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A Change of Programme

In Constitutional Spotlight, Events, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on July 9, 2012 at 7:22 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox – @polar_ii

Today the government faces the threat of defeat on a high-profile piece of legislation: Lords Reform. Specifically, the government are looking vulnerable on one particular programme motion. Ed Miliband says he supports the principle of Lords reform, but that the government should not limit discussion on the bill to 23 days, which is what the programme motion would do. Mark Ferguson at Labour List, in this article, correctly to my mind, reads this not as an opportunity to beat the government at the somewhat tedious game of Commons divisions, but to stick to principles. He exhorts Miliband to reverse his decision, stick to his principles and vote for the programme motion.

Now, the issue is only salient because 100 or so Conservative MPs are threatening to break their party whip on the programme motion. This means that the government might well lose the vote on the programme motion; and the last time a Lords Reform Bill had its accompanying programme motion defeated, the whole Bill had to be scrapped entirely. Hence Ferguson’s exhortation to vote for the programme motion – while Miliband can inflict a momentary defeat on the Coalition have a tremendous laugh about it, such an action would risk undermining Labour’s commitment to an elected Lords. Ferguson thus invokes the supremacy of principle over short-term political gain to advocate a change of course.

However, this is to ignore the arguments against the programme motion. They centre around the fact that the Lords Reform Bill is a constitutional motion; moreover, it is a constitutional motion of some importance. Previously, bills that made significant changes to the constitution have not been time limited, to allow full discussion on the floor of the Commons, rather than limiting it to a bill committee with a limited timeframe.

This is particularly important considering the range of issues that haven’t been fully discussed. Are there sufficient safeguards for the primacy of the Commons? Ought there to be a referendum on such a substantial change, as Labour have argued? Will the new composition of the Lords secure the same representation for minority groups as the current composition (see, e.g. this piece on ConHome that argues that disabled people will be less well represented)? If new Senators are elected to 15-year non-renewable terms, how does the electorate hold them to account?

These are clearly not specious questions, though they may be deployed speciously against the programme motion. The 100 or so Tory rebels are 100 or so Tories who do not want to see the Lords become elected. Miliband is undoubtedly leading his 250 odd Labour MPs against the programme motion to allow these 100 or so Tories to spend hours upon hours arguing against their government on every conceivable point, creating an impression of disunity in the Coalition and frustrating the remainder of its legislative programme. These 100 or so Tory rebels would dearly like to make life hard for Nick Clegg, who, by abstaining on a confidence motion, made life hard for Jeremy Hunt.

So what really niggles me is that these procedural arguments – though they may be tedious, they are exceptionally important – are taking second fiddle to the realpolitik of the situation. It’s easy to see why. But we simply assume that there are 100 Tory MPs voting against the government solely to spite the Lib Dems, that Labour MPs are voting against the motion simply to spite the Coalition, and no-one is actually thinking about the content of the programme motion itself. There are definitely MPs on both sides who want this bill to pass with proper scrutiny, and they arrived at this conclusion without the influence of realpolitik. It’s doing a disservice to our MPs to assume that all they are interested in is getting one up on one another; Miliband may actually have an embarrassment of good reasons to be opposed to the programme motion while supporting the second reading of the Bill.

David Cameron used the argument in the Commons today that we have talking about Lords Reform for 100 years, so now’s not the time to have yet more debate. We have also been debating the disestablishment of the Church of England, a European Community of Nations, the Monarchy, Ulster, Scotland and many other important constitutional questions for 100 years. That the issues have proved complex and intricate, contentious and important for a substantial period of time is no argument for curtailing debate on the questions: if anything it demonstrates that more and more careful thought is required. Especially when a government committee as promised in the Coalition agreement could not find anything approaching a consensus, and the current bill has been shot down by a Join Committee of both houses.

The instinct – to shut down the issue within 23 days and move on – betrays a government that is eager to get many things done, but also one that does not welcome the scrutiny that should be brought to such an important question. I would speculate that this is because, in our age of 24-hour news, politicians have lost the knack of carefully considering and reworking proposals; after all, if there was a news vacuum, a small change in an important bill might look like weakness.

I happen to be against this particular Bill for reforming the House of Lords. Perhaps that’s why I have time for the procedural points on the programme motion. But I would like to think, if there was a major constitutional change I did support, I would at least have the time to appreciate the importance of the matter and the patience to listen and take on board objections, and not guillotine debate. Debate on the Lords Reform Bill should not be guillotined; constitutional matters are too important to be rushed. That, Mark Ferguson, is a point of principle also.

Murdo Fraser Might Yet Be Very, Very Canny…

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs, Party politics, Regional politics on September 29, 2011 at 9:20 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

‘Canny’ is a singularly appropriate word when discussing Scottish politics. It comes from the Gaelic ‘can’ – to know, and hence has come to mean (especially used derisively by Englishmen of Scotsmen) ‘with an eye for thrift or a chance’.

Canny is also a singularly appropriate word to describe Murdo Fraser’s plan to separate the Scottish Conservative party from the UK Party. Not just because it detoxifies the brand of the most loathed party in Scotland. Not just because it allows Fraser to cast himself as the uniquely Scottish defender of the Union, without being in hoc to London.

Canny because it allows the Scottish Conservatives to play the voting system by using ‘decoy lists’.

The Scottish Parliament uses the ‘Alternative Member System’. Voters have two votes – a constituency vote and a regional vote. Constituencies work as they do for Westminster, but the regional seats are distributed like a PR list system, except with penalties for the parties that did well in the constituency rounds; thus, hopefully, balancing out some of the improportionalities of the FPTP constituency system. This is how the Green Party, with a relatively low level of support spread widely across Scotland, have been able to gain a seat or two at Holyrood – since they won no constituencies, they are not penalised in the regional lists like the other parties.

The ruse here assumes that Fraser’s new party (call them the Scottish Tories) will be in, at least, a loose alliance with the Conservative Party. Essentially, they would function as the coalition between the German CDU and the Bavarian CSU functions. And here’s the trick: one of the parties, say the Conservative Party, runs for the constituencies, and one, say the Scottish Tories, runs for the regional lists.

What this means is that the Scottish Tories have no constituency MSPs, so they are not given any penalty when it comes to calculating the regional list seats. Thus the Conservative Party wins all the constituency seats it otherwise would have, and the Scottish Tories win additional seats on the regional lists, since they have no penalties for winning constituencies, whereas all the other parties have.

To give an historical example, Italian lower chamber elections used to run on a similar system – but instead of regions, they did the proportional vote over the whole country – like an Italy-wide regional list. In 2001, both major coalitions put up two lists, and told their voters to vote for one list in the constituency elections and one list in the national list election. Their constituency lists carried 360 of 475 constituency seats, despite receiving 0.2% of the national list vote; everyone had voted for their coalition under list-title A in the constituencies, and for the same coalition under list-title B in the national list vote. The national list ruse was so successful for the victorious House of Freedoms coalition that one of its members, Forza Italia, had to surrender 12 seats because they had not submitted enough candidates on the national list to fill them!

And just for political balance, Labour have tried this too. They are so strong in the Glasgow constituencies that they stand very little chance of winning Glasgow regional list seats. But instead of saving money by not submitting a list, they tried to submit candidates from the Co-Operative Party in 2007. This would have had exactly the same effect as with Forza Italia, since every Labour voter in Glasgow would have switched their regional list vote to the Co-Operative Party, meaning Labour/Co-Operative would have won many constituency and regional seats. But the Electoral Commission struck it down on the grounds that, since no-one could be a Co-Operative Party member without also being a member of the Labour Party, they were essentially the same party.

But, with Fraser’s plans for an independent Scottish Tory party, the Electoral Commission will find an arrangement between them and the UK Conservative Party much harder to strike down. This needn’t be a problem for the other parties: the Lib Dems can follow their natural dividing lines and reform as an allied SDP and Liberal party. Labour can detach the Co-Operative Party. The SNP might struggle, but there are muted internal divisions which could lead to the formation of two mainstream nationalist parties.

