There are many conflicts inherent within modern politics: the fact that we bemoan the lack of young people in politics and yet berate young politicians as both inexperienced and careerist; our desire for more ‘normal’ people in politics but our aversion to paying a wage that would enable less affluent people to afford to enter politics; the list could go on and on. The biggest problem in the modern era, however, is that politics has become about the leaders rather than the policies, the parties, and the candidates.
Policies and representatives have become somewhat of an afterthought when deciding which party to vote for – instead, as the rise of the debates between party leaders during election campaigns attest to, we have descended into a situation where many voters are voting based on whom they want to be Prime Minister, as opposed to which MP they want to represent them and which party they want to be in government. This is, fundamentally, why people mistakenly refer to Theresa May as being ‘unelected’.
The truth is that no Prime Minister is actually elected by the public (or at least not by all of the public). David Cameron was not made Prime Minister by virtue of a ballot of the whole country, but more he was elected as an MP by the people of Witney and made PM by the fact that a majority of constituencies elected MPs of his party to Parliament. The principle of primus inter pares forms the basis of British politics – that is, that our leaders are elected by the representatives that we send to Westminster.
Theresa May was elected by a majority of her party colleagues and is therefore not an ‘unelected Prime Minister’. The only reason she may be considered unelected is if people voted for the person leading a party at the ballot box, rather than the person representing them – after all, only 58,482 people had David Cameron’s name on their ballot paper.
This cult of personality that has developed around our leaders raises interesting questions – after all, if we view electing our local representatives as a means of electing a national leader, won’t that mean that woeful MPs will not be held to account? If we prefer electing a PM to a local representative, should we introduce some sort of list based system of election? Or perhaps separate the executive from the legislature?
Either of those options wouldn’t seem to be a basis for ensuring efficient policy-making – in the former case, it makes it difficult to ensure that our representatives deliver on their promises; in the latter we could end up with the sort of deadlock we see in the American system.
Yet, do we have a problem? Aside from the rhetoric thrown out by opposition parties indicating that a Prime Minister who takes over without a General Election is unelected, the culture of modern politics could be beginning to move away from being leader-dominated. Labour voters may be forced to choose between their policies and local representatives, and their leader – the winner of that particular battle could shape how much the leader dominates the future of British politics.
As with the coalition, when cries of, ‘They have no mandate!’ filled the media, assertions that Theresa May has no mandate are in essence a misunderstanding of representative democracy. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, when one elects their MP, they then represent them using their industry and their judgement – thus it doesn’t matter who the leadership is, if you have an MP able to stand up for your interests.
In a representative democracy like Britain, Theresa May and the Parliament we elected in 2015 have a mandate to pass the laws and regulations they see fit, just as we have the right to lobby them to act in a certain way. Mrs May is not unelected, she is simply the new first among equals – a principle that always guides the steady hand of British democracy through restive waters.