2007 - 2021

A Case Study in the Metaphysics of the Unionist ‘Mandate’

Alex Cole-Hamilton, the Liberal Democrat MSP proposes an interpretation of politics that is neither liberal nor democratic. Mr Cole-Hamilton (BBC Radio Scotland News, 8th May, 2021) claims that a pro-independence majority in Holyrood (by the SNP and Greens) does not have a democratic mandate, even to hold a referendum on independence. Notice this is not actually an argument about a referendum, at all; this is an argument about the nature of a ‘mandate’ in Parliament. Mr Cole-Hamilton’s reasoning is that the 2021 Holyrood election result means the pro-independence parties have not produced a majority of total votes cast (50% +1), and therefore they do not have a mandate to hold a referendum, even when the policy is passed by a majority in Holyrood of SNP and Greens. Mandates, according to Cole-Hamilton now require that a majority of the votes cast which are to count, are not to be found in a Parliamentary context at all; but only in relation to the total votes cast. This proposition needs only to be stated in this bald form, to see that there is something wrong with it. There is no precedent for this interpretation, and it has no substance whatsoever. Mr Cole-Hamilton has simply ‘made up’ his test of a mandate, presumably because in his wholesale desperation to block the will of Parliament, he has nowhere else to go. Let us inspect this ragamuffin argument.
 
Notice first, that no Government in either Parliament at Holyrood or Westminster requires to pass Mr Cole-Hamilton’s test (50% +1 of the total votes cast); either to have a mandate to govern, or to pass legislation; particularly in the case of policies declared in an election manifesto, and after winning the election; indeed political parties are generally criticised for the opposite, for the failure of governments to implement their manifesto commitments; not for executing these commitments. This is not a real test. Mr Cole-Hamilton is making it all up, out of nothing; indeed he is confusing and conflating an election mandate with the referendum itself. Mandating the legitimate political delivery of a referendum in a parliamentary system, does not itself depend on the voting rules of a referendum; such an argument is merely to fall into a category error, and an infinite regress. 
 
Mr Cole-Hamilton’s position, however is worse. Westminster itself is constructed to guarantee the execution of mandates based on no more than a minority of the popular support, and an even smaller proportion of the votes of the total electorate; indeed there is not minimum requirement to win complete control of Parliament. In the recent Hartlepool by-election the turnout was 42.7%. Almost 60% of the electorate did not vote. The conservative “victory” was based on the support of only 22% of the electorate. FPTP is no longer a viable democratic system. It can provide victories for government supported by very, very few people. We are moving inexorably toward that outcome. On the same basis, Boris Johnson’s 80-seat majority in 2019 was won by the Conservatives with only just under 30% of the total electorate’s support in the UK. Perhaps in ten years, on current trends the Conservatives will do the same with less than 20% support of the people. Parliamentary Democracy in England is slowly dying.
 
Westminster is based on a flawed, first-past-the post (FPTP) electoral system, while Holyrood has a ‘proportional representation’ system, designed to ensure a fairer representation of the whole electorate’s real political preferences, rather than the post-code lottery of Westminster FPTP. A proportional system is implicitly intended to protect minority democratic interests from the misrepresentative electoral biases of FPTP; and also protects electors from a danger acutely described by Quinton Hogg many years ago, as mere “elective dictatorship”; not the legitimate right to govern, but the seizure of absolute rule by the majority ,over any minority in prosecution of its objectives; a crucial matter that is often overlooked. I would therefore expect a genuine liberal and democrat to protect the legitimacy of the parliamentary election mandates under proportional representation from Holyrood, not egregiously to attack them.
 
The d’Hondt proportional system used in Holyrood is notable, however in deliberately making it extremely difficult to deliver a single Party majority Government in almost any circumstances, by an ‘equalising’ system, pushing elected government’s towards sharing power instead; that is how Holyrood is designed: a majority of coalescing interests governing, rather than Westminster absolutism. The contrast with Westminster is striking, and Holyrood’s d’Hondt proportional system (over other proportional systems, for example, the single transferable vote, STV) was calculatedly chosen by Westminster to ensure, first that power over the choice of representative remained with political parties, rather than the electorate; and to preserve the comparative weakness of power exercisable by Holyrood, compared with Westminster. It was designed not only as a proportional system, but to provide the most convenient proportional system that would hobble Holyrood in relation to Westminster, and reinforce Westminster’s power. Thus Holyrood was placed in a position where it would be, in practical terms, too difficult to achieve majority Government, compared with the untrammelled political power on which Westminster Government typically relies, and which is generally (but not universally) delivered by FPTP. Mr Cole-Hamilton knows all this, because the Lib Dems oppose FPTP; at least until the Lib Dems found that Westminster’s gross misuse of power, and its cynical voting design for Holyrood alone, but not for Westminster suddenly served their own narrow Lib Dem political purposes.  
 