The effect of this would be to make the regional lists completely separate from the constituencies. No party would receive penalties from their constituency seats, and so the regional list vote would essentially become full-blown regional PR, as their would be no penalties applied to groupings who had done well at the constituency level. This would make it easier for the two major parties – Labour and the SNP, who currently carry the most constituencies and so attract the most penalties – to gain an outright majority, which is currently very difficult (making the SNP’s recent victory all the more incredible).

I don’t know if this plan is in Fraser’s mind. I suspect not, because as soon as he goes down the decoy list route, so will all the other parties. Thus he will actually reduce his electoral advantage, because the Conservatives are currently advantaged relative to the other parties, since they do not win many constituencies and consequently attract fewer penalties. Having said that, if he plays his cards right, he could use this ruse for one election earlier than the other parties, and thus hope to gain some sort of incumbency advantage.

Maybe it will just show up the system for its convoluted and absurd nature. The last survey done on public understanding of the Scottish voting system (in 2003) showed that only 39% of people understood the system, which had decreased (somehow) since its introduction in 1999. When you consider that this is also the system used in Wales and London, and is very similar to the AV+ system the Jenkins Review recommended (the only difference in AV+ is that constituency seats are elected on AV rather than FPTP), the possibilities for complicated coalitions and system subversion multiply greatly.

At any rate, Fraser’s plan to break away the Scottish Tories is canny itself, even without this fiddle of the voting system. But coupled with it, even for one election, it has the potential to win the Conservatives massive gains in Scotland.

Soapbox debates: The Alternative Vote

In Constitutional Spotlight, Events, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Soapbox Debates on May 4, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Stephan Wan, polarii, David Weber, James Langford, Jack Blankley, Ronald Collinson

With the referendum on 5th May rapidly approaching, The Daily Soapbox has decided to help any remaining floating voters make up their minds about AV (the Alternative Vote), by using it for the first of our written debates, in which 6 of us give our views about AV, along with how we intend to vote in the referendum.

At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead’? Yes or no?

Stephan Wan: YES

This is not a perfect question. There is no doubt that in an ideal world, we would not be seeing just a choice between Alternative Vote (AV) and First Past The Post (FPTP), but also with other voting systems. However, this is not an ideal world, and ultimately we are faced with a simple choice. Is the AV system better than FPTP? The answer is yes. The AV system is both a more legitimate and more effective voting system, that has both fairer process and fairer outcomes.

Firstly, in what sense does AV involve fairer process? A good electoral system must seek to accommodate and realise the preferences of the electorate – the more a system takes into account the wishes of the voters, the better a system it is. AV allows exactly this – the system gives every voter the right to rank the candidates from the one they want the most, to the one they want the least. In comparison, FPTP allows no such choice – it does not reflect what views you have on other candidates, or your preference relations between them. This problem leads to the phenomena of tactical voting; currently, the voter may vote for a candidate other than the one they most support, in order to prevent another candidate from winning who they least support. AV eliminates tactical voting, by allowing these preferences to be shown on the ballot paper. AV is a better system for reflecting voter preferences.

AV graph

Secondly, in what sense does AV involve fairer outcomes? A good electoral system must also seek to result in the election of candidates who have the support of the majority of the electorate. The greater the correlation between the outcome of the election, and the preference of the electorate, the better the electoral system it is. FPTP has a poor record of correlation between outcome and preference – constituencies can have MPs elected on as little as 30% of the vote. AV will in theory work in a far better way – candidates must gain over 50% of the vote to win, either outright through gaining 50% of first preference votes, or through the reallocation of second and subsequent preferences. AV thus ensures that over 50% of the voters will have in some way chosen the winning candidate over all other candidates. This is more legitimate than FPTP – AV is a better system for fairer outcomes.

polarii: NO

Before laying out my case against AV on the issues of practicality – Ronnie and James will have much more to add in other respects – I shall briefly rebut some of Stephen’s points. He argues that tactical voting is a problem; why then, does he advocate a system that encourages it? In FPTP, when a ballot paper is marked, some electors do indeed consider the wider ramifications of voting, rather than just what they want. In AV, voters also consider the wider ramifications, but simply mark a second preference to indicate their ‘tactical’ choice. Instead of removing the problem, it legitimises it.

Furthermore, where preferences are not filled to the bottom of the ballot, there will be a significant number of ballots will be blank, which will be counted as ‘spoiled’ after round 1. So it is not necessarily true that MPs elected under AV will have 50% of votes cast.

AV is used in Australian, Fijian, and Papua New Guinean Parliamentary elections, and Irish and Indian Presidential elections. In Ireland, a major party is always returned to the presidency, and half the elections have been uncontested since 1980; the Congress Party has won every Indian election since its formation. Though both have had fewer hung parliaments than the UK, Australia and Fiji have only two main parties; PNG has only one. The ‘third party’ in Australia, the Greens, took 11% of the vote, yet received 1 seat of 150.In Fiji, only 4 MPs do not hail from the major parties; and unrepresented parties receive over 10% of the vote. However, in the UK, the highest party not to receive representation was UKIP at 3%. These statistics do not suggest that AV is more representative – in fact, it may even be less so.

In Australia, the parties distribute leaflets showing people how they should use all their preferences for the maximum advantage of their preferred party.

Moreover, there is significant disengagement with the system. Turnout in Ireland is 47%. In Australia, 7% prefer a fine to voting; 5% spoil their ballots and 55% admit to following a party-issued card that says how to rank the candidates. This is indicative of serious problem; people are not really convinced in these countries that their vote will matter, or are very unsure about how to use their system. The system does nothing to solve any democratic deficit created by FPTP. In fact, it may even make it worse.

And who actually wants AV? Certainly not David Cameron, who is campaigning for FPTP. Certainly not Nick Clegg, who describes it as ‘miserable’. Maybe Ed Miliband, but he hasn’t said much about it. MPs report a complete absence of pleas from constituents advocating AV. Yet, it seems that if voting trends are the same, the Liberals will gain about 20 more seats – though it is not clear that UKIP will get one, for instance. This is the reason the Liberals are so eager to have it. And the people who run elections don’t want it either; elections will cost more, take longer, and be much harder to check.

In short, no benefit will come of AV. No-one will be satisfied by having it. And likely, fewer people will engage in democracy once we have it. FPTP is clear, popular and simple. There is no choice. FPTP receives not just my preference, but my vote.

David Weber: YES

What separates the Alternative Vote, in a bad way, from First Past the Post? This is the standard of proof those who oppose AV have to meet. It is no use complaining about the cost of the referendum, because it will happen anyway: our MPs have decreed it. So the ‘No’ campaign needs to demonstrate why we should reject AV in favour of the current system. It needs to demonstrate that AV is comparatively worse.

This is what polarii, in the previous speech, failed to do. His argument that AV is unrepresentative (backed up by an impressive array of statistics) is irrelevant. Both systems are unrepresentative, and for the same reason. In both, MPs represent a single constituency, including those who did not vote for them. This is what makes them unrepresentative, and neither can be criticised above the other because of it.

polarii also claims that AV ‘may even be less’ representative. Does he explain how? Does he corroborate it? The ubiquitous statistics are strangely silent on this point! In order to demonstrate this, he has to show that AV has additional problems, which he has failed to do. I invite you to re-read the previous speech if you wish, in case you don’t believe me.

A (hypothetical) AV ballot paper

A highly complex ballot paper

Nor do I think AV would increase disengagement with the system. It’s hard not to be derisive here; I find the idea that voters will be put off by having to number preferences both hilarious and outrageous. The slogan “it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3…” is possibly the only accurate campaign slogan in history. It really is as easy as 1, 2, 3. People are put off from voting for real reasons, not because they have to count in single digits.

