Paul Whiteley: Commands don't work. Blair needs legitimacy

We have a direct measure of the Government's loss of authority from the British election study team. In 2001 the public was asked about attitudes to British membership of the European monetary union. One version of the question was framed in terms of Britain "giving up the pound"; another "joining the euro following the recommendation of the British Government".

They produced strikingly different answers. For Labour voters, a clear majority was against membership if framed in terms of "the pound", but a majority favoured it when the question was framed in the alternate terms. Labour supporters were persuaded by their government.

A similar experiment conducted in 2005 asked about the European constitution. A "balanced" version asked respondents how they would vote in a referendum if Labour was in favour and the Tories against. A second version used an alternative: "Tony Blair will call for a 'yes' vote." The results were surprising, with 41 per cent of Labour voters backing the constitution in the first version, and only 32 per cent in the second. The endorsement of the Prime Minister had the effect of considerably reducing support among Labour voters.

It is now very doubtful if the constitution can be sold to the British people, since it appears that the Prime Minister can no longer persuade even his own supporters to back it. This outcome reflects the loss of authority of the Government since 2001.

It could be argued that this does not matter, since a majority of 67 bestows power; the Government can get its legislation through. However, a change seen across the democratic world is the decline in the effectiveness of command and control governance methods.

The image of a pyramid with orders flowing down from above, faithfully implemented by officials and accepted by a deferential public, was always at odds with reality. But it really is at odds now. The British public is less deferential than ever, and the complex multi-level nature of government makes such methods, and the targets and indicators culture that accompanies them, increasingly ineffective.

One of the by-products is that legislation is less effective, which explains why government keeps repeatedly revisiting the same issue with new Bills. If it can rely less and less on such methods, then it has to resort to persuasion to build support for policy initiatives.

This is where the problem of legitimacy thrown up by the election result bites. How can one persuade with the support of only 22 per cent of the electorate? Electoral reform is one important means of addressing this problem. It would help to restore a mandate.

Paul Whiteley is professor of government at the University of Essex

Comments