12 July 2016

General Election logic - the Bad and the Good

So Theresa May has won the leadership contest with support from just a tiny tiny minority of the British public - specifically those who are Conservative MP's. Like all good believers in democracy I should by all rights be outraged that she will now become our new Prime Minister on such a flimsy election process (if you can even call surviving just a few rounds of political 'it's a knockout' an election process). Like many I should be crying that it is undemocratic, that she has 'No Mandate' to be PM!

But I won't be. For a very good reason.

Theresa May has the same mandate that every Prime Minister has had since our modern parliamentary system formed.

Many people are pointing out that Theresa May herself said that Gordon Brown, when he was appointed as PM, had no 'mandate' from the people to be Prime Minister and called on him to have an immediate General Election. Surely, they ask, the same now applies to Theresa May? Well, what they don't point out is that what she originally said was wrong. Her argument didn't stand at the time and thus it doesn't now... even if she did say it, it just makes her ignorant of how our parliamentary system works (or much more likely prepared to ignore how it works in order to stoke the fires of public outrage for party political gain)

Gordon Brown at the time - as Theresa May will now - had the same mandate to be Prime Minister that every PM has had since our modern parliamentary system formed out the mists of our historical march towards democracy (a journey still incomplete by the way). He had a majority of support from the Members of Parliament, and was appointed to the role by our Monarch. That is the only mandate required to be Prime Minister.

This is how our system works. We elect someone to represent us in parliament... a Member of Parliament who speaks for us. One of the things they speak for us on is who will be Prime Minister.

We have fallen in to a belief that we 'elect' the Prime Minister just because one party often gains a majority of MPs and so they are able to propose their party leader for the role of PM. This doesn't mean we elected them, nor does it mean that parliament deciding on a Prime Minister at any other time than after an election is somehow illegitimate, it isn't, that is a right we give them by electing them to parliament for their term. Nor does it mean it would be illegitimate of them to decide on a Prime Minister who is not leader of a party holding a majority of seats - as they do when there is a hung parliament. These are all perfectly valid expressions of our democracy and parliament's powers.

It is true that MP's (usually) stand under a party banner, with a manifesto saying the kinds of things they will support (but not providing a textbook for all they must do - http://electronic-soapbox.blogspot.com/2015/04/a-manifestly-flawed-relationship.html ). And, it is true these parties have leaders, who we know may become PM if that party has enough MP's to propose them. 

But the key there is 'if those parties have enough MPs'. Every MP gets to say who they would like to lead the parliament as a government - if there is no majority voice from one party that doesn't invalidate that right or any choice they make. Nor is this right (or duty, some might say) a 'time limited' offer to only be used within a certain amount of time after a General Election.

The idea that Theresa May doesn't have some kind of illusory mandate from the people to be PM is a very bad reason to call for a General Election. There is however an extremely good one.

We elected our MPs in a hugely different landscape to the one we now find ourselves in.

What we do do at a General Election is give our MP a mandate to speak on our behalf (kind of; ignoring our flawed voting system... for now) on all manner of different issues and decisions. At the last election we elected representatives to speak for us in a hugely different landscape to the one we now find ourselves in.

None of the MPs sitting in parliament right now have been elected by constituents who knew their position on how parliament should respond to a referendum result to leave the EU, and what, if any, kind of changes we should seek to make to our relationship with Europe as a result. We couldn't know because we were not told at the time.

Do they think we should we stay in the EEA? Do they think we should stop freedom of movement at all costs? What do they think we should do about the Erasmus programme, about Horizon 2020, about introduction of Visas, about the border with Ireland. They may now start to tell us, but we never had a chance to consider those views when we elected them - and now we find it hugely matters. If we had known where we would be now and what they thought we should do next, we may have made very different choices about who our representative would be.

These decisions will have such an impact on our future that it is surely right we are given the opportunity to reconsider our choice of representative.

Now we will always find our MPs facing decisions which we didn't know anything about during the General Election, and that is partly what we pay them to do. However, our representative will speak on our behalf in a parliament whose new primary focus is going to be dealing with the the key issue of renegotiating our relationship with Europe and the myriad ways in which we make fundamental changes to our own country in response to this. This issue and the decisions which arise from it are so momentous, and will have such an impact on our future, that it is surely right we are given the opportunity to reconsider our choice.