So that’s why there’s no reason to reject AV in favour of the current system. Equally, why support AV over it? The answer, when it boils down to it, is actually very, very simple. If MPs do represent an entire constituency (including, as I pointed out earlier, people who did not vote for them) then they should have the support of as many of their constituents as possible.

The current system allows an MP to be elected even if a majority of the electorate vehemently opposes them. This is ludicrous. Representing people is not the same as winning a 100 metre sprint. It should not mean collecting supporters. It should mean seeking the support of as many you seek to represent as possible.

This is why no political party worth its salt uses FPTP. Labour uses AV to elect its leader. The Liberal Democrats also use it. The Conservatives use an almost identical system. It appears that there is consensus among all three parties in favour of AV for them — but not for us. I wonder why this is?

James Langford: NO

Firstly I would like to add my support to Mr Bagg for his excellent contribution into this debate. There are many strands of argument which I could hope to explore in this article but firstly I want to make some refutations to the proposition focusing in particular on comments made by Mr Weber. On a point of technicality Labour or the Conservatives do not fully use AV to elect their leaders – they have both invented their own electoral systems which incorporate procedure similar to that of AV. Moreover – he asks us why FPTP? Simply – it creates strong and accountable governments, gives us coalition at times of national uncertainty, works simply and efficiently during election periods with easily interpretable results, the list goes on…

Returning to my own argument I would firstly like to explore the background to this referendum. This referendum is a waste of money; it’s the voting system that no one really wants – people who want us to change our voting system, such as the Lib Dems, want fairer representation and representation for the smaller parties, but by switching to another majoritarian voting system neither of these aims can be realized. This is the wasted compromise. Those people need PR or STV – and if either of these voting systems had a solid base of national support or could mobilize such a base we would be having a referendum for one of those.

Now I want to bring us back to reality – the democratic idealists are proclaiming that ranking candidates is better but in this voting system safe seats will ignore rankings and tactical ranking will be widespread. Moreover in the marginal constituencies we will still see some MPs elected without 50% of the vote. In a voting system where two of the main principles of that system are not enshrined the average voter will be left confused. I’m not talking about the political nuts like ourselves but the ordinary people of this country, who may only ever engage with politics by voting once every five years. I’d also like to infer that given the increased complexity of this voting system and the lack of understanding behind the procedure, some will become disillusioned and give up voting altogether. In the pursuit of democracy we may damage our democracy.

Jack Blankley: YES

May I first say well done to all the contributions so far, they have been very interesting and this has been a very intelligent debate on a hotly contested issue.

First things first, I am not a supporter of the AV voting system. I believe it is a system which will not fully represent the British public and lead to only a slight improvement on the current system, which I believe is outdated and lacks sufficient representation of the population.

My main argument for supporting the change in the voting system is not so much about the empirical arguments against FPTP, which I believe are not fundamentally changed with the introduction of the AV system, but about wider politics in general. Over the past couple of years, are politicians have been riddled with scandals ranging from expenses claims to affairs, with the tabloid press coming up with imaginative names for our politicians, such as “2jag Prescott” and “Paddy Pantsdown”. A change in the way politics works in this country might help to bring people back into politics, which nowadays is seen as an elitist subject. This is the one thing politicians should be trying to avoid!

Even Mervin King, the governor of the Bank of England, says he’s surprised with the public reaction to the banking meltdown, saying people should be angrier. I believe nowadays people believe there is nothing they can do due to the British political system, and these views of “they’re only in it for themselves”, “greedy” and “out of touch” are comments regularly used in the tabloid press describing all 3 main parties. I know this arguement is hard to understand and even harder to try and write down! But this small change may be a way to reconnect with some lost voters showing that politicians are willing to change a system which the British people think is inherently flawed!

Finally the argument that the referendum is a waste of money is one I disagree with. A referendum is the fairest way to change constitutional practises and to suggest it a waste of money is to suggest that MPs decide how they are elected (which leads to a democratic deficit). The public should be directly involved in deciding on the voting system.

Ronald Collinson: NO

Mr Blankley’s post rounded off what has been a stimulating debate. Several of the supposed arguments in favour of AV have already been dealt with: against Mr Wan, Polarii and Mr Langford noted that it is simply untrue to say that candidates would require the assent of 50% of voters to be elected; against Mr Weber, Mr Langford noted that no major political party in fact uses AV to elect its leaders. Polarii also demonstrated the several respects in which AV may be less representative than FPTP.

It might be added that tactical voting remains possible under AV: the important question is which parties you want to make it into the final round; the order of elimination matters. It is therefore possible to model scenarios in which candidates might in fact be benefited if some of their supporters had given them second rather than first preferences, a clear violation of the principle that expressing second preferences should not harm first preferences. Of course, to exploit this system requires substantial local and national political knowledge – so tactical voting would not be eliminated, but made the preserve of precisely the political obsessives Mr Blankley railed against.

Mr Weber and Mr Blankley both claimed that changing the voting system would revitalise British politics. If that is so, the British people don’t seem to be aware of it: while the 2002 march in favour of the minority pursuit of fox hunting attracted more than 400,000 people, the electoral reform ‘rally’ in May attracted only 1,000; while even the deplorable Facebook group in support of police-killer Raoul Moat attracted over 38,000 members, the Electoral Reform Society has not even achieved 9,000. There is no evidence whatever to suggest that public malaise has anything to do with the electoral system.

Indeed, the aftermath of the expenses scandal was, if anything, a vindication of FPTP. Several MPs in supposedly ‘safe’ seats, like David Heathcoat-Amory and the ludicrous Lembit Opik, were duly unseated. There is substantial academic debate about how AV would change the distribution of safe seats, but there is clear consensus that it would not eliminate such seats. But the evidence of last May is that such seats are not in fact ‘safe’ against the force of local anger.

AV does not, then, reliably make electoral battles more competitive; it restricts tactical voting to the voting to the elite; it violates its own preferential principles; it does not require victors to have the support of a majority of voters. It is, additionally, a much more complex system, lacking the easy transparency of FPTP in which the candidate with the most votes wins.

On this question of ‘the most votes’, Mr Weber ambitiously attempted to draw a distinction between ‘collecting supporters’ and ‘seeking… support’, claiming that under FPTP a candidate can win against an ‘opposing majority.’ But what is the significance of an ‘opposing’ majority if its representative is contingent entirely on the order in which other candidates are eliminated? National politics isn’t like a student union election: there is no option to ‘re-open nominations’. Voters must align themselves by one programme for government or another – simply voting on the basis of ‘not you’, which is surely the ruling logic of the alternative vote, can hardly be considered satisfactory.


This marks the end of our first written debate. If you are interested in participating in future debates we choose to hold, feel free to email David Weber at dingdongalistic (at) gmail (dot) com, or leave a comment underneath this post.

Why a Yes vote tomorrow matters

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs on May 4, 2011 at 5:05 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

Tomorrow, 5th May 2011, Britain faces the first ever referendum on our electoral system, only the second referendum in our country’s history. The last few months have seen the Yes and No campaigns to the Alternative Vote (AV) come to agonisingly slow fruition. Both sides fear apathy as the main losing factor in potentially ditching First-Past-the-Post (FPTP), particularly in areas such as London where there are no local or devolved elections. But this referendum is crucially important, and a Yes to AV vote would help us begin to tackle the lime-scale of political and economic oligarchy which has become the norm of our democracy.

Right away (and perhaps oddly for an article promoting a Yes vote) it’s important to point out that AV isn’t actually a huge change from FPTP. It keeps what is seen as popular about the current system: electing and dispatching a representative from your local area to national government to represent you there. Each constituency will still only have one MP, and general and by-elections will still run to the same timetable. The only difference is the way in which that MP is voted in. Under FPTP you mark an X in the box next to your chosen candidate and the one with the most votes wins. Under AV, you rank the candidates available, and, in the event that one candidate doesn’t receive over 50% of the votes, the least popular candidates are eliminated with the second preferences of those voters redistributed until one candidate has over half the support. That’s all there is to it.

