fair point, but Tory observers need to recall that about the only substantive thing David Cameron said in his campaign was to bring the Conservative Party out of the EPP grouping in the EU Parliament…
But there is a serious downside to not saying anything during a campaign. And I mean any campaign. It is the question of mandates.
Mention “mandate” to Joe and Joetta Public and I suspect the eyes would glaze over. But mandates have a crucial place in the centre of a democratic system; one of these things that we acknowledge and accept without ever truly appreciating what they’re all about.
By talking about an issue, talking about it openly, publicly, and engaging in serious debate in the subject, you get a grudging appreciation from people that “x” is what you want to do about the issue. And then, if you happen to win said election, all of a sudden you have a mandate for that topic. Regardless of whether or not people were really voting for you with that particular issue in mind.
The voters have spoken, you can say. I have legitimacy to carry out my agenda. I have the endorsement of the public/my organisation/my trade union, whatever, to carry out these changes.
Mandates are an essential part of democracy. They are accepted by people without truly realising the underlying process. The present coalition government sort of has a mandate to carry out their rather radical agenda (though how radical it is remains to be seen over what the result of various reviews are) because the partners achieved a very significant backing at the polls compared to all previous governments.
The winner of the Labour leadership race will have authority as the winner of the contest. They will have authority to lead the party in whatever direction they wish.
But, because no one is really prepared to put their neck on the line, they’re not going to have a proper mandate for any of the pet projects they wanted to pursue. While it’s a useful strategy if you don’t want to frighten the horses, if you want to make a major change, by silencing critics with the weight of your ringing democratic endorsement, you really do need a thumping great mandate.
Sometimes politicians have to take risks with these things. The risk is they’ll lose the election by standing out. The reward, however, is that if you can win, and have your prior agenda in place, you’re going to get a lot more acceptance for whatever it is you want to do.
That’s supposed to be what elections are all about.