A new prime minister walked in to Downing Street on less than 50 per cent of the vote. A predecessor went on the TV and suggested he “do nothing hasty, sit down have a cup of tea and a think”. He did the opposite. Before the door had been shut at No.10, he had implemented the first new policy. Swift, radical, decisive.
He didn’t take it to parliament for approval. It wasn’t in his party manifesto. The action he took would affect every lender, saver, pension holder, every private-sector employer. It probably deserved at least consultation, further consideration – perhaps, dare I suggest, a plan B to this audacious and radical policy shift.
The year was 1997; the PM Tony Blair; the policy a long-held Lib Dem belief that the Bank of England should be made independent; the predecessor James Callaghan.
Did he have a mandate to do that? Well, he had a significant majority. Did that mean he had a mandate to do something that would affect so many, having failed to fight for it in the election? Well, probably not, but I don’t remember an outcry at the time. Instead, it was perceived as a stroke of genius. Indeed, recent Labour memoirs tussle to prove whose idea it was in the first place.
So what about now? Is there a mandate for dealing with the structural deficit? Every time I was on air during the election, I whinged about the danger the three main parties were facing because of their critical lack of detail on dealing with the structural deficit. The result would inevitably be a lack of “mandate”. In various studios, senior tacticians from the other parties pointed out that any mention of how specifically to deal with the structural deficit would be electoral suicide. And of course, sadly, they were right.
The small crumb of comfort that I could find was that the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that the Lib Dems were the “least worst” when it came to lack of detail on how they would cut.
All three parties were united in the same message. Which was to halve the structural deficit. As the chancellor, George Osborne, writes in the Guardian today:
The Labour leadership claims it would stick to Alistair Darling’s plan to halve the deficit in four years, but day after day it opposes the spending cuts that requires. The Darling plan contains £14bn of cuts this coming financial year – just £2bn less than our plan. Yet with just five weeks to go until April we know everything about the cuts Labour opposes but nothing about the cuts it supports.
The question then became one of pace, but it was never about scale.
When I hear the regular accusation about lack of a mandate, I have some sympathy. No, really – I do. But that raises several questions. How is it defined? Is a written constitution the only way of defining it? Until a government is elected with over 50 per cent of the vote, does it lack a mandate? Is a simple parliamentary majority sufficient? Or do we need a better voting system to reflect people’s wishes more accurately?
In Blair’s autobiography, he struggled with definitions of mandate following the 2005 general election:
I couldn’t get the argument heard . . . It found insufficient echo among other Labour speakers and very little within the media. The result was a campaign and mandate that meant different things to different people. I was completely certain: the manifesto and the mandate was one for New Labour, but the absence of serious policy discussion meant there was no sense of that being so.
For the last few weeks, I have tweeted asking for definitions of mandate. Replies have come back saying predominantly “not what this government is doing”, or “the scale of reform and the pace of change do not have any support’. But equally, I would argue that what is clear is that there was absolutely no mandate for keeping Labour in power.
I guess the most useful response so far was that “it is a date between two men”.
Any better offers? Or is this going to be a much-used, much-misunderstood phrase over the next few years?