I heard a commentator the other day refer to Gordon Brown as an unelected prime minister. I know why he said it. He said it to score political points. All’s fair in love and war and all that. But it is a claim that is wholly inaccurate. Or I suppose totally accurate as all prime ministers are unelected so to speak. Well they are if you discount the MPs part in the proceedings. It’s a claim that some people, rather naively will believe, and do believe as you often hear people say things like, ‘I’m not voting for David Cameron’ or, ‘I’m still going to vote for Gordon Brown’. The same charge was levelled at John Major and Jim Callaghan but it doesn’t change the fact that we the electorate have never voted directly for the leader of the government.
Unless you actually live in the constituency of a party leader then you are never going to vote for a prime minister. Actually there is no job of prime minister. It is not how our peculiar system of parliamentary democracy works. Under the present system it is a nonsense concept. I’m not defending our system but just pointing out many people’s misunderstanding.
At a general election we are voting for a person to represent us, and the constituency in which we live, in parliament. We are not voting for someone because we want a certain prime minister. Of course our voting could well influence the outcome but it doesn’t alter the fact that we are voting for a candidate in our constituency and that candidate alone. Up until the time I moved to Norwich I had always lived in a constituency that has been represented by a Tory. I’ve never voted Tory so technically I’ve never elected an MP. The fact that in 1997 I voted Labour like I’ve always done, and we came within a few hundred votes of electing a Labour MP, does not mean that I influenced the makeup of the government in any way, shape or form. The point I’m trying to make is that in our system we return an MP to parliament. As a constituency we entrust that MP with the power to represent us as their judgement sees fit. They represent us and make decisions on our behalf. That is how it works. It is the MPs and MPs alone that decide the flavour of the government and its leader. True, all of this will normally happen in a partisan manner, but there is no automatic link to deciding who ultimately runs the country.
Occasionally an MP will leave one party mid-term and join another, or go independent. They have every right to do this. They are representing their constituents and not a party. A similar situation applies to the position of ‘First Lord of the Treasury’. That appointment is delegated to MPs and their judgement.
As a collective, the constituency elects an MP. As a collective, MPs elect a government and its leader. Simples!