Monday, 16 August 2010

The Re-emergence of a Democratic Deficit?

This post has been inspired by a Facebook conversation following a status update by a former colleague who is now an SNP councillor.

It all started innocuously enough with the following comment:
Interlocutor 1: So Nick Cleg [sic] has been left in charge... Does anybody else feel just that little bit scared!
No, I thought to myself, no I don't. In fact, I'm rather pleased at the plans to raise the profile of Liberal Democrat principles and policies, something I specifically mentioned a new members survey I completed at the weekend. So I responded in kind:
Me: Not as scared as when I visit home and realise Alex Salmond is in charge.
And because I couldn't let it lie, like any good Pedant would, I added:
Me: Oh and it's Clegg with two g's. :-)
At this point, my interlocutor decided to switch his attack from personality in order to question the legitimacy of the coalition:
Interlocutor 1: Ah but you see, Andrew, the general public actually elected Alex Salmond and he won the largest share of the vote in an election... Regardless of how many G's, Clegg didn't and his crazy ideas were rejected.
Ah, so that was it - an attack on the arrangement that brought stable government to the UK in the face of soaring debt levels. An attack on the coalition deal that cut out the Labour party, Plaid Cymru and the SNP and denied them the "rainbow coalition" mooted by, amongst others, Alex Salmond.

How to respond?, that was the question. Well, it struck me that the situation in Holyrood wasn't actually all that different to Westminster:
Me: Ehm... When last I checked Alex Salmond was leading a minority government...

...and in both cases the public elects a parliament not a government. There is no difference in the legitimacy of the arrangement at Westminster to the arrangement at Holyrood.
Indeed, it could be argued that the government at Westminster is more representative, given that 59.1% of the population voted for one of the parties. In Scotland the SNP govern on a mandate of a 32.9% share of the electorate. While this is absolutely legitimate under the Holyrood system - as would a minority Conservative government at Westminster - it does seem to be weak territory to stand on and question the legitimacy of other solutions to, essentially, the same problem. And of course, following the 2007 election, the SNP had also held coalition talks!

I think my interlocutor had taken my point and that could well have been the end of the political banter which had lightened my lunch break. A little later, however, a third person - let's call them Interlocutor 2 - entered the conversation.
Interlocutor 2: The legitimacy in Scotland is apparent when you consider the overwhelming majority of Scots voted for neither the Tories or the Lib Dems in May, giving neither party a mandate to govern in Scotland. The SNP Government may be a minority one but at least we actually received votes in Scotland!
At this point, I repaired to the BBC's election 2010 site to check the figures. A quick fact check later suggested the figures weren't as cut and dried as all that, particularly with reference to the SNP:
Me: Ehm, the SNP received just 1% more of the vote in Scotland in May and 5 fewer MPs than the LibDems, so the mandate was not clear in May - the mandate, such as it is, dates back to the last Scottish Parliament elections.

Furthermore, the combined share of the vote of the Lib Dems and Tories in Scotland was actually 35.6% compared with the 19.9% achieved by the SNP.

I come back to my previous point - within the terms of their respective parliaments, both the Westminster and Holyrood governments are legitimate - and in the case of Westminster that is as true in Edinburgh and Cardiff as London.
So it seems that in May, the coalition parties in Scotland trumped the SNP in both seats and vote share. It could also be noted that this 35.6% share of the vote figure remarkable similar to the 32.9% share that the SNP feel gives them a mandate at Holyrood.

Of course, on one level, none of this matters - it was all a bit of banter amongst friends. On another it very much does. The SNP will play this card again and again next year at the Scottish Parliament elections and in 2015 during the Westminster campaign. They will do their best to make the allegation stick. The Scottish Liberal Democrats will need to be prepared to fight it. At least the facts are on their side.


Andrew

P.S. Twenty years ago this would have all have mattered much more, of course. The advent of devolution, albeit in rather imperfect form, means that such arguments are redundant.

8 comments:

Paul Walter said...

Great post, Andrew

Niklas said...

