The US Election and Tuition Fees

I have been pondering on the nature of our government and legislature following the US mid-term elections and the announcement in the UK of the increase in University Tuition Fees (something that the Liberal Democrat members of the Coalition pledged not to do). Curiously I find the two events linked and have implications for how we should conduct future elections.

The UK and USA have two different methods of government, yet both face problems in respect of implementing their manifestos.

Many commentators today in the UK have been hammering the Liberal Democrats for “breaking their pledge”.  The manifesto commitment is pretty unequivocal:

We will scrap unfair university tuition fees so everyone has the
chance to get a degree, regardless of their parents’ income. [ref: Liberal Democrat UK Manifesto 2010 page 33]

Scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income. We will immediately scrap fees for final year students. [ref: Liberal Democrat UK Manifesto 2010 page 38]

Clegg Fee Pledge

Clegg pledges to abolish student fees

But of course they were making the promises clear of any real expectation of actually forming a government!  Hence the now rather foolish pictures of them holding copies of the NUS pledge.

We (in the UK) suffer under the misapprehension that in elections we are “electing a government” and that manifestos are programmes for government.  Unlike the USA we do not elect our executive, but members of parliament and then a majority in that parliament take power (a sort of “democratic” coup after every election).  If that majority all stood on the same platform, there is a chance that the manifesto will be implemented.

So if you stand a chance of forming the government your manifesto promises should be prefaced “if we form a majority government we will …“, but if you stand no chance, your promises should be prefaced “if elected in the next parliament I will …“.  It’s easier if you do not expect to get elected.  Perhaps when putting in your nomination papers you should be expected to say what your “promise preface” will be!  Perhaps not.  At the last election the Liberals called it wrong – for the way that they phrased their promise.

In the USA the leader of the executive (the President) is elected and he (or possibly she) then – subject to confirmation by the legislature – chooses the other members of the executive.  The implementation of the manifesto (political funding interests permitting) is reliant on the legislature – and they can lose their nerve, change their mind, or just oppose the people’s choice of president.  So the presidential candidates’ manifesto promises have to be prefaced “if elected and if the electorate also elects (and continues to elect) a congress consistent with their choice of president, I will …

In the USA a president will (by being elected) achieve a majority for his or her programme for government, but that majority could be ineffective if the congress is not of a similar political colour.  In the UK a government could be formed without a parliamentary majority, or be a majority formed with support from more than one party.  In any of these cases manifestos can become irrelevant as the government concerned is incapable of implementing their manifesto.  In legal terms you might argue that the “contract with the electorate” is frustrated because no one party won the election.  So what then is the purpose of manifestos?

If AV (or better still STV) were to become the UK means of election, the status of manifestos can become very problematic because of the chance of minority or coalition governments – the key thing to remember is that in such circumstances no one wins, so no manifesto has a mandate.

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