However, to quote the Yes! to Fairer Votes campaign, this is a small change which makes a big difference. AV helps voters challenge political oligarchy by ending the ‘safe seat’ culture which has built up over the last few decades. At present, less than a third of MPs are elected with the consent of the majority of their constituents: i.e. they can rely on a core of immovable voters who only have to contribute a single vote more than the next most popular candidate in order to get re-elected time and time again. It doesn’t matter that, in a hypothetical constituency, Labour wins where they get 40%, the Tories get 35% and the Lib Dems get 25% of the vote, even though the majority of Lib Dems would prefer a Tory MP to a Labour one. With AV in place, politicians would have to fight every single seat like it matters in order to win 50% or more of their constituents’ support – this can only be good in restoring faith amongst ordinary voters that their vote counts. Across vast swathes of the country, AV would favour popular challengers against unpopular incumbents.

Secondly, AV can help us begin challenging economic oligarchy. The Independent’s motto at last year’s general election was “Rupert Murdoch won’t decide the outcome of this election. You will.” – we can decipher a lot about the current state of our democracy from this. It’s no secret that the media plays a critical role in shaping public opinion, no more so than in election time. It’s also no secret that the majority of our media is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and that, since Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 victory, Murdoch has used its colossal influence through The Sun, The News of the World, The Times and others to promote the party which will offer him and his cronies the best settlement in the next parliament. Labour spent 18 years in opposition before it prostrated itself before his throne and gained his blessing. The Lib Dems have suffered consistently from being caricatured as weak and irrelevant. FPTP exacerbates the influence of Murdoch and other Right-wing media outlets such as The Daily Mail – because a handful of ‘swing seats’ are the only ones that really decide the outcome of election, and these seats are disproportionately upper-middle class, power is lent to News Corporation to bestow its favour on the party it wants to win. Under AV, with every constituency battle mattering, Middle England and its media guardians will lose their disproportionate position in choosing the government. AV disperses power away from the media elite to ordinary voters, where, in a democracy, power rightfully belongs.

Unsurprisingly, AV has come under fire from those who are set to lose from scrapping FPTP. A multitude of myths have been floated around in the hope of blocking the British public engaging with the issues, and so I’d like to puncture some of them. One: AV needs expensive voting machines and therefore necessitates more spending cuts. This is behind the disgraceful dying babies advert and is a complete lie – Australia uses AV with pencil and paper, just like our FPTP, and Chief Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander has said that he can’t see AV costing any more. Two: AV leads to weak coalitions, FPTP leads to strong governments. It is true that AV will lead to more coalitions, but this is because the electorate’s wishes are more accurately represented in Commons seats. During the coalition negotiations last May, the markets didn’t plunge into the abyss because of a momentary lack of government, as was predicted. And the average single-party government is just as much, if not more, a coalition than a genuine coalition one: Clegg and Cameron are far more united that Blair and Brown ever were. In fact, a coalition partner may help temper the excesses of the main party, as we’re currently seeing with Tory NHS privatisation. If we want a minority support ‘strong’ government rather than one which is representative of the electorate’s preferences, then we may as well abolish democracy and be ruled by bureaucrats. Three: AV empowers extremist fringe parties. Conservative Party chairperson Sayeeda Warsi has claimed that “a vote for AV is a vote for the BNP”, apparently ignoring the fact that the BNP has been working with the Tories on the No campaign. In fact, AV cripples extremist parties because they would have to gain 50% of the support of constituents to get MPs elected – harder for them than in most seats under FPTP. Five: FPTP gives the electorate the right of recall on an unpopular government. David Cameron has claimed that the best thing about our present electoral system is the power to kick out governments; yet, in the last three decades, the government has only changed hands three times (1979, 1997, 2010). Clearly the last 30 years of politics have been near-perfect, or else the right of recall is defunct.

Last Sunday, a letter was sent to The Observer signed by Labour’s John Denham, Lib Dem Chris Huhne and the Greens’ Caroline Lucas. It called for a Yes to AV vote tomorrow in order to bring the dream of progressive alignment closer. The Left has a lot to gain from this referendum: for the majority of the 20th Century, the Tories have won minority rule from the divisions between the progressive parties. AV levels the playing field, allowing Labour, Lib Dem, Green, SNP and Plaid Cymru voters (55.3% in total last year against the Conservative’s 36.1%) to express their support for each other’s parties over the Right-wing opposition. In addition, it gives those discontented with Cameron’s perceived Leftward shift to express themselves by voting for UKIP. AV isn’t perfect – no electoral system is – but it is certainly more representative that FPTP. And if the representation of the people’s will is the goal of a parliamentary democracy, then we should surely adopt the Alternative Vote.

A cynical take on referendum campaigns

In Constitutional Spotlight, Events, The Media on February 26, 2011 at 5:19 pm

By Sean Wyer

Cross-posted from They Say it so Seriously…

Britain’s first referendum in a while is fast approaching. As you probably know, the one option is AV (alternative vote) as opposed to our current ‘first-past-the-post’ system. In the spirit of being a good citizen, I thought I would make sure I was making the right choice, so I didn’t ruin the country by accident.

I was aware that the referendum isn’t an issue contested by people, but by ideas, so maybe their websites would make me think.

The people campaigning against the alternative vote didn’t really have any ideas. They just talked about loads of irrelevant public-services-related items that people need, such as bullet proof vests and maternity units, which don’t have anything to do with voting systems, but some ‘PR expert’ in an office seems to think we’ll believe them if they say ‘vote yes in the referendum and loads of people will die’ (paraphrased). Which is probably a lie. They also said (also paraphrased) ‘it’s too complicated for normal people to understand’. Which isn’t actually an argument, and succeeds in condescendingly insulting the public’s intelligence.


I thought the other side might be less terrible at convincing me. If you look really hard, you can actually find some information on their site, but it’s obvious they’re pretty much the same as the other guys, just funded by people who will benefit in the future if their side wins, which means they’re basically an advertising campaign. Their website pulls the age old trick of having a war vet talking about democracy, which seems like a desperate move, using ‘selling stunts’ instead of actual politics.


Both sides essentially admit that they don’t have a convincing enough political argument. They make it obvious that the people funding their campaign will enjoy plenty of success (or maintain it) if they win, because both sites have an air of desperation and power-hungry marketing techniques about them.

Don’t know if either side deserves/will get my deciding vote.


Coalition: the free marketplace of ideas

In Constitutional Spotlight, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics, Regional politics, The Media on January 8, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Celebrating 100 posts

David Weber

It is ironic, that a country so associated with the development of a free marketplace as our own, should find itself so paranoid of the notion of freedom of political ideas. I am being slightly cheeky here: I do not refer to political freedom with a capital P: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of movement or freedom of entry into political parties. All such things are long established, and do credit to our political system. I refer to freedom of ideas within the political discourse.

The terms ‘freedom of ideas’, or ‘marketplace of ideas’ are often misunderstood as only applicable in a binary, “1st Amendment/Police State” sort of way, where the only barriers to freedom to focus on are legal restrictions and the threat of violence. Such concerns are, of course, tremendously important, so important that it is easy to understand why they dominate conversation about freedom. But they are the skeleton, without which the structure would not stand, rather than the flesh. What determines whether freedom flourishes is just as much the complex, multi-layered cultural climate that surrounds it, as it is the legal rules which govern it.

Just as if you pump carbon dioxide into the climate unsustainably, you risk turning the climate into a hostile, unfriendly place; if the climate for freedom of ideas is not right, the marketplace will suffer. It is such concerns which are fuelling debate about such diverse subjects as copyright law and patents; libel; privacy law; media ownership; party funding; cuts to the arts and humanities, subsidies to STEM subjects and Tuition Fees; Parliamentary Privilege; Electoral Reform; Devolution; Question Time; and Nick Clegg.

