The Myth of Majority Rule

There is a popularly accepted belief that is sorely in need of debunking. This belief is basically in the validity of the following argument:

  • P1: A government is legitimate if it has been elected by the majority of the governed, and thus authorised to make decisions by, or rule the entire populace on behalf of, that majority
  • P2: British governments are elected by the majority of the governed, and are thus authorised by those majorities to make decisions or rule on their behalf
  • Therefore British governments are legitimate.

The argument is logically valid; the conclusion follows from the premises. Therefore a refutation of the conclusion requires a demonstration that one or both premises are false, and therefore cannot support the conclusion. Here, I will just demonstrate that the second premise is false: majority rule in the UK is a myth. The UK is a system of minority rule.

This position sounds controversial, after all people are used to resisting the claim that the UK is a tyranny by declaring, “Come on! The British government is elected.” But let’s start with that: Governments are not entities by themselves. They are people. So, how many people constitute the government? It’s hard to tell, but adding some 520,000 civil servants to all the armed forces, all the police force, all the teachers, all the NHS, and all local government employees, we get some five million people. Add 300 Quangos and any employees in state owned businesses and the number is beyond six million. Meanwhile, there are 650 elected MPs. That means that the total number of employees in the government actually elected by sections of the electorate is one thousandth of one percent. Viewed this way, the idea that we elect the government seems a bit tenuous.

Still, people will probably object that referring to all state employees (not to mention all of the contractors to local and central governments departments and agencies) as the government is a mistake. Perhaps what defenders have in mind is more the ruling party, that it is actually they that form the government.

The way the British parliamentary system works is that different candidates for Parliament run in each constituency, and the candidate that gets the most votes in the constituency gets to take up one of the 650 or so seats in parliament. Then the custom is that the leader of the Political Party who’s candidates have won a greater number of seats than those of others gets to become Prime Minister and form a government. The Prime Minister may then select, from his party’s MPs, personnel to form a cabinet, each selected person becoming a Secretary of State, to whom each government department is nominally accountable.

Whilst private members bills can be introduced, the principal source of new proposed legislation is from the new government. Each new law, once introduced to parliament (a lot goes on first) is debated and voted on by Members of Parliament, who are each compelled by the party whips to try to toe their party’s respective lines. The same process is undertaken in the second chamber, the House of Lords. If a new law passes three readings in each house, it is signed into effect by the queen.

So, that is the theory. What is the reality? Well, the first thing to note is that, in this process, the claim “the public elected the prime minister to do X, Y, and Z” is false. As we will see, the truth is that only some of the public ever elects anybody, but this is even less true with Prime Ministers: None of the electorate votes for them. Voters can only vote for their preferred MP. The Prime Minister is the leader of the party that gets more seats in Parliament than any other party, and that party leader is elected by some of the members of that party, not by the general public. In fact, then, if the claims are true that Ed Miliband was effectively made leader of the Labour Party this year by the votes of the trades unions, then that means that, were Labour to win the next general election, the Unions will have decided who gets to be the next leader. All the general electorate may get to decide is who gets to be the MP for a local constituency, and many voters may vote for a local MP because they like how that MP has served their constituency rather than because they hope their MPs party will form the next government. They could even hate the party leader, but like their local candidate for parliament.

Just as the general populace does not elect the prime minister, nor do they elect the cabinet. The cabinet, to each of whom each department of government is ultimately accountable, are not elected by the electorate but are selected by the Prime Minister, a person who, we have just seen, is also not elected, but selected by their party.

Beyond this, we have the rest of the governmental, or state apparatus. Judges are unelected. Police officers, customs officials, military officers, bureaucrats in the treasury, civil servants, and local chief executives are all unelected. Why is this significant? Well, firstly, because these people all have influence as special interests, with lobbyists on their behalf; but secondly, because much of the actual governing of the country is up to them. Anybody who has watched Yes, Minister knows this to be true! Beyond this, it is plain that while a new government is being elected, things carry on as usual, seen to by this unelected civil service. The actual creation of a new bill raises new problems, too: Each new law is actually written by unelected bureaucrats, and then given a final polish by a committee that includes only a handful of MPs. New laws are usually passed on a nod – an average of one a day under New Labour. MPs are not obliged to vote on a new law. Many may not even be in Parliament when the law is read and voted on – only forty are required for there to be a quorum.