I agree with Paul :)

And it is a strange world when the electorate "rejects" a party by giving it a larger share of the vote than in the last election....

Richard Thomson said...

Hi – I’m a friend of your councillor pal. I saw that particular FB exchange yesterday, and while the quality of the argument you were up against regarding the ‘mandate’ wasn’t great, you’re missing a few pretty important points.

The level of support the SNP got at the last election is almost irrelevant. What is relevant is that a parliament elected by PR nominated Alex Salmond as FM, and therefore allowed him to form a government.

That’s only part of the mandate, since the important part – that of being able to command a majority in the chamber - is a constantly shifting coalition. The SNP minority government only has legitimacy for so long as it is able to command the confidence of the chamber, and if it wants to pass legislation, it needs to get a majority to back it. Since it’s a PR Parliament, that means that when Holyrood supports something, it does so with the weight and authority of the greater number of Scottish voters having lent their support to it.

Compare and contrast with the Lib Cons in Scotland. 12 seats out of 59 elected on a minority share of the vote to a non-PR parliament. Even combined, the two parties can’t command a majority of votes or seats in Scotland, and are only in a position to govern Scotland thanks to Tory electoral success in England. By any objective measure, the coalition has no mandate in Scotland.

Now, you could retort at this point that since it’s a UK government, it doesn’t need a specific Scottish mandate, and constitutionally, it would be impossible to argue with you. However, it’s still legitimate to question the legitimacy of the Lib Con coalition in Scotland, and with it, the legitimacy of our present constitutional arrangements.

In any case, isn’t arguing that the Lib Cons derive a legitimate mandate in Scotland from their successes in an unproportional electoral contest in England a rather odd position to try and defend for a Liberal Democrat? I mean, the AV fudge notwithstanding, you guys are supposed to believe in PR and federalism.

Arguing that this is fine, as you are now forced to do, while denying a referendum on a change to the constitution (Calman, Independence) at the same time as forcing through a referendum on a voting system that nobody wants, is symptomatic of the intellectual and strategic mess which the Lib Dems have allowed first Menzies Campbell and now Nick Clegg to mire their party in.

Regards,

Richard

oneexwidow said...

Thanks for the replies!

Richard:

I agree that the level of support the SNP achieved at the last election is irrelevant in this discussion - but I was merely responding to others who raised it first.

I do take your point about the SNP adminsitration only maintaining legitamacy for as long as it can command the confidence of the chamber. This is an important point often overlooked - including by me yesterday.

That argument - that this means that anything passed has the weight of the voters behind it - is, however, exactly the same argument for the legitimacy of the Westminster coalition.

Where I do disagree is the legitimacy of questioning the coalition's mandate in Scotland. Taken to it's (il)logical conclusion, the population of the constituency I live in (Bristol South) could also claim the coalition isn't legitimate as they voted for a Labour MP.

In a federal - or quasi federal - structure, people accept that at different levels of government different results will be achieved. They accept (by and large) that the collective will of all will not necessarily always be shared by individual states or regions. I don't believe that that - of itself - is a reason to question the legitimacy in any dissenting part.

Prior to devolution I would have absolutely been with you on the argument - after all, my formative years included the 18 years of the last Tory government when there really was a democratic deficit. But that argument is - in my opinon - no longer valid.

What I am arguing is that under the terms of the constitution as it stands, the coalition government is absolutely legitimate throughout the UK (although with caveats re: Northern Ireland where history has dealt a different hand).

That doesn't stop me from arguing that there should be constitutional reform, nor does it conflict with the need for change. There are plenty of valid arguments for federalism and PR - this isn't one of them.

Even under a PR system, it would still be likely that the UK would vote differently as a whole than Scotland. Which is fine for Unionists and Federalists - but not for Nationalists. Directly or indirectly, that's the logical destination of arguments about the legitimacy of Westminster in Scotland.

I agree that AV is not perfect - but it is better than FPTP (and better than nothing - the only real alternative.