And I find these discussions just as fascinating, if not more so, than the adrenaline-fuelling outrage stories such as that of Paul Clarke’s Shotgun last year, or the Twitter joke trial. Those were undoubtedly the more exciting, more thrilling stories to ponder and agonise over, but they lack the infinite depth and complexity that some of the others engineer. Indeed, that is why outrage stories are more thrilling, because a bare-faced, unbelievable simplicity has been violated, whether freedom of speech, innocent until proven guilty, or any other principle of decency. But one’s mind chews over the detail of a thorny problem much longer than the simplicity of an obvious one. Consider it a contrast between the headline of a newspaper and the quality of its crossword. Though the headline might be why you buy the paper, it is often the crossword which dictates how much time you devote to it.

In case you think I am joking by making an example of Nick Clegg (and I certainly was by making one of Question Time), think again. Nick Clegg, along with David Cameron, David Laws and collected others from their parties, have done more to further the interests of the free marketplace of ideas than any other politicians have this year. Although this may be a small order of merit compared to the champions of libel reform, and the heroes who fight bad laws in court, it is still an important one, and one which is quietly having a beneficial effect in freedom’s favour.

In case you think this is a political defence of the Coalition’s agenda, do not worry yourself. Feel free to hate the Coalition with as much passion as you can muster for what it intends to do. My interest is purely in what it is, for many of its members, unintentionally doing. It cannot be intentional for most of the Conservatives in government to fight against the collected traditions of cabinet government down the ages in stifling freedom of information, diversity of ideas and honesty of opinion. Nor can it be pleasing for the Liberal Democrats to have to expose the divisions in their own party, the limits of its honesty, its crimes of opportunism, and its members’ addiction to doing things together, like mythical lemmings.

Nevertheless, the Coalition is quietly but systematically dismantling much of what is wrong with British politics. It is testing the boundaries of what collective responsibility can censor. It is practically writing a textbook about the limitations of our political system for honouring promises, representing public opinion and giving people a democratic voice. And this is good, because it aids the truth. Britain does not have a particularly democratic system of government. It does not represent its people well. And promises are rarely kept in politics, they are merely normally managed better. There is a long and ignoble tradition of parties spinning their way out of promises, and it is refreshing to see some more bald-faced confessions.

The irony is that until the election, many would have spun these traditions as good things. Evasiveness and dishonesty lead to Collective Responsibility (with a capital C and R). Single-party and undeserved winners lead to strong government. Honouring manifesto pledges in letter but not in spirit is an example of a peculiar marriage between delegate and representative traditions, with MPs making fine independent judgements whilst scattering breadcrumbs of honesty to their constituents. Such is the balanced way in which the British constitution works, it would be argued, long has it functioned and long may it continue to.

Such arguments convey an inability to cope with uncomfortable truths. If what we are experiencing now is an example of constitutional imbalance, then I say we could all do with a continued dose of it. It seems to me ridiculous to assume that the average citizen will worry about the niceties of Constitution whilst being unable to cope with the occasional expression of honest ministerial opinion. It is equally ridiculous to think that people cannot prefer honest confession of broken promises to spin and obfuscation. And the very idea of coalitions automatically leading to instability and stagnation is already almost extinct after nearly 8 months of good practice.

But of course, the truth is that my opening premise works both ways. Coalition in the United Kingdom is being shown to work because the climate is already supportive of it. Radicalism is low, common sense in reasonable supply and if anything, our problem of apathy works to its advantage. If  you compared to Italy, you would find that it has historically failed to cope well with Coalition not because of PR, but because of a climate which has dominated its politics for decades. But even then, Coalition can arguably be used as a solution to division and extremism as well as being a freedom which mature nations qualify for, and benefit from. Part of Italy’s problem probably stems from choice of coalition. Whereas the strength of the Northern Irish system, as I argued in my previous article, is the lack of any such choice, and the democratic structure of the legal requirement, which automatically requires the largest two parties take part in government, and entitles smaller ones to cabinet seats. Of course, such a system would not have worked had Northern Ireland not been at a stage where, in general, it wanted it to.

So Coalition cannot always work, but the situations where it can are varied and diverse. It is a political freedom which requires maturity and a beneficial climate, but wherever it can work it has the potential to improve not only the freedom of political ideas, but the use to which such freedom can be put. Honesty has proved empowering. The Coalition is considering a faster pace of reform than single-party government has given us for a decade. You may disagree intently with what that is resulting in, but freedom is not defined by whether you like the use it is put to, apart from perhaps the consideration of its own long-term future.

It may yet prove that such freedom in political ideas without democratic reform to accompany it, and force it into greater accountability, is dangerous. But the indications are favourable, indeed, for democratic reform itself. The Coalition has a short-term rather than a long-term vision of reforming the House of Lords; a long overdue alternative form of representation, which will hopefully complement the purpose of the House of Commons rather than replacing it. It intends to introduce the Alternative Vote if the public vote in favour, which is a small but crucial reform for polite discourse during elections. At present, the system makes parties all too happy to turn their opponents against each other, which is a malicious and cruel incentive. And above all, the one way in which freedom of ideas is destined to flourish is the utter inability of the Prime Minister to habitually shuffle individuals between jobs like a pack of cards. His is truly the primus inter pares, not just technically.

I would also like to raise a glass to the Coalition for setting yet another example in the Daily Soapbox’s favour, of professional collaboration, courteous disagreement, and “an independent community, recognising that we all think better when people of different views express them clearly”. This is our 100th Post. Here’s to the future.

This is the second in a series of posts considering the nuances of democracy, intended as something of a response to polarii’s epic summer trilogy. Do take a read of that as well, if you have a spare week.

Concerning Devolution, and Democracy

In Constitutional Spotlight, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics, Regional politics, The Media on January 6, 2011 at 12:49 am

David Weber

Warning: long article approaching

For a while I’ve been wanting to write something equivalent, or at least in response to polarii’s analyses of democracy, not just to outline differences in opinion but also to cover issues which, I feel, were not discussed. The cut and thrust of this article, and possible future ones, will mainly focus (through the prism of a leading issue) of on the general untidiness of democracy; in attempting to define it, assessing its qualities, and outlining solutions. We will start by looking at Devolution.

Devolution has been in the news recently, and for once it isn’t the arguments about a Scottish independence referendum. The new powers proposed by the Calman commission are (partially) being unveiled by the new government, which seeks to deliver a certain amount of tax-raising power to Scotland, presumably not least with the intention of forcing it onto a more equal fiscal footing with England. That Scottish Government ministers are protesting that it will make Scotland worse off in cash terms seems to be evidence in support of this.

I do not have a great deal of sympathy for the Scottish government here, not least because the level of Scottish spending seems unnecessarily disproportionate to England. Obviously, Scotland being in general poorer than England, a degree of higher spending is needed, but for that to extend to free University tuition seems ridiculous, when there is no evidence that English students are particularly disadvantaged by the system which applies to them. Clearly, in this place, if in no other, there is some fat which could be trimmed.

But while the Commission’s terms of reference were the fiscal imbalances in Scottish devolution, I will be looking at democratic imbalances of devolution in general. According to some schools of thought, these are so grave as to override any merits the policy may have, and make abolition of the devolved assemblies the only solution. I am not so sure. I will begin, however, by outlining the case against Devolution.

The first, and most obvious attack, is the “West Lothian Question”. This actually originates from a theoretical question asked by the eponymous MP for West Lothian, Tom Dalyell, in 1977, long before the 1998 Scotland Act came into force:

“For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate … at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”

The word “decisive” is crucial, as some might hope this question away as an eternally theoretical one, with majorities never slim enough for it to truly make a difference. This is wishful thinking. Labour governments often rely on Scotland for a lot of their support, and indeed the Labour government in 1979 was brought down by the votes of Scottish National Party (SNP) MPs. More recently, in 2006, the vote on — you guessed it — University top-up fees was won based on the support of Scottish MPs; had they abstained, it would likely have been defeated. Democratic Unionist Party MPs voted in favour of raising detention without trial to 42 days in 2008, which passed by a majority of exactly the same number as the 9 DUP MPs, although that particular bill was rejected by the House of Lords.

