Monday 28 February 2011

Mandateless Cameron's election amnesia

The theme of the next election will cause problems for all politicians of all parties.

It will be the "why should anybody believe a word you say" election.

Jeremy Paxman et al will have a field day, so astonishingly cavalier have both David Cameron and Nick Clegg in neglecting the need to even attempt to reconcile what they said before the election with what they did afterwards. This goes far beyond the compromises of an hung Parliament and the coalition which resulted from it, since the parties concerned have not given unequivocal public commitments much if any weight in subsequent negotiations with others. As John Harris points out in his Guardian column today, this means that "the merchants of anti-politics have conclusive proof that some politicians will say anything to get elected".

Around the time of last year's comprehensive spending review, some highlighted a "democratic deficit" between what was being proposed and what the Tories and Lib Dems had put before the public. The Fabian Society's Sunder Katwala accused David Cameron of "amnesia about what he did and did not ask for a mandate for". As Katwala pointed out, the central deceit was embodied in a reading of the election in Cameron's 2010 conference speech: "The result may not have been clear-cut when it came to the political parties. But it was clear enough when it came to political ideas." It takes Etonian chutzpah to spin a line as disingenuous as that.

The comment quoted was sparked by David Cameron having clearly quite forgotten what he told the country on the weekend before the election - that he would not allow any frontline cuts while reducing the deficit.

At the level of ideas, the election was contested between two parties (who won a majority of the votes) accepted the need for deficit reduction but warned about spending cuts being too deep and too fast, and one which was prepared to make £6 billion of cuts in year one but wanted the voters to be clear that the structural deficit could be entirely eliminated in one Parliament without cutting any services which the public value.

"What I can tell you is any cabinet minister, if I win the election, who comes to me and says: 'Here are my plans' and they involve frontline reductions, they'll be sent straight back to their department to go away and think again. After 13 years of Labour, there is a lot of wasteful spending, a lot of money that doesn't reach the frontline."

I can never quite decide whether it would be more damning if he had believed this at the time he had said it or (as is much more likely to be the case), he knew it would not be true when he appealed for votes on that basis.

It would be quite unfair to Nick Clegg should the electorate regard David Cameron as more likely to keep a promise

The uncertain election outcome reflected the fact that key groups of voters rather rationally didn't trust this claim, but the Conservatives were fortunate that the Liberal Democrats then decided not to negotiate at all on the deficit, and probably not because they believed Cameron's solemn pledge.

This government may believe it is necessary to break this and other pledges - such as that not to have any major reorganisation of the NHS. What they can not claim is any democratic mandate at all for these enormous political gambles.


Ian & Nina Graham said...

This is all well said, Sunder. But it's been clear for a long time cf

Ian Graham

Neil McNaughton said...

I agree with mnost of this, Sunder, but we do have to remember this is Britain's first(and maybe only !) experience of coalition politics. The old certainties about the manifsto and mandate go out of the window. Clearly the Liberal Democrats failed totally to understand the dynamics of coalitions by presenting 'no rise in tuition fees' as a 'red line' issue and then renaging on it. Other commitments are bound to be softer whn coalition government is likely. That is the common experience in most of Europe where electorates do not expect such firm manifesto commitments.

With the the mnadate doctrine so compromied by coalition politics, the answer is a stronger parliament....

Sunder Katwala said...


Yes, I agree about that. I have left a longer comment on John Harris' column which touches on that issue:

"The important issue to unpick further are in the differences between the following. This especially matters if we either think majority government may be less common in future (for which there is good evidence) and/or also wish to actively promote a more pluralist political culture, as John does, and which I agree is both quite probably inevitable and potentially desirable.

(1) necessary compromises when nobody wins an election to agree a programme for government.

This is a genuine defence, up to a point, though a weaker and less catch-all one than coalition supporters imply. This is a legitimate reason why a party, eg the LibDems, can not get everything they want, say on control orders on liberties). The question is whether the parties concerned can say they used the power they had to do what they could. There are also issues here about public, Parliamentary scrutiny, etc of future plans.

Overall, it seems to me that the LD defence of 'achieving what we could with the power we had' is probably quite defensible on civil liberties, on green issues, on political reform; on libel reform, perhaps the EU for now, and perhaps other issues. But it is especially weak on appearing to have entirely conceded without any negotiation on economic strategy and the deficit, and perhaps public services (schools, health), which are the defining issues of the Parliament).

(2) agreeing as a "compromise" to positions where both parties decide to agree to do something they had [both] promised not to (child benefit changes), and also where one party places little no weight on a pledge it suggested was a binding commitment (LD tuition fees; Cameron where there are NHS cuts).

(3) actively concealing from the electorate plans which were prepared before, denying these exist or promising the opposite - and then proceeding with enormous haste so the facts on the ground have changed before there is any democratic opportunity to scrutinise them.

This is the modus operandi of the Coalition. Whatever people may think of New Labour's achievements, faults and mistakes, there is an enormous difference between the timidity with which a government with a majority of 170+ proceeded in its first term, carefully implementing its incremental manifesto but always looking over its shoulder in search of the 'daily mandate", and the astonishing bullishness of this Coalition despite the hung parliament. The junior partners do have the veto on this point, and have miscalculated (partly to show that Coalitions can be just as "strong" and "decisive" if they seek to mimic Thatcheresque unaccountability, as Clegg has said in interviews)".