As an exile, I'm not au fait with all the arguments re: Calman, so I won't comment on that. Suffice it to say that I have always been - and unless circumstances change dramatically - always will be a Unionist.

Andrew

oneexwidow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard Thomson said...

Hi Andrew – thanks for the reply. In response, I’ll start with where we agree:

What I am arguing is that under the terms of the constitution as it stands, the coalition government is absolutely legitimate throughout the UK

I agree – it’s absolutely legitimate on UK terms, and you’re almost right in defining this as a dividing line between unionists and nationalists. However it's more complex than that because not everyone in Scotland – not even unionists - views these matters in UK terms. That lack of a specific Scottish mandate, however unnecessary it might be in strict constitutional terms, is likely to become problematic over a range of matters over the next few years.

Now for the fun bit :-)

Taken to it's (il)logical conclusion, the population of the constituency I live in (Bristol South) could also claim the coalition isn't legitimate as they voted for a Labour MP.

I suppose they could. However, while I’m sure that Bristolian cups doth runneth over with civic pride, I’ve never detected any sense that its good people regard themselves as living in a sufficiently different polity for such an argument to have ever crossed their minds.

They accept (by and large) that the collective will of all will not necessarily always be shared by individual states or regions. I don't believe that that - of itself - is a reason to question the legitimacy in any dissenting part.

Well, yes and no. People might accept it. Equally, they might also conclude that the inability to reconcile differences is sufficient reason to argue for a diminution of the influence of the centre over the periphery, or to form their own state. The point is that it’s up to the people to decide whether the way they are governed is legitimate or not.

>Prior to devolution I would have absolutely been with you on the argument - after all, my formative years included the 18 years of the last Tory government when there really was a democratic deficit. But that argument is - in my opinon - no longer valid.

Well, if it applied under the Tories in the 1980’s and 90’s, then it applies equally to any Westminster Government without a majority of seats and (more importantly) votes in Scotland. Also, despite devolution, Scottish finances are still determined in their entirety through block grant, calculated as an ever decreasing percentage of public spending in England.

This means that policy decisions taken in England still have huge ramifications in Scotland over devolved matters, and that’s before you consider the scope for difference which already exists over matters reserved – for example, on economic policy, overseas military engagements and the replacement of Trident.

There are plenty of valid arguments for federalism and PR - this isn't one of them.

Well, the lack of legitimacy of the Thatcher/Major governments was an argument which a lot of people – the Lib Dems included – used very effectively to argue for the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. It seems a shame to throw away a winning hand so casually.

While I accept it’s not reasonable to expect the supporters of a government to agree that it lacks legitimacy, it surely is valid for a government to seek to improve its legitimacy by making government more representative and bringing decisions closer to the people they affect. That, I would have thought, represented quite a strong argument for both PR and federalism.

Anyway, it’s a good debate. We seem to agree on the fundamentals, even if we approach it from very different standpoints!

Regards,

Richard

Stephen Chapman... said...

The longest comments in blogging history!

Doesn't this go to show that statistics can be used to prove any argument?

oneexwidow said...

Another good response, Richard. I will likewise start where we agree:

"it’s a good debate. We seem to agree on the fundamentals, even if we approach it from very different standpoints!"

I was thinking pretty much the same when typing my previous response!

Now for the central issue:

"Well, yes and no. People might accept it. Equally, they might also conclude that the inability to reconcile differences is sufficient reason to argue for a diminution of the influence of the centre over the periphery, or to form their own state. The point is that it’s up to the people to decide whether the way they are governed is legitimate or not."

Well, yes people might, and they might not, but that doesn't change the actual legitimacy and of itself is weak ground to argue illegitmacy... The crux of my argument is in your last sentence - people do have the right to decide whether the way they are governed is legitimate or not. They did, when they voted for the current constituenal settlement in 1997. There was always the distinct possiblity that a party of a different hue would have power at Westminster than Holyrood sooner or later.

I'm going to leave it there, I think, or else this comments section will be be longer than the original post, if it wasn't already!

Stephen, you're right, as am I, as is Richard...