Not only this, but there is also a more fundamental undemocratic charge against Devolution. It provides some people more representation than others, creating a two-tier or even a multi-tier system, where geography determines strength of political representation. Thus in Scotland, voters elect not only sovereign Westminster MPs, with theoretical responsibility for everything, but near-as-sovereign Holyrood MPs, with very real responsibilities for Health, Education, Justice etc. into the bargain. The voter therefore has two calls for help if something goes wrong, and, in theory, twice as much leverage in their everyday battles. In contrast, a voter in Herefordshire elects a sovereign Westminster MP and a couple of rather dusty councillors, if they even know that a local election is on. Voters in Wales have something of a half-way house between English anonymity and Scottish power. Voters in Northern Ireland — well, I’ll not get into that minefield (until later).

As suggested by the preceding paragraph, devolution is also unequal between regions. The Welsh Assembly does not (yet) have the extensive powers of the Scottish Parliament. London has the Greater London Assembly which, although weaker still, is far more powerful than most local government in England. So in summary, the picture painted by devolution is a very uneven and untidy one, resembling the sort of painting which attaches a lot of importance to the leaves of a tree but somehow fails to convey the basic structure of the trunk with balance and accuracy.

Such is the case against devolution. And before I go into any further, and consider the counter-argument, it is worth considering the fact that nothing argues for the current system quite so well as the inability of its opponents to outline sensible solutions.

One such solution is “English Votes on English Laws”: barring Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on English legislation. This has a certain long-enduring popularity, and it is often assumed, most often by Conservatives, that this would solve the Question in a blow.

Now, if there is any one phrase I have grown to hate, normally because it is nearly always misapplied, it is “constitutionally illiterate”. Yet I am tempted to apply it here. Devolution, as some opponents evidently fail to grasp ten years after its implementation, is not the same thing as Federalism. The official power of the UK Parliament to overrule the Scottish Parliament is absolute. Parliament is sovereign. It’s political power is, of course, limited severely by devolution. But this is not to say that it will never overrule the devolved assemblies.

And whereas the ability of regional MPs to overrule the will of English MPs is limited, due to their small number, the scope for English MPs to overrule the will of the devolved assemblies, should they wish to, is far greater. Therefore the only way “English Votes on English Laws” would be constitutionally balanced would be to similarly ban English MPs from voting to overrule the devolved assemblies. Which would mean that for each of the four countries, there would be matters where the UK Parliament had no say. Far from strengthening the Union, English Votes on English Laws would go some way towards dividing it permanently.

There are also more practical objections. There is the fact that it probably wouldn’t lead to equality of representation in the first place, because it doesn’t address the “different quality of representation depending on region” criticism of devolution that I outlined earlier. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish voters would still have far stronger local democracy than England, although I acknowledge that the situation is almost impossibly complex to assess when it comes to Northern Ireland. But the gravest objection is that it would throw up the possibility of two different majorities being available in the House of Commons, one for English legislation and another for UK legislation.

Such a possibility would not result in, say, a Conservative English legislative agenda put forward by a Labour UK government, because a Labour government would never allow it. The result would be stagnation, or at best, coalition between the two parties on English legislation.

Here is the fundamental problem. People seem to think, against all political observation, that the devolved legislatures are the only important part of devolution. The fact is, however, that without devolved government, devolution is at most a panacea. So quite apart from the constitutional issues, changing the rules governing English legislation would at best only be a half-way step towards the full-blooded localism which has transformed Scottish and Welsh politics.

It is, of course, possible to engineer a more low-key, slimmed down version of English Votes on English Laws. The Democracy Taskforce, set up by David Cameron in 2006 and chaired by Ken Clarke, recommended changing Parliamentary practice to make it convention for regional MPs not to be involved in English legislation during committee and report stages only, without banning them from doing so; thus avoiding the constitutional objections. and limiting the potential for deadlock (as all MPs would vote during first and second reading, thus the whole house would initiate English legislation). In seeking to be so reasonable, the Taskforce created an opposite problem: the solution would be far too limited to address the extent of the problems. Not only this, but the potential for deadlock and odd results would still be very real: a bill could be re-written or sabotaged in committee and report stage, creating a legislative mess and confusion about where accountability lies.

So what other solutions? English devolution holds some attraction and almost certainly far more merit, but would run up against some much stronger political roadblocks. The amount of power it would be necessary to give away even to grant it the same stature as the Welsh devolution would entirely transform the way UK government works, and might alarm even the most ‘radical’ of reforming governments, who rarely give away power with no thought to the consequences, which would be unknown in such a big step. More problematic would be the size of England: with approximately 80% of the people in the whole Union, an English system of government would operate very similarly to the UK one. Such an idea also ignores the political motivations behind devolution to begin with, which I will come to shortly.

So were, or are, the opponents of devolution right? Is it impossible for the system to work democratically, or ‘neatly’? Is it crucial for the future of the Union that the devolved assemblies be abolished? Should we offer the regions (and perhaps Cornwall) an “all-in/all-out” referendum? It is at this point where I realise that I am vaguely puzzled, because no opponent of devolution ever makes the case that before devolution, the UK was a model of democratic perfection. This is because it wasn’t.

In fact, the democratic imbalances inherent in UK government before devolution far eclipse any created by devolution since. In 1979, Scotland went from one extreme of propping the Labour government up to being positively ignored for the following 18 years. Wales was in a similar position during the mid-80s, with Plaid Cymru at one point selling “Tory-free” mugs in celebration of Wales’ utter lack of connection to the UK government. In contrast, in 1997 virtually all of Scottish and Welsh representatives supported the incoming government.

In fact, what opponents of devolution really fail to grasp is that the UK system of government has never been particularly democratic when it comes to a matter of detail. If you wanted completely democratic government, then all elected representatives would govern in coalition. Elections as we know them are about winning. Winning is incompatible with everyone being listened to. In a competition, there are winners and losers, which leaves some people with power and some people without it.

In fact, the only system which comes close to being democratic is the devolved Northern Irish assembly, where the two biggest parties must by law be in coalition, which ironically is as a consequence of their historic inability to co-operate with each other. Winning is only proportionate to a public mandate, and the voice of the loser is granted equal respect as the voice of the winner. The lessons learnt from Northern Ireland’s history should, I hope, actually go some way in helping people to appreciate the importance of taking note of everyone’s voice, no matter whether they conform to a majority, plurality, minority, or just form one person’s opinion.

And this is what devolution to Scotland and Wales also set out to do, to end the ludicrous situation where UK politics regularly left regions polarised and often marginalised. Opponents of devolution rather remind me of people stood with a magnifying glass in front of a work of art, moaning about a hairline crack in the middle of the darkest shade, while utterly failing to appreciate the beauty of the picture as a whole. In fact, in my dedication to creating a fair and exhaustive summary of the flaws of devolution, I have been rather complicit in this myself. No doubt there is still much room for improvement. England lacks the local voice that, in time, it may find it needs. Westminster could do much more to prevent regional MPs from acting undemocratically. And Scottish politics is still alarmingly close to polarisation, with a separatist party viewed as the official alternative to Labour. But Scotland has found itself open to far more political plurality than it ever understood before, with the Liberal Democrats finding a voice in its previous government, with the SNP winning Westminster seats which would previously have been considered solid Labour territory, and with a proportional legislature which has quite failed to self-destruct and has quietly governed on a cross-party basis. Far from being a thorn in its side, devolution could teach the Union quite a few lessons for its future.


In Constitutional Spotlight, Events, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics, The Media on September 27, 2010 at 4:18 pm

David Weber

I do not have particularly high hopes for the hopefully forthcoming referendum on the Alternative Vote. My reasons are mainly that it tends to be the most intelligent, careful reforms which garner the least respect from those who are interested in them. Therefore, I would not be at all surprised if many of those who advocate electoral reform simply do not turn out, or actually vote “no” next May. To the passionate advocate of PR, all that matters is the national outcome. On the local level, the strength of personal representation, and the quality of debate during an election, are all unimportant.

