You would be excused for thinking Theresa May must be counting her blessings. She became Prime Minister by staying quiet. She is comfortably ahead in the polls. So why is she calling an election?
Some (ahem, the Daily Mail) say it is a trap designed to “crush the saboteurs” by a landslide victory. Some say it is to dilute the Eurosceptic wing in her party (by the same projected landslide). But the overarching reason, really, is that there are two kinds of democracy at play here, and we only know how to work with one of them.
Britain is not, and has never been, a direct democracy. At any given point in time, only about 25% of the total electorate is represented by the party in government. That is, 25% of the voting population guarantees 100% of the legislative power (in 2015, it was 24.5%). In other words, at any given time, 75% of the electorate is effectively disenfranchised. Their representatives only get to oppose, but vanishingly rarely decide, an issue (if such representatives even exist—recall that after 4m votes UKIP only had one MP, who is no longer in the party). This is because we vote for one person to represent our physical area in Parliament, but that person is loyal to a party agenda which is not tied to physical location. UKIP had millions of voters across the country, but they were the majority in only one physical area.
In a direct democracy, everyone votes directly on an issue as opposed to a person who would then decide the issue on the electorate’s behalf. A seemingly obvious example of direct democracy is the Brexit referendum. People were asked to decide an issue and they did. Many voters may therefore have been confused at the Supreme Court’s decision that Parliament still gets to debate the issue.
Britain is a parliamentary democracy. Our system presupposes that people are too busy with their everyday lives to be able to devote the time and effort to become experts in and decide every political issue. We therefore elect full-time deciders, MPs, whose job it is to figure this stuff out and decide what is best for the country as a whole.
In a country where political strategy has been dependent on reaching core voters in well-concentrated areas, and splintering your opponents’ votes across broader areas, the results of direct democracy can be surprising. David Cameron was used to winning by getting about 11m people in key constituencies to vote Conservative. He probably could have got 25% of a physically concentrated, active electorate to back Remain—but there were no seats to be had, so physical dispersal made no difference.
Get The Dial in your inbox.
This is why no Conservative politician appeared to have a plan for Brexit (according to the recent, finger-waggingly named ‘Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum Inquiry Report’)—they were all expecting a Remain win, because they were used to campaigning for a concentrated Conservative vote and a dispersed or inactive opposition vote. And they had every reason to expect a dispersed, inactive Leave vote. The now-tragic symbol of the Leave campaign was, recall, a bus with a lie on it.
The problem Theresa May has is that a majority of MPs who have figured this stuff out do not think that Brexit is best for the country but are reluctantly going along with the perceived direct democracy. No one wants to stand against the “will of the people”. A majority of MPs would therefore want Brexit in name only, but May’s own party vote is dependent on Eurosceptic hardliners because her majority is so small.
So here’s the trilemma. If May negotiates for nominal Brexit, her own party rebels. If she negotiates for hard Brexit, the opposition, her own party and Scotland rebel. If she doesn’t negotiate for Brexit, she will spend the rest of her life explaining why and how Britain is not a direct democracy and how, really, it’s not so bad that legislation only has to reflect the interests of 25% of the most active electorate to secure re-election. This was David Cameron’s last gift to the next Conservative leader.
Solution: convert the direct democracy mandate of the referendum into a parliamentary democracy mandate through a general election. If she wins by a landslide, she’ll have party unity. If she loses, it’ll be someone else’s problem. The worst thing that could happen is things will stay the same.
Of course, she may not have considered that someone might want to have to explain to the British people how 75% of them can be ignored in passing legislation. Mrs. May, I take it you trust pollsters. And when have they ever been wrong?
Lead photo by Abi Begum.