The British real estate tycoon Lord Samuel is credited with the phrase 'There are three things that matter in property: location, location, location'. The political equivalent in representative democracy is: mandate, mandate, mandate. Yet it’s is a word you rarely hear outside political circles. Within politics, however, it is waved around like King Orry’s axe. It is normally employed by representatives to justify certain actions or claim superiority over another. Most recently I saw it as an argument against allowing the public to vote for members of the legislative council (super MLCs anyone?).
The irony of this misuse is best understood by reference to its origin. The use of the word mandate, in the political sense, is borrowed from the French ‘mandats impératifs’ signifying that in political representation an elected official must comply with the instructions of his or her electors.
Naturally, it suits a politician more to argue that being voted in equates to being handed some sort of democratic cheque. After all, surely someone who is elected into office by a popular vote has therefore been mandated by the electorate to deliver whatever is contained in their manifesto?
That’s a seductive argument until you start to scratch away at the surface with ... a Viking axe called logic (just wait until artificial intelligence lands in Tynwald).
In the 2016 election, official voter turnout was only 53% of registered voters. Of course, that excludes people who are not registered to vote so to obtain a more accurate picture I have taken the population less those too young to vote (I should also exclude people who have not been resident here for at least 12 months but I don't have those stats and don't think it will be a significant factor). That yields a voter turnout of only 46%.
Winning Vote Percentage
No candidate obtained more than 50% of the vote in their constituency. The highest percentage by any candidate was 47%. The lowest was just 16%. So, in the best-case scenario the mandate was only from 22% of the population of a voting age. At worst it was just 8%. The average was just 14%.
It's worth pausing here just for a moment: the average MHK has the support of just 14% of the eligible population. That is a significant statement. Against that background, the word 'democracy' in the context of Tynwald should be used with a health warning. Perhaps there should be a sign above the door or something to remind our representatives before they take their seats in the chamber.
Of course, it doesn’t stop there because a political mandate is usually referred to in respect of a particular policy position. The average manifesto put forward by the winning candidates in the 2016 election had around 15 policies. Voters are not able to pick and choose between policies. This is called the ‘bundling effect’. This means that the electorate must choose between the policy bundle that has the highest number of policies they support.
It’s a strange way to agree on policy. A bit like going into Shoprite and asking for a steak and being told you can only choose the protein bundle or, if you prefer, the vegetable bundle. You won’t accept that in the supermarket so why do we accept it in important policy decisions? Perhaps this is what the late great George Carlin was referring to as the 'Illusion of Choice'?
Those of you that remember your statistics from school will know that the probability of you wanting all the policies in a manifesto decreases with the number of policies in the manifesto to the point where it’s actually remote (even allowing for some correlation between policies).
Don't be Shy (Just Ask)
So when you hear someone say they have a mandate to introduce some policy because it was in their manifesto, ask them what percentage of the population support it? Chances are they won’t be able to tell you because for some reason representatives tend to be a bit shy about asking the very people they represent, how they want to be represented.
All power comes from the people. How do you want to be represented?
On the 1st of February, I lodged my nomination for the Isle of Man's upper house known as the Legislative Council or 'LegCo' for short. For such a small jurisdiction, the Isle of Man is unusual in that it operates a bicameral system of legislature. In fact, only 10% of countries in the world with populations of less than 5 million operate two chambers.
I think it is accepted by most that LegCo is generally viewed somewhat unfavourably by the general public (See Lisvane Report www.gov.im/media/1352029/review-of-the-functioning-of-tynwald-gd-2016-0047.pdf). There is scepticism about the value add of LegCo and the motives of some of the members of LegCo.
Against this background, five of the eight electable seats came up for election on March 12th 2018. Some 15 candidates put themselves forward of whom I was one. Now, before you get too excited you should note that members of LegCo (or MLCs as they are commonly known) are not elected by the Island's citizens. MLCs are elected by members of the lower house, the House of Keys. This is odd as the raison d'etre of LegCo is governance. Upper chambers are there to provide effective oversight and the duty to provide that oversight is to the people. It follows therefore that MLCs should be elected by the people and not by people within its scope of oversight. The matter is made worse by the practice of MLCs being appointed as members of governmental departments. This breaks a fundamental principal of good governance by mixing non-executive and executive functions. Furthermore, being a member of a government department carries with it a salary uplift. This was rightly an area of focus during the election process and indeed a key finding of the abovementioned Lisvane Report who stated: 'To fresh eyes (but perhaps also to others) the system of Departmental Members is extraordinary'. Interestingly, despite this obvious conflict of interest, most LegCo candidates indicated a willingness to act as departmental members.
Overall, there appears to be a variety of opinions on what LegCo is for and perhaps how bicameralism works in the wider world. This is understandable because LegCo does not have a terms of reference or a clearly set out mandate in law. This allows considerable scope amongst MHKs to select MLCs on whatever criteria or motives they see fit.
When election day finally came, I filed into the House of Keys along with my fellow candidates to witness the voting live and direct. Bracing ourselves for a long day on the uncomfortable wooden seats we were surprised that it took only 15 minutes for the result to come back. I faired miserably with only 7 votes which put me back in 9th= place. I was left scratching my head as to how that happened...
Perhaps my lesson in LegCo had transmuted to a lesson in politics.