Measuring Mandates – Let’s at least use the facts

Chris Game

Maybe it was a Monday morning thing.  But when last Monday’s Times – once, to foreigners at least, the ‘newspaper of record’ – recycled for the umpteenth time the claptrap about London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, having “the third biggest personal mandate of any directly elected politician in Europe”, my 16 months’ silent tolerance ran out.

The probably familiar story was that Mayor Khan, not being an ‘ordinary’ Labour Party member, had been barred from addressing ‘the people’s conference’. But then, presumably because he’s one of the relatively few Labour people who do actually run something – like Greater London – and decide stuff – like the fate of Uber – he was unbarred.

Unlike Mayor Andy Burnham, who also runs something – Greater Manchester – but who actually challenged Jeremy Corbyn for the party leadership, and has a willy – sorry, personal mandate – smaller than Corbyn’s, barely a quarter the size of Khan’s, and was easily side-lined to fringe meetings.

Because that’s what most of these things are fundamentally about in the male-dominated world of politics: if you’re a union leader, the size of your membership; if an MP, the size of your majority; if a council leader, the size of your electorate; and if a directly elected leader, the size of your mandate – all willy substitutes. Which is why it’s important to get the measurements right – unlike The Times, which, like at least some of our students, apparently uses Wikipedia as its bible of factual information.

The pity is that Sadiq Khan’s genuine statistical achievements are impressive enough not to need exaggerating. Largest personal mandate of any politician in UK history. First elected Muslim mayor of any major western capital.

To me, it was the precision of the Wiki/Times factoid that made it immediately suspicious – ‘third biggest’ personal mandate, of any directly elected European politician? It never even sounded right. After all, Europe’s a biggish place. Nearly 50 countries, even excluding the Vatican. At least 30 with populations over 3 million, where a personal vote bigger than Khan’s 1.3 million is at least conceivable.

It seemed a bit like assuming Andy Street, because he’s elected mayor of the largest mayoral Combined Authority, has the biggest personal mandate of any political figure outside London – instead of, as shown in my table, only the second biggest in the West Midlands.

Politicians%27%20personal%20mandates%202.JPG

Anyway, back to the Khan claim, and a couple of early concessions. Let’s accept President Erdoğan’s Turkey, with the great majority of its population in Asia, and despite most holiday insurance classifications allowing it as European, counts as either Asia or Middle East. And Russia, though over three-quarters of its population live in Europe, as technically Eurasian. Otherwise, President Putin’s nearly 47 million votes in 2012 would present quite a hurdle.

But Ukraine, as every pub quizzer knows, is the largest country entirely in Europe.  Maybe not your established, Scandinavian-model democracy, but it is a kind of French-style semi-presidential republic, with a multi-party system. And its 2014 post-revolution presidential election – though excluding the annexed Crimea and certain other areas – was accepted by scrutineers both for its (broadly) democratic conduct and outcome: President Poroshenko’s decisive first-round victory.

France itself is one of Wiki’s top two, Emmanuel Macron comfortably topping 20 million personal votes in the second round of this May’s presidential elections. The other Wiki nominee, though, is Portugal’s President Rebelo de Sousa, which would be fine, were he not the only other nominee.

Like France, Portugal is one of the semi-presidential systems that constitute almost the governmental norm in modern-day Europe. They’re all different, particularly in their division of powers between the head of government and head of state. The key questions: is the president/head of state directly or indirectly elected, and, if directly, is s/he politically significant or essentially a ceremonial figurehead?

Portugal’s President was elected in a party political election and has real powers, from dismissing governments to vetoing laws and granting pardons. Wiki is quite right, therefore, to include it – but quite wrong to suggest that President Rebelo de Sousa is, apart from Macron, the only European politician with a bigger personal mandate than the London Mayor’s.

Wrong, partly because it appears not to understand the huge breadth of practice found in different ‘semi-presidential’ systems, and partly because its ‘Europe’ appears to stop at the Oder-Neisse Line, the former border between the German Democratic Republic and Poland. Even then, though, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, like Ukraine, were European countries – their EU membership is a bit of a giveaway – and today, like France and Portugal, are semi-presidential republics whose Presidents are very far from symbolic.

If you’ve any doubt, just think back to the Polish bit of William and Kate’s embarrassing summer ‘Brexit tour’. Monday, they were shaking hands with President Duda at the Pres’s palace. Tuesday, he was assuring TV viewers that his Law & Justice Party’s plans to give government the power to appoint and dismiss judges were purely to increase judicial efficiency, and really nothing alarming. Wednesday, legislation was rushed through parliament allowing the government to dismiss at will any of the 83 Supreme Court judges.

Not exactly the kind of stuff a genuinely ceremonial Head of State like William’s grandma gets up to, so let’s hope the handshake was worth it when it comes to Poland’s vote on any Brexit deal – if indeed the EU Commission hasn’t by then suspended the country’s voting rights.

Apologies for the digression, but my point is simply that Presidents Duda, Iohannis, Radev and Poroshenko are no less “directly elected European politicians” than President Macron, which I reckon puts Mayor Sadiq Khan’s mandate down from 3rd to 7th in the list. Still ahead of that of any directly elected woman politician in Europe – Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė – but then she hasn’t got one to feel the need to wave.

gameChris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

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