Political Power and Democratic Control in Britain: The Democratic Audit of the United Kingdom

By Stuart Weir; David Beetham | Go to book overview

5
Sticking to the Manifesto
Election mandates in action

In earlier days, manifestos were written in general terms. They tended to be written in what I might call disappearing ink…. Now they have tended, over the last 15, 20 years to be written in indelible ink…. And they have had rather quaint persons called 'guardians' appointed who tick off the fulfilled pledges.

(Lord Bancroft, former mandarin, in interview for Channel 4 News, 1987)

After the election we will only do, and exclusively do, what is in the manifesto. We have asked for trust based on the manifesto. What we say before the election is what we will do after the election.

(Peter Mandelson MP, World at One, 27 April 1997)

One of the justifications for plurality-rule elections is that they generally promote single-party governments. Thus, as the political parties each put a manifesto to the public at election time, voters have a clear idea of what the parties will do if elected. The party then elected to power has not merely the authority, but a duty, to carry out the proposals that its manifesto contains. This convention is clearly of potential importance for popular control of government in the UK. It is the practical outcome of British constitutional theory. For example, the constitutional authority, C.S. Emden, argued that 'the principle of the people's mandate has been recognised as operative by statesmen and by constitutional experts for the best part of a century', though its operation 'was at first tentative and experimental' and 'after many years of trial, it is still indeterminate and its scope controvertible' (Emden 1956:315). In the view of later writers, the mandate helps marry Parliament's legal supremacy with the political sovereignty of the electorate (Harvey and Bather 1972:529); and, they argue, the fact that the parties achieve power on the basis of their manifesto platforms constitutes the 'essence of representative government' (Rallings 1987:1).

From the Audit's point of view, the idea of the mandate broadens the basic function of the vote by giving electors a measure of control over the policies to be followed by the winning party, and so expands the boundaries of representative democracy. At its simplest, the idea supposes that elections represent a straight choice between rival party manifestos; at its most ambitious, that the people's views, as measured by the election results, are represented in future government policies. In this chapter we briefly analyse the idea of the mandate and its influence on the parties in postwar Britain, concentrating our attention on a section of DAC4:

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