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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.

Constitutional Reform, Labour’s “record”, and “direction”

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs on August 6, 2010 at 7:25 pm

David Weber

There’s a surplus of inverted commas in today’s title, but not entirely without reason. I feel compelled to write a response to what is otherwise a very entertaining leader on Lib Dem Voice.  The issue is some ill-chosen words describing Labour’s record on Constitutional Reform.

I’m inclined to be sympathetic of damning indictments of the previous Labour government’s record — certainly it’s last two terms — on certain issues, which I won’t distract myself with here. But generally the one thing I felt Labour to be almost continually strong on was its approach to Constitutional reform. After all, any subject that Tony Blair describes as “boring” is bound to flourish far better outside of his interest.

It is possibly for this reason that Constitutional Reform stands as a refreshing contrast to public service reform, which seemed more than a little confused — enough so to have led to a policy, academies, being altenately lauded and derided simply based on which schools it was being applied to. So much for stability.

But it appears from the reading of Nick Lane’s article that this is precisely his problem with Constitutional