Talk of government ‘mandates’ is damaging our politics and undermining our institutions. The concept doesn’t hold up in our system of government and it’s worsening our debates and disagreements. We should stop talking about how elections give governments mandates or that governments should hold elections to secure new mandates.
Politicians and commentators use mandates to mean the following: if a political party has a policy proposal in their electoral platform, and they get elected with a majority of seats, then then voters have endorsed this policy proposal. Put simply, the government has a ‘mandate’ from voters to pursue that policy. Conversely, if a government pursues a policy that wasn’t part of their electoral platform, then we can say they lack a popular mandate to enact it, particularly if the initiative is controversial. We can also use mandate to mean the underlying democratic legitimacy of a government. For example, if a government has been in power for a while and it needs to enact new policies or engage in difficult negotiations with provinces, other states, or some other powerful actor, then we can speak of the government seeking a new mandate from voters to do so.
What are the problems with this concept? Let’s start with our electoral system and constitutional structure.
Governments aren’t elected in Canada. They are appointed. The Crown appoints a first minister to lead a government based on their ability to hold the confidence of the elected house of the legislature. When a first minister’s party has a majority of seats in the elected house, they’re pretty much guaranteed to hold its confidence. When they hold a minority of seats, they need to negotiate with another party to hold confidence. In either situation, though, government formation and duration revolves around the first minister and the elected house. Voters don’t directly elect their governments, let alone their first ministers. They elect members of their legislature who then provide or withdraw confidence in a government.
Canadians elect members of the legislature by plurality, rather than majority. This means that the person elected to sit in the legislature needs the most votes of all the candidates, not a majority of votes. As a result, members are often elected with less than 50% of the votes in an election. Members routinely represent ridings where more than 50% of those who voted didn’t vote for them or their party’s platform. Of course, this isn’t always the case. Many members do get more than 50% of the votes in their riding. But they have no more standing or status than members who got less than 50%.
Parties, moreover, often win a majority of seats in the legislature with less than 50% of the popular vote. Roughly speaking, parties can win a majority of seats in the federal Parliament with somewhere above 37% of the popular vote. This doesn’t affect the formal power they’ll hold in government. A majority is a majority, regardless of what percentage of people voted for individual governing party members at the riding level or as a percentage of the aggregated popular vote. The key point here is that the composition of the legislature, and hence the government’s ability to hold confidence, doesn’t depend on securing the support of a majority of voters, only a plurality of voters in each riding, in a majority of ridings.
What does this tell us about mandates? Well, it tells us that majority governments can be formed without the support of a majority of voters in each riding. We can and often do have majority governments where a majority of voters have not endorsed their platform or their members. In what sense, then, can we speak of these governments having a mandate? Only in the sense of having a mandate from a plurality of voters, not a majority of them. This then raises the question: what good is the idea of a plural mandate if it necessarily implies that the mandate was not supported, and in fact rejected, by the majority? Not much, in my view.
Does this mean our governments our illegitimate? No. It simply means that it doesn’t make much sense to speak about popular mandates under an electoral system that relies on pluralities and on governments that are appointed based on their ability to hold the confidence of the legislature. Rather than speaking about mandates, we should speak about what actually matters in terms of the government’s authority: the number of seats it has in the legislature. Removing popular mandates from the discussion avoids the often erroneous conflation of a majority of seats and a majority of votes, and it focuses our attention on the tangible source of a government’s democratic legitimacy, the support of the legislature. It restores the elected house of the legislature to its proper place as our principle democratic forum and source of governing legitimacy.
Equally important, it would prevent our governments from equating their majority standing in the legislature with a majority of support from voters that that they may not actually have. Similarly, it would prevent opposition parties from pointing to the government’s lack of a majority in the popular vote as some kind of argument against the legitimacy of a ministry that holds the confidence of the elected house. In both cases, it would cool bad, distorting rhetoric.
The second problem with mandate-talk is the assumption is makes about voters.
Mandate-talk assumes that people vote rationally, coherently, and with perfect information. Specifically, it assumes that voters are aware of all the proposals in all party platforms, that in voting for one party over another the voter is endorsing all of the chosen party’s proposals, and that the absence or inclusion of a particular proposal could have a demonstrable effect on an electoral outcome.
Unfortunately, the literature doesn’t support the idea of the rational, coherent, and perfectly informed voter. People’s voting choices are driven by myriad factors, some of which aren’t rational or thought out. Some of these factors aren’t even conscious! In some cases, voters are voting against one party, rather than for another vote. They may be voting because they like only one proposal being offered by a party. They might be loyalists who will vote for their preferred party no matter what they propose in their platform. Who knows. In fact, that’s the key point: we simply don’t know why every voter voted the way they did. Nor can we say with confidence that the result would have been different if we added or subtracted a proprosal from a platform after the fact.
The problems for mandate-talk should be evident. We don’t know if voters knew about all the proposals in a party’s platform, whether they endorsed all of them or some of them, whether they voted for the party in spite of them, or whether they still support them. Mandate-talk assumes that we can glean information about voters and their intentions that are incredibly difficult to accurately capture. When we speak about the relationship between party platforms, voting behaviour, and mandates, we’re engaging in gross simplifications in order to tell a story. It may be a good story. It may be a compelling story. It may even be a useful story. But it’s still storytelling.
Why does all this matter? It matters because mandate-talk tries to draw a direct connection between voters and governments at the expense of legislatures that have already been weakened by party discipline and an inability of caucuses to select their own party leaders. It matters because it further distorts our understanding of how our system of government works, leaving us vulnerable to manipulative rhetoric and dishonest characterizations. It matters because the logic of mandates can’t stand up to simple scrutiny. It matters because it’s not necessary.
6 thoughts on “The Problem with Mandate-Talk”
Do you have a theory as to why the concept of general election mandates hasn’t had the same destructive consequences in the UK? I’m thinking about the Salisbury convention, of which you’ve been very critical but which doesn’t appear to have distorted the British public’s and media’s understanding of the parliamentary system. (I do admit that we’ve seen a lot of sloppy talk about “mandates” in the wake of the Brexit referendum, but that seems like a very recent development to me).
The British situation is much different. Less party discipline and a greater respect of Parliament as an institution, particularly from MPs. The Salisbury convention, to my mine, is exactly the type of story told about mandates to serve a particular end, namely restraining of the legislative authority of the House of Lords. I understand the purpose it serves, but it rests on very questionable premises.