The argument appears to go like this: All three main political parties included ‘Lords Reform’ within their 2010 Manifesto. Therefore there is no need to hold a referendum of the British people. Presumably because there can be no greater plebiscite than a General Election. Superficially the logic appears sound – we said we stood for it, you voted for us therefore you want it too!
But what if a particular candidate was known to be against changes to the House of Lords. By voting for him or her, was the electorate in that constituency expressing support for the manifesto commitment, or, based on the candidate’s personal stance, opposition to such ideas? This question applies to all those constituencies that now have MPs who oppose the proposals. Perhaps that doesn’t count; perhaps we can just assume that no one knew their individual views and so all the votes in their favour really did indicate support for Lords Reform despite that policy failing to grace a single billboard on behalf of any political party.
To be balanced about this, and by extension of the same logic, the 7.7% of people entitled to vote who supported independents and minor parties – together with the 34.9% who did not vote at all – must have been against changes to the Upper House! Why else would anyone spoil a ballot paper or vote, say, Respect or BNP….!
Politicians should be very careful when they use the ‘it was in the manifesto’ argument. Firstly, because few read manifestos and, secondly, because fewer still believe they are worth reading against an historical background of failure to deliver.
And if, in order to promote the unnecessary distraction that is Lords Reform, there is to be the rather convenient presumption that the casting of a vote in a favour of a particular party indicates explicit support for everything in that party’s manifesto document, aren’t voters entitled to get something in return? If voting for a party indicates support for each and every policy shouldn’t politicians acknowledge that a party, if elected, has to deliver on each and every one of those promises? Perhaps an Office of Manifesto Responsibility, in the office down the corridor from the Office of Budget responsibility. It could publish a quarterly assessment.
But what if a party fails to gain a mandate and enters into coalition? Can it assert with any credibility that the entire ‘Coalition Document’ enjoys some sort of magical popular mandate that comes about even though no one voted for it beyond the politicians most immediately affected by it?
Of course after the expenses scandal and into the ‘new politics’, nothing was going to be too much trouble if it helped to restore trust in politicians and the political process, and referendums were to play a significant part in this. A referendum for Police Commissioners, another for local Mayors, provision for a referendum within communities in the Localism Act, and definitely no ‘Yes to AV’ without a public vote. And then the Coalition’s junior partner met referendum politics. Since then it has been like watching someone who only ever wanted a dog, never mind the cost, get a dog and then get bitten. Don’t like dogs anymore, unpredictable and expensive, and don’t want another referendum.
The pity is that once again there is the opportunity to do more than deliver a particular policy. Once again there is an opportunity to engage with people and to encourage their participation in what is, after all, a fairly momentous decision. Of course it is also another opportunity to make people feel marginalised and ignored by misrepresenting what voting for a particular party two years ago actually meant and then pressing ahead with a pet project.
We said we wanted a dog and you voted for us so we will deliver your dog next Tuesday.