Lessons from the process of government formation after the 2010 general election - Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by Professor Dawn Oliver, University College London

9.   What are the implications, if any, of the fact that these proposals lack a popular mandate?

  As long as the proposals are put forward as being in what the proponents honestly believe to be the general or public interest, and the population will acquiesce, the lack of a mandate does not matter.

  I do not consider a popular mandate to be essential for proposals for constitutional change. What is essential is that any proposals should be put forward in what the proposers honestly consider to be the public interest and should not be motivated by desires for partisan political advantage. That does not preclude a political party or MPs from proposing changes that would advantage particular sections of society: if that were not the case women would never be able to propose sex equality legislation and ethnic minorities would not be able to propose anti discrimination legislation. But the justification for reform proposals—indeed for any government policy—must be that it will promote general public interests. The mandate "principle" (not really a principle at all) is supposed to promote the public interest principle, but of course it cannot be guaranteed to do so. A mandate can indicate popular consent to a new policy, and government by consent/acquiescence is an important principle of the UK constitution. However the fact of the matter is that no government for many decades has won the votes of a majority of those who voted in an election, given the fact that most constituencies are won on three or four etc cornered fights and the winning candidate seldom wins a majority of the votes cast. Thus winning an election does not necessarily grant a government a "mandate".

11.   Should the head of government or Cabinet require the endorsement of the House of Commons, by way of an investiture vote?

  No. This would be too formal.

I consider it a positive aspect of our constitutional arrangements that politicians operate within a culture of responsibility and not just by rules, whether of a legal or purely conventional/political kind.

  Compliance with a culture of responsibility/sociality is demanded by the general population and is widely reflected in press and media comment. Politicians are conscious of this. The public and press reaction to the expenses scandal illustrates this.

  My understanding of general public opinion is that MPs of all parties, and any government, single party or coalition, and opposition parties ought not to act in a partisan way and ought to exercise their judgment as best they can in the public interest, honestly and without being improperly influenced by selfish considerations.

  After the election it was obviously not possible for the coalition partners to insist on implementation all of their manifesto commitments. The population generally realises and accepts this. Our electorate is fairly sophisticated in these matters.

  If matters such as the formation of a coalition or of a single party government required endorsement of the House of Commons, then the focus might be on the letter of the rules rather than the spirit of the constitution, which assumes inclusiveness, trustworthiness and good faith, and punishes lack of trust heavily through public opinion. That would not be right—unless and until the culture of the constitution changes so that the general interest is considered not to exist but to be a myth. There is currently no sign of such a shift.

  It would not be good for the country if combinations of parties which lack a majority could prevent the formation of a new government if the previous one no longer had a majority by refusing endorsement. Eg if there were two main but minority parties and say three or four smaller ones, the position could be reached where no government could be formed because the smaller ones vetoed every permutation, seeking to bargain for special deals. For instance, if Labour had formed a government in May on the basis of an investiture vote after doing deals with the nationalist parties that their regions/nations would receive special funding, that would have been a very partisan outcome and contrary to the general interest principle.

2 October 2010

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