The first question to ask about a political system is: what are the checks on the uncontrolled exercise of executive power? Britain does not have a written constitution with a formal division of powers, but the traditional answer would have been parliament, which, by successfully asserting the right to authorise spending, was able to check the absolutist claims of the monarchy.
But this check was fatally weakened by the onset of mass democracy. The executive was now located inside parliament, and MPs were put there by the party machines. Their main function was to support the actual or aspiring government. Parliamentary sovereignty became executive sovereignty. Provided a government retained the support of “its” majority MPs, it could do what it wanted. The one constitutional check that remained was the delaying power of the House of Lords, but the use of this power became increasingly illegitimate because the upper house was not elected.
The resulting tendency towards executive supremacy has been greatly strengthened by the mandate theory of democracy. This used to be the preserve of the Labour party, which saw it as a way of battering down the bastions of privilege. According to this theory, MPs are not representatives, but delegates, of the people, under instructions to carry out the people’s will. Labour governments are elected to carry out Labour “manifestos”.
In practice, Labour ministers have always claimed considerable latitude in their interpretation of these “mandates”, as any government is bound to. But this has by no means diminished their demand for unswerving support from their MPs. When Labour MPs got restive in 1967 at the meagreness of government defence cuts (a “manifesto commitment”), Harold Wilson, then prime minister, went to a party meeting and told the MPs that every dog was allowed one bite but, if it became a habit, its licence would not be renewed.
Tony Blair’s attitude to the mandate theory has been contradictory. He has claimed complete freedom to jettison any Labour baggage that stands in the way of his conception of the national interest. This is called strong leadership. But no one has used the “manifesto commitment” as freely as he has to curtail ancient liberties and unravel the inherited constitution.
For a long time, the Conservatives stood out against the mandate doctrine. It was the late Lord Hailsham, former lord chancellor, who famously declared that it led straight to “elective dictatorship”. This reflected the origins of the party in the independent-minded country gentlemen of the 18th century. Latterly, it has reflected the hostility of the Conservatives to the centralising tendencies of “socialist” governments.
Conservative constitutional doctrine was oligarchic rather than democratic. The party was supposed to offer the voters leadership and general competence, with only a general indication of how it proposed to govern. MPs were expected to give general support to the government but to exercise their judgment on specific legislation. The job of democracy was to choose governments, not policies. The people had a right to good government, not self-government. As with Labour, theory and practice diverged. Conservative governments expected as much unconditional support from their MPs as did Labour governments, to ensure that the “king’s business” got carried out, using this archaism to disguise their claim to untrammelled executive discretion.
Now the Conservative party too has capitulated to the mandate theory. This was the real political significance of Michael Howard’s “de-selection” of Howard Flight as a parliamentary candidate just before the campaign proper began. The constituency system of which Mr Flight was a product is the last survival of the localism that underpinned parliamentary independence from the executive. MPs are selected by, and accountable for their views to, constituency associations. Constituency selection still produces its diminishing quota of independent-minded parliamentarians. By overriding the choice of the constituency party, Mr Howard signalled that he wanted only “yes men” in parliament and took a giant step towards a closed list system. Party leaders need this to perfect their chain of control. Thanks to the enfeebled state of grass-roots politics, Mr Howard got away with it.
The conclusion is simple. The best result of the election would be a hung parliament – or at least an outcome that deprived whatever government emerged of its reliable majority. It would have to start negotiating not just with opposition parties but with its own MPs to get its “business” done. This would affect the nature of the business contemplated. The “manifesto commitment” could no longer be used as a substitute for argument and the winning of consent. Government might be weaker, but legislation would be better, and liberty more secure.