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?