FPTP, on the other hand is a system designed to deliver single party government completely unfettered power; predominately to serve the interests of a single political party (or PM) to execute total control over Parliament. Dicey, probably the most influential constitutional lawyer over the last century and more, expressed this power of the Party (or PM) who controls a majority in the House of Commons as effectively possessing ‘the power of a Czar’; absolute power. The Liberal Democrat Party website has this article on FPTP: ‘Making Votes Matter’, by Wendy Chamberlain, Aug 21, 2020. Chamberlain writes: “First Past the Post is not fit for purpose. Politicians are supposed to represent the people, yet we have a government that the majority of the country didn’t vote for. 56.4% of voters in 2019 backed parties other than the Conservatives.
That’s not even considering that nearly a third of registered voters didn’t vote at all. And who can blame them? In a system where you’re often forced to vote for the ‘least-worst’ option to keep another party out of power, it’s no wonder people aren’t inspired to cast their ballot.

I won’t pretend I’m immune to this. I won my seat on less than a majority of the votes. Try as I might to represent everyone in North East Fife, the fact remains that a majority of my constituents preferred other candidates at the election. How is it fair to them that I still became their representative?”
 
Let us parse this analysis. This is a statement that is entirely in contradiction of everything Cole Hamilton is now saying on the Holyrood mandate. His argument is incoherent, and unsustainable if he claims to be a Lib Dem. Furthermore, Cole-Hamilton is defending a Westminster system that not only totally destroyed the core pro-EU policy of the Lib Dems (rejoining the EU as current, substantive political policy has simply been dumped by the Lib Dems, Cole-Hamilton and Rennie; abandoned like an old shoe because it is not expedient for a party obviously without scruples about what it believes). Notice that there is a Unionist, Conservative, Brexit, FPTP majority in Westminster, based on a 2019 General Election that produced an 80-seat majority giving absolute control to the Government; which was delivered by only 44% of the popular vote. Not only is that a great deal less than 50% +1; but given that there was also a 67.3% turnout, this means that Boris Johnson has the support of barely 30% of the total electorate. Not only did the Brexit Conservatives exercise total control on this limited support, but they drove through the completion of Brexit, in the middle of a pandemic. Cole-Hamilton and the Lib Dems have precisely nothing to say about this; or that they have capitulated in craven surrender to this deplorable system, in the particular case of Scotland that voted in the 2016 Brexit Referendum with a decisive majority – over 60% – to Remain in the EU. 
 
This is the standard of politics we are being offered in Scotland by Cole-Hamilton and the Lib Dems. Let me repeat the Lib Dem “principles” of election:
 
“That’s not even considering that nearly a third of registered voters didn’t vote at all. And who can blame them? In a system where you’re often forced to vote for the ‘least-worst’ option to keep another party out of power, it’s no wonder people aren’t inspired to cast their ballot.” 
 
Does this sound familiar? Here is the Edinburgh Western election result for Holyrood, with Cole-Hamilton representing the Lib Dems as “victor”:
 
Lib Dem 16,645 (+14.1%)
SNP 13,685 (-1.4%)
Conservative 5,686 (-0.8%)
Labour 3,754 (-12.0%)
 
Notice that the Lib Dems have relied on ‘gaming the system’, with Labour voters in particular evidently switching to Lib Dems. The electorate are entitled to vote as they wish; Cole-Hamilton should remember that it is the prerogative of electors, and not merely when it is convenient to the wishes of Cole-Hamilton and the Lib Dems. Notice also that Cole-Hamilton received 41.9% of the vote; on a turnout of 64.5%. That is even less than the Conservatives in 2019, or the SNP in 2021. Cole-Hamilton also represents just 27% of the Edinburgh Western registered electorate; just over 1-in-four of the total electorate. Does Cole-Hamilton have a mandate to represent Edinburgh Western? Given Cole-Hamilton’s chosen electoral principles, does his political mandate from Edinburgh Western even exist?

Comments (21)

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  1. Tom Ultuous says:

    Hopefully those Labour supporters who “pinched their nose” and voted for Cole-Hamilton will re-pinch their nose after reading this.