However, one thing I do respect about the objections of more radical constitutional reformers is that they at least have accuracy in mind. Despite a misplaced focus, their objections are entirely correct. The Alternative Vote is not more proportional than First Past the Post. This is because it does nothing to reform the basis of the system, which is local, nor the form of representation, which is direct. Instead, it merely makes the form of these elections fairer.

So though it might be a game-changer during individual elections, it will do little to change the party system. The two parties would likely remain entrenched in United Kingdom politics. The Liberal Democrats would likely become more listened to, but only marginally more representated. Independents would be able to stand in good conscience of contributing to the debate without splitting the vote — but that is all. Moreover, extreme parties like the BNP would become more frozen out than ever from hope of winning seats, as the system of election would rely on finding broader support among the electorate.

So I respect the objections of many to AV, despite supporting it firmly myself and believing it would do a lot to improve the fairness of political discourse. It is a ‘small’ reform, the electoral equivalent of the first stage of Lords reform, designed to make a flawed system stronger without overhauling its composition. So no wonder why it is so unlikely to incur passionate support in the electorate. I doubt we would have flocked to the polls in support of the constitutional reforms of the past 13 years, for they have nearly all been the minor, careful reforms that are the proud tradition of the British Constitution.

However, if I am resigned to expecting an unenthusiastic debate at best, I would at least have hoped for an honest one. Not so, it seems. For the more verocious opponents of any change whatsoever, every argument is fair game, no matter how mis-informed or, indeed, deliberately misleading.

Or so a recent article by Matthew Elliott, chairman of the “No2AV” campaign, would suggest. In it, Elliott impressively manages not only to lower the tone of the whole political debate, but also apply the wrong arguments at every corner. Not since Simon Heffer accused Gordon Brown of trying to introduce PR have I seen someone so wilfully misunderstand one of the most simple reforms to the electoral system there is. Elliott manages to use Australia to back up his argument that AV will “lead to permanent hung parliaments”, apparently having missed the fact that Australia had only 6 Hung Parliaments in the previous century — despite having shorter parliamentary terms than the UK, at 3 years.

Elliott also claims that AV would not address what Nick Clegg calls the “scandal” of safe seats. Here is is in less uninformed company, as this is often an argument made hastily by some Lib Dems. The reality is that it is utterly counter-intuitive to suggest that AV would do nothing about safe seats, because many are won by under 50%, or barely over that mark. Bringing the threshhold of election to 50% would have the effect of suddenly making many of these MPs more wary, as they realised that a sudden swing of unpopularity in their direction and the votes of their opponents could easily stack up against them.

This brings me to an earlier point he makes, that the system violates OMOV (One man, One Vote). This is one of the most baffling criticisms of AV that I’ve come across, as it appears to confuse the act of voting with the process of elections. Under AV, anyone can fill out a full preference vote. So it is clearly not the case, as Elliott seems to think it is, that only the supporters of minor parties get to “vote multiple times”. Yet if this is not what Elliott refers to, then he can only mean the process of election, i.e. which votes “count” towards electing the winner.

If Elliott refers to the process of election, then by his own logic First Past the Post would be a far worse offender. Under AV, 50% of the votes might end up “counting” to the election result. But under First Past the Post, there is no lower limit to the amount of votes that have to “count”. So in other words, First Past the Post would be a massive failure of OMOV. The winner does not even have to gain a majority of votes, merely a plurality — one more than his nearest rival. AV is not particularly representative in terms of “which votes count”, but FPTP is dreadful. Elliott might as well claim that the 2005 Conservative leadership election violated OMOV, because some people voted for Ken Clarke in the first round and David Cameron in the last, while some people voted both times for Cameron.

Luckily, I don’t think we need accept Elliott’s definition of OMOV, because no system has yet been devised by man to allow every single vote to count toward an election result, even that holy grail of voting systems, STV. To my mind, and to the minds of most, I think, OMOV merely means giving everyone the same voting opportunities — i.e. not giving a landowner two votes more than a tenant. How they use that vote and to what advantage is entirely up to them.

Elliott also characterises the current electoral system as “long-standing”. I suppose this depends on your definition, but to most historians, I suspect it would be anything but. First Past the Post was not been used to elect every single MP until after the second world war. Prior to that, there were multi-member constituencies in places, and at one time there were many. In fact, the gradual change of our electoral system from the time of rotten Boroughs to today is a great argument against the idea that the British Constitution has been successful and unchanging. All too often, it has been neither.

Nor is it the case to claim that electoral reform, or “political tinkering” was unheard of in ages gone past. One of the lesser-known measures of the 1867 reform act was Limited Voting, where multi-member constituencies would elect 3 members on 2 votes per person, thus providing for minority representation — in some ways, a simpler version of what STV attempts to do. Other ideas in the past have included STV elections for the cities and towns, and AV for the counties. And a bill to introduce AV for elections in the UK was only thwarted by the House of Lords back in 1931.

As for First Past the Post producing “clear and uncomplicated election results”, it’s surprisingly difficult to work out what those election results mean sometimes. I’m not referring, unlike Elliott, to hung Parliaments (though it is worth noting the two results of 1951 and 1974, when governments were ousted despite winning the support of more people than their challengers). But I’m referring to what election results are precisely taken to mean.

1992 is a brilliant example. When formulating their review into the electoral system, the Jenkins commission effectively made one of their criteria that the system they recommended would have delivered a hung parliament in 1992, but not in 1983 or 1987. Quite why they did this is unclear, for John Major’s conservative party suffered a mere -0.3% swing at the polls in 1992, and actually won more actual votes than they had in the previous election, 1992 being something of a triumph for turnout. The reason Major’s majority was reduced to a mere 21 is almost entirely down to the workings of First Past the Post — yet the Jenkins Commission appeared to not even consider this, because of the widespread (and false) idea that the Conservative party lost much of their support at the polls in 1992.

Or what about 1983? The triumph for the Thatcherite government, returned with a majority of 144? Not necessarily. The proportion of the voting electorate they secured had actually fallen, from 43.9% to 42.4%. The old adage is true — you can prove anything with statistics, and what FPTP actually does is to add to the confusion of election results. (It is, however, true that Labour were roundly punished at that election, losing over 9% of the voting electorate. This, more than anything, was the reason for the sweeping victory the Tories’ secured).

As for accountable government (or accountable opposition, as we have just seen), AV might not change much on the national scale, but it cannot be denied that it is a way of making individual MPs more accountable. What the Conservatives have tentatively suggested with one or two open primaries is in some ways very similar. And the way the Conservative party elects its leader is also very similar, being a series of run-off elections. AV simulates run-off elections, at a fraction of the cost. Indeed, it is ironic that, given their support for FPTP, the Conservative party is strangely lacking in exercising that system in its internal party democracy. I suppose this is no less dubious than Labour’s stance — the only party to propose the system in their manifesto, who now oppose a bill to introduce it after they were defeated on an amendment.

So to sum up, I think I would prefer it if proponents of PR were allowed to chair the No2AV campaign. Then at least we would have some real understanding of electoral reform. It would also make life easier for the Conservatives to get on with what they’ve always done at their best — outflank the opposition. There are few legitimate reasons for the Conservatives to oppose AV. It does all of what they regard as good and right in First Past the Post, better, with a few additional advantages of its own. The only criticisms that are really applicable come from quite different directions.

So No-one Got A Maximum Sentence. Get Over It.

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs, Judicial Spotlight, Law And Order on September 15, 2010 at 11:20 pm

By Stephen Wan

Part of September’s Law And Order Series

Every now and then, I read an article in a newspaper that really riles me up. What I particularly hate is when they use statistics in some really quite awful ways to draw certain conclusions which, quite frankly, I don’t share, but which they seem to presume everyone should. Usually its something from the Sun, or the Mirror, or some other tabloid with certain political prejudices that pamper to their readers. Unfortunately, this “statistic bashing” also seems to occasionally affect the ‘quality’ press, something that deeply worries me.