The idea that how the country is governed is an expression of the will of the people, then, seems completely fallacious. But, beyond this, simply looking at who elects MPs should reveal the extent to which majority rule is a myth. In 2001, for instance, Tony Blair claimed to have a clear mandate from the people, after winning a landslide victory. He claimed he was elected by “the people” – a claim which, if true, means that anybody who voted against him (ignoring the fact already stated, that nobody votes for the Prime Minister) were not people! In reality, he was not elected by “the people” but by only some of the people.

Of course, the response is that this is known – I am supposed to be arguing that there is no majority rule in Britain, not that prime ministers lack unanimous approval, a claim much more easily defended. So, the defence would presumably be that whilst Tony Blair was elected by only some of the people, it was surely most of them, right, thus giving us majority rule? Wrong. In 2001 Labour won 10.7 million votes. The majority of voters, over 15 million, including 8 million Conservative voters, voted against Labour. That means that, whilst he continued as Prime Minister, 30% more people voted against him rather than for him.

On top of this, there was a very low turn out in 2001. There were about 45 million registered voters in Britain at the time and only 60% of them voted. This means that there was an even larger majority, 18 million, that couldn’t be persuaded to vote for Labour or anybody else. In 2001 Labour were supported by less than 24% of the electorate.

But beyond that, not everybody is registered to vote. The population of Britain, the entirety of which the government claims a right to rule over, and the entirety of which the government claims to represent, is over 60 million people. When we express the Labour vote as a percentage of that we can see that Labour actually got the backing of less than 18% of the British people.

This is nothing special about Labour, though; many “landslides” are like this. Margaret Thatcher won a “landslide victory” in 1983. However, no fewer than 162 of her MPs, over 40%, failed to win a majority in their constituencies – more people voted for some other guy than voted for the MP that entered parliament. Labour faired even worse, with as many as 68% of their MPs failing to win a majority in their constituencies. Yet all these people went to Westminster, awarded themselves fat salaries and expenses, and claimed to be the representatives of the people!

One-Person-One-Vote is an underlying assumption in the idea of majority rule. However, even the issue that even the fact that MPs, whether in the government or not, are elected by a minority of both the electorate and the general populace, can be muddied by observation of the fact that, in the UK, each member of the electorate may only have one vote, but some votes are worth more than others. As Eamonn Butler explains,

The fact is that most of us electors do not count for very much. We live in parliamentary seats that rarely change from one party to another between ballots. Elections are won or lost in the marginal constituencies, perhaps just thirty or forty of them, out of more than six hundred. And within those marginal constituencies, it is the marginal voters who will make the difference: not the majority who have solid party allegiances and are unlikely to change their vote, but the minority who have no set loyalties and may not even decide how to cast their vote until they have the ballot paper in their hand.

The votes of marginal voters are quite literally worth more than the votes of the rest of us: Political parties are willing to spend much more to try and get them than they are on votes from the rest of us. They pour resources into the marginal constituencies, and, with huge energy and precision, research and canvas the views of the waverers, the undecideds. They then print election material designed to match or reinforce these views. This process can be so precise that leaflets will turn up in the letter box of the floating voter, whilst his or her neighbour, who has fixed voting habits, will get none.

The effect is such that Eamonn Butler has concluded that “elections are decided by perhaps one or two percent of the electorate.” So much for majority rule!

In conclusion, return to the argument presented earlier:

  • P1: A government is legitimate if it has been elected by the majority of the governed, and thus authorised to make decisions by, or rule the entire populace on behalf of the majority
  • P2: British governments are elected by the majority of the governed, and are thus authorised by those majorities to make decisions or rule on their behalf
  • Therefore British governments are legitimate.

I have demonstrated that P2 is false, and therefore the argument cannot sustain the conclusion “British governments are legitimate.” Anybody wanting to defend the rule of a British government, to defend the claim that their rule is legitimate, is going to need to use some other grounds than the pretence that they are a product of majority rule.


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