  2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    He has also, unilaterally, decided that the constituency vote is the more important one. The list vote gave the pro independence groups more than 50%+1.

    It is a sign, perhaps, of the fear amongst unionists that they resort to such vacuous arguments.

    Messrs Ross and Gove also deployed arguments that had, at best, tenuous connections with validity.

    1. Ann Rayner says:

      I believe this to be true bit am having difficulty in seeing the actual figures for all the votes cast last Thursday. I have not been able to find them even on the Scotgov site, although it does say the details will be available soon. However, I do not remember this being a problem in previous elections, so am concerned why this information is not available at present.
      From some figures I have seen, but cannot vouch for their accuracy, the difference between pro- and anti-Independence list votes was 44,313 in favour of independence. From another source with also no guarantee of accuracy, the Alba party gained 44, 913 list votes across Scotland. If true, this suggests that Alba had a significant part in achieving an Independence majority on the list vote and that in itself is significant.

      1. John S Warren says:

        A good point; the data, the facts are slow to emerge – but it will!

    2. Iain says:

      Weil said, Sir.

      Cole-Hamilton is undone by his ain logic.

      A new paradigm commences, with the popular majority an important ‘landmark’ on the journey to independence.

  3. Jim Ferguson says:

    All electoral systems have their flaws. Just as the concept of ‘representative democracy’ has always had it’s flaws, and this is especially apparent now that the technology exists to have more direct forms of democracy… What they have in Westminster, FPTP with an unelected second chamber, is a throwback to the feudal rather than a forward looking and evolving representative system of republican democracy, which has the ability to develop in line with social needs and desires. Westminster is stuck firmly in the 1920s rather than the 2020s, it’s at least 100 years past it’s sell-by date. Much like the empire it gave rise to Westminster should be deconstructed. Scottish independence would represent a stage in the deconstruction of the British Empire and offers the chance of building more sensitive democratic instruments.

    1. John S Warren says:

      Some interesting points, but two qualifications to your analysis I would propose: “…. the technology exists to have more direct forms of democracy”, is true but entails a dangerous innovation, because I do not think either politicians or public understand the consequences of the innovation; which rests on a principle with legal effect termed in the US centres of this technology, “permissionless innovation” (borrowed from a concept of Schumpeter). I advise everyone to read Shoshana Zuboff’s ‘The Age of Surveillance Captialism’ (Orwell could not even dream of this form of unconscious manipulation).

      On a more trivial point, I think the beginning of your comment distracts from its genuine substance because: “All electoral systems have their flaws” is not just true, but a truism.

    2. Chas Gallagher says:

      Jim, surely you mean stuck in the 1620s???

  4. Tom Parkhill says:

    The 2010 Tory manifesto contained this pledge: Referendums on any local issue if 5% of the population sign up

    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2010/apr/12/conservative-manifesto-cameron-power-people

    That’s a 5% mandate.

  5. Chris Ballance says:

    We need to stop focussing on a referendum and start focussing on the benefits of independence. Highlight the benefits of the destination – once that’s generally agreed the road to it will simply become obvious.

    1. John S Warren says:

      We are drowning in a tsunami of deflection, misrepresentation and spurious arguments from powerful media and political resources that set a UK-inspired agenda; with few popular, public outlets for the kind of debate you seek. It is not that there are no critics with the positive message you crave (would it was that easy); what Scotland lacks is any real public foothold in the setting of the political ‘Agenda’. The importance of the media-driven ‘Agenda’ is constantly underrated. Michael Gove’s absurd, shifty, sudden attempt today to claim that his Government represents a desire to ‘work togther’, was inspired only by the scale of the SNP success; when all the devolved administrations know that in the darkest days of this pandemic they were all ignored or by-passed by Boris Johnson’s transparently incompetent Government. Gove’s shoddy sophistry is beyond cynicism. The tunround by Gove today is simply the classic, standard, slippery reaction we can expect from Unionist apologists. It will be forgotten tomorrow. The ‘Agenda’ will not remember anything he said, for it has already served its purpose; indeed the ‘Agenda’ has no memory at all; only a set of shifting, and shifty objectives.

      1. Chas Gallagher says:

        John, what I’ll take away from this morning is another load of gobshite from that lying toad. Remember him telling us about his ‘poor’ father being bankrupted by the EU, when in fact his father was finding trading difficult but he sold up for a handsome profit according to the scuttlebutt in Aberdeen.

