The Ideology problem and how Proportional Representation can fix this

It is unlikely that you will find anyone who disagrees that the premiership of Liz Truss was a turbulent affair. As a lived experience, it was a mess bereft of substance and support. It showed us to be a country at odds with its governing party, amplified by a growing gulf between the Conservative Party and the public.

As the Financial Times noted, the day after then-Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s announcement, the Conservative Party under Liz Truss shifted sharply to the right on economic policy, placing it at odds not only with the country, but the manifesto the party ran on in the 2019 General Election. In other words, the Conservative leadership had at once abandoned any pretence of fulfilling the promises it had made to the people.

Under Truss, the question of representation shifted from those who had supported it in 2019 to those who had voted in the leadership election in 2022. During her time in office, Truss’ mandate was defined as one arriving from the Conservative party’s membership, rather than from the voters who had given her party the majority it continues to enjoy. Although this was correct, given the way she was elected, it also meant that the government had functionally stopped claiming to be working for 14 million that voted Conservative in 2019, but the 81,326 thousand who voted for her to be their Party Leader.

Of course, we all know how this story ended. Amid a mounting economic crisis amplified by an apparent allergy to political reality, Truss’ premiership ended as soon as it began, adrift a sea of furious MPs and record-breaking unpopularity.

And yet, in her resignation speech, Truss again defined her mandate as a personal one; arriving from her party, rather than the electorate. For Truss, she – and by extension, the Conservative Party, and the executive it controlled – was there to govern for the members that elected her; a total of 81,326 people in a country of 67 million. In some ways, Truss’ time as Prime Minister was marked by a bizarre honesty in her approach to representation when compared to her predecessor, but it also reveals a major question at the heart of our democracy. 

As the historian Robert Saunders has noted, Truss’ time as Prime Minister brought into question who can form a new government during the same parliamentary term despite drawing on parliamentary support that is identical to the previous one. Beyond a handful of traditional conventions, it is unclear who has the right form a new government agent during a continuous period in office, what impact they can have on the executive, and how representative they should be of the manifesto they ran on.

During the July-September Conservative Party Leadership Election, it was clear that the two candidates; both of whom have now held the keys to No. 10, were disinterested in committing to the 2019 manifesto. Instead, they were interested in their party’s electorate. From Truss’ commitments to an economic plan that even Sunak deemed as a ‘fairytale’ to his own comments on reducing funding to the poorest parts of the country to support wealthier, Conservative-voting constituencies, there was little interest in the country as a whole.

It is vital that Sunak now faces similar questions. Amid the lingering economic crisis, he has retracted the promises he made in the 2022 Conservative party Leadership Election. Although he announced a series of promises in his inaugural speech at Downing Street – including making reference to the 2019 manifesto – the lack of detail on how these will be delivered means that there is no guarantee these will be delivered on.

The question for progressives is clear: how do we stop Prime Ministers from forming governments that abandon the promises they were elected on in favour of their personal projects? How do we ensure they do not suddenly abandon the people they are meant to represent? The answer, unsurprisingly, lies in achieving a pluralist, multi-party Proportional Representation.

Under our heavily majoritarian electoral system, governments are often (or, at least, historically) elected with enough seats in the House of Commons to form a majority government that avoided questions of who was in control. There has rarely been a requirement for a vote of confidence in a new Prime Minister, because their support in parliament has so often been strong enough to avoid these questions.

However, it is clear from the fiasco of the last few months and the failure of this current government to deliver on its more redistributionist commitments (including, but not limited to, its plans for ‘Levelling Up’), that we need to confront this problem head-on.

Under proportional representation, majority governments are less likely, but this increases the accountability of governing parties to parliament. The change of a governing party’s leader, and, subsequently, its potential new Prime Minister, requires the assurance of continuity. Elected representatives supporting minority or coalition governments must feel satisfied with the new government and affirm this through a vote of confidence.

Should the new Prime Minister fail to gain a majority, they would have to resign. Parties could then go back to negotiating to form a new government, or they could call an election and seek a new mandate from the people. A new government could be elected, one that works to effectively represent the country’s priorities. Despite the new Prime Minister, the public’s views are clear; they dislike the government, and they no longer believe it represents them.

In the UK, we are locked out of opportunities for change because of the disproportionate majorities our voting system gives to parties. Instead, we must simply watch and wait for the decision of one party and its supporters. We need to change this, and ensure that governments are held accountable for the directions they wish to travel in when they make those decisions, not when the damage becomes critical

Theodore Stone is a writer and former policy analyst who is currently studying MSc Politics at Birkbeck, University of London.

He can be followed via twitter @TheShentonStone


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