There are two articles in question, both of which are from The Daily Telegraph. The first is entitled “Revealed: Not A Single Burglar Gets Maximum Jail Sentence”. The second is called “Only Criminals Have Respect For Lenient Judges”. Guess what slant the Telegraph was going for.

For those of you who can’t guess from the titles, Ministry of Justice statistics have revealed that pretty much no-one has received any of the maximum jail sentences available for certain crimes. Whilst I have no idea where the idea of maximum jail sentences came from (perhaps someone can enlighten me, I know the Labour government introduced a lot of minimum sentences for certain crimes), it is apparently shocking, wrong, and shows how we’re weak on crime – and in particular, how bad our judicial system is for having such liberal and lenient judges on the bench.

I want to tackle these articles in several ways.

Firstly, I would like all to be reminded of the value of judicial independence. Believe it or not, we actually quite want an independent judiciary. That means we have judges that are not influenced or controlled by the government, or the media for that matter. Both Dixon and Davies in the first article imply heavily (without saying it), that the government should pretty much force the judges to give out harsher sentences; I would say that giving the government any sort of power over the judges is another step into the creation of an authoritarian government, which would be bad for all sorts of reasons (lack of proper governmental scrutiny, loss of checks and balances, positive virtues of the separation of powers). But worse of all is the Telegraph View, that “…ultimately, it is the people, not the judges, who are sovereign”. Ok, so I guess that means if the “people” wanted to go lynch a man who they thought might have committed a crime, but had no evidence for it, they can go do so because they’re “sovereign” and all that? Thankfully, there are judicial processes that prevent that, and sovereignty rests not in the people, but in the rights of the individual which the judiciary is sworn to protect against the over-mighty power of the majority.

Secondly, I would like to remind all that it is all very well looking at statistics, but that is not what judges do; instead, they look at things through a case by case basis in order to take in particular circumstances. Sometimes, this might mean the judges hand out excessive amounts of punishment, sometimes it might mean they hand out nothing more than a slap of the wrist. What is guaranteed (mostly) is that the judge will base you on your circumstances, not some quota put into law forcing you to serve a disproportionate amount of time. The alternative that the Telegraph et al seem to suggest is having some sort of quota ensuring a certain number of people receive the far end of the scale; maybe the worst 10% of criminals get the worst punishment possible every year? A very fine idea, unless you’re unlucky enough to be caught doing a minor theft towards the end of the year, whose punishment should be community service, but end up doing the 10 years reserved for drug dealers and repeat offending robbers. Besides, quotas for the number of people being caught and sentenced for certain crimes? As much as I hate to make the Association Fallacy, the parallels with Stalin in the 1930s are almost too good not to mention.

Thirdly, there is a horrible assumption here that prison works, which I thought in this day and age was gone alongside the belief that the Sun goes around the Earth. For some reason, the quote that “Prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse” comes to mind. There aren’t many Conservative politicians I like, but I respect Douglas Hurd for saying that, because he was so very right. Whilst prison serves a primary purpose of quarantine, that is, keeping people away from society so as not to commit more crimes i.e. for the general safety of the public, and this certainly works, the other aim of preventing re-offending by deterrence or rehabilitation clearly does not. And then we can ask the question, “Would society be safer by locking all the bad people up, or by getting the bad people to stop being bad before they get worse?”. If the former, feel free to build about a million more prison places (I hear Australia still has a few places). If the latter, maybe its time for newspapers like the Telegraph to stop making the simplistic assumption that prison is the best solution, and start thinking about giving a properly thought-out article that looks at several interpretations of the same data. Leave the shamelessly opinionated pieces to bloggers like us.

Simple Shuffling Suggestions

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs, Judicial Spotlight on August 28, 2010 at 4:11 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Frankly, Labour left many things in a mess. Some of these, like the country’s finances, are of the first importance. Some, like the regulations concerning listed buildings, are at worst a minor irritant. Others are of themselves unimportant, but may the fact that they are broken may lead to problems and waste down the line. Prominent among this last category, to my mind, is the organisation of some government departments. These administrative divisions can be quite technical, but if they are done well, they save a lot of effort and paperwork. Done poorly, they can lead to a perpetual increase in the amount of paperwork and confused policy, and ultimately, ineffective government.

As any reader of Private Eye will know, the most ridiculous of these administrative hiccups are the UK’s two audit agencies. The National Audit Office (NAO) reports to the Chancellor (at HMT), and audits national things, like defence. The Audit Commission (AC) reports to the Communities and Local Government Minister (at DeCLoG), and audits local things, like Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) and Local Education Authorities (LEAs). Both employ directors with high salaries and high expenses, and a significant number of auditors, who criss-cross the country auditing things to make sure our money isn’t wasted. A genuine waste-saving measure would be to merge all the auditing responsibilities together into one organisation (perhaps called the NAOC, to preserve all the initials), and have it report either to the Chancellor, or the Deputy Prime Minister (at a re-established ODPM). This would save several executive salaries, as well as much travelling on the part of auditors; if the new body wanted to audit the accounts of a Scottish LEA and a Scottish submarine base, they could send one auditor up for three days work (one for travel, one for each task) rather than two auditors up for two days work each. This may mean redundancies, especially at the executive level, but the purpose of auditing is to ensure that money is efficiently spent, and at the moment, UK auditing confutes itself.

On the off-chance someone unfamiliar with UK government wanders in on this article, yes, it really is the case that our beancounters exist in two separate organisations, and yes, we do use this many acronyms. This is why government could do with a bit of reform, in my opinion.

Another easy sliding could be to dismantle the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), which was essentially the bits of government Jack Straw liked, and give the constitutional bits to ODPM, the Prisons bit back to the Home Office, and the judicial functions to the Attorney General’s Office. This has the happy effect of lumping all constitutional reform responsibilities under ODPM, all the things to do with policing under the Home Office, and all the things to do with legal work – civil, criminal, jurisprudential – under the Attorney General. It also stops the unfortunate situation where the minister for ensuring justice is impartially served is responsible for ensuring the prisons don’t overflow; an obvious conflict of interest to my mind, as it may mean that the minister begins to oppose deserved prison sentences. This reform removes a whole ministry, and while it would not mean many cuts in the civil service, as much of what the MoJ does is important, it will at least save a cabinet minister, and a few buildings here and there.

Another cumbersome ministry is the Department for Women and Equality (DfWE). Most of the work it does is largely unimportant; it was created more to inflate Harriet Harman’s ego than sort out equality. As evidence for this assertion, the Minister for Disability – disabled people being one of the most disempowered and unequal groups in society – reports to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) as opposed to DfWE. There is no Minister with responsibility for racial equality, the nearest thing being the Minister for Immigration, who reports to the Home Office. DfWE does discharge some important legal functions as regards equal rights protection, but these can easily be assumed, again by the Attorney General’s Office. We can now abolish another ministry, another cabinet post – although we should now promote the Attorney General to a permanent cabinet post, something that should probably be done anyway – and smile blithely as we have not reduced the functionality of government in any way, but have saved a fair bit of money and paper, and (huzzah!) there are now fewer ministries to consult when someone has an idea, streamlining the decision-making process before putting a policy before the house. And the Deputy Prime Minister actually has something to do now other than look pretty, make foolish statements in the Commons, and agonise over his favourite type of biscuit.

As one can plainly see, these changes will be an administrative headache for only a short while. They do not destroy any function of government, making the process more logical and clear. It’s tidying up round the edges, it’s not urgent, but it’s comparatively easy to do; Labour had a fair number of shuffles of this nature. It gets rid of a couple of the ministries that were cherry-picked by certain members of the previous government. Undoubtedly, more interesting, drastic and more effective reform could be achieved. But this is actually an almost painless cut that actually improves the running of government. Perhaps simple housekeeping is not merely the preserve of simple housewives.