  6. John S Warren says:

    I already have more evidence for the dangerous nature of the FPTP for the future of democracy in England. Here is an excerpt from the Guardian website today, titled ‘Government to change English voting system after Labour mayoral victories’:

    “Ministers are pressing ahead with changes to electoral law that could make it easier for Conservatives to win future mayoral elections, as Labour claimed 10 of the 13 posts being contested across England.
    The UK home secretary, Priti Patel, has already unveiled plans to switch all future English mayoral elections from the existing supplementary vote system – in which the public ranks their two favourite candidates – to the first past the post system used in elections to the House of Commons.
    Prof Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics, said analysis of Thursday’s polls suggested this change could open a potential route to victory for the Tories in cities such as London.
    ‘It’s likely that first past the post would make it somewhat easier for the Conservatives to win if they could come up with a really good candidate,’ he said”.

    Democracy is slowly being destroyed. The Conservatives are delighted if you do not vote. The fewer people who vote, the greater the Conservative political stranglehold on power. We can also see another sinister development. Almost all the extra financial support the Conservatives are providing to Northern constituencies (the so-called, risible ‘build back better’) is going to Conservative constituencies, typically in the ‘Red Wall’. The offer is simultaneously a silent threat: if you want any help, vote Conservative.

    See BBC website, Peter Barnes (3rd March, 2021):

    “There are 45 towns named but as some cover multiple constituencies, I’ve counted 56 constituencies that benefit. Forty-seven are Conservative constituencies – including 14 gained from Labour at the 2019 election plus quite a few more recent Conservative gains, while nine are Labour constituencies. Fifty-three of the constituencies voted “leave” at the EU referendum. Three voted ‘remain’.”

    Democracy in England is quietly being destroyed.

    1. Jeel says:

      JW School of Dance. The Albert, Glasgow?
      Father & his sister were members.

      1. John S Warren says:

        A long time ago; close family connection.

        1. Jeel says:

          He was very proud to have been part of it.

          1. John S Warren says:

            Nice to hear.

  7. Jack Collatin says:

    Yet BBC Scotland invited Ian Murray and Christine Jardine on to their Brit Nat Team to comment on a Scottish General Election. Murray is the sole New Labour MP in Scotland, and Jardine one of a handful of cynically termed ‘Liberal’ and democrat fence sitters.
    Scotland returned an overwhelmingly pro Self Determination ‘coalition’ government, no matter which warped spin the Dead Tree Scrolls and the Brit Nat broadcasters put on it.

    Marr and Geissler invited Gove and Sarwar to the studio today, Marr actually came North to Glasgow, presumably under orders to cover Gove’s ‘Team UK’ flying visit.

    Sarwar is ‘back on the pitch, on a journey, and has a mountain to climb’.
    This is the meaningless junk which Marr and Guissler allowed to air, unchallenged.
    Gove was his usual slippery popinjay worst.
    Where the fuck did this man pick up this ridiculous accent?
    Certainly not during his formative years in Scotland.
    We have a stonking mandate.
    We are not a militarily occupied Golden Calf colony of England.
    That our Scots media, and Uncle Tams Down there are as one, brainwashed Little Englanders says it all.
    Back in your box, Jocks.
    Your votes are meaningless.

    Now the deluge.

    1. Lordmac says:

      Are the lib,dems the labour and the Tory party dead ducks if Scotland win independence, what use would they be, as they all have ties in England and can’t change there policies , and a new government in Scotland now would read, greens, alba, SNP, what other party would help Scotland or would we have a new party part of the problem all made up of past MPs from Tory’s lab,and libs

  8. SleepingDog says:

    A reasonable reflection, but you could also examine the claim that First-Past-the-Post produces ‘strong’ governments. Here, we might imagine that ‘strong’ equates to ‘criminal’, allowing a privileged minority to rob the rest at home and (in an empire) abroad. In fact, UK FTPT also produces coalitions. And due to the instability of inherently unstable and often irrational party politics in the UK, there are often major divisions even in the successful party of government (hence Brexit, as some commentators have noted). Good point about voters facing the least-worst option, in effect all that the FPTP electoral system offers is the chance to remove unpopular representatives every five years, and some small chance of removing unpopular governments and replacing them with less unpopular governments at the same time. The party divides generally prevent real cooperation on even majority-of-representative-supported issues, with some exceptions. Yet an independent representative is even less tied to guarantees about future official behaviour than a party one (although representatives have been known to change parties mid-stream anyway).

  9. Iain says:

    I never watch the Andrew Marr show, so presumably missed him congratulating the indefatigable George ‘Miaow’ Galloway on winning the election and gaining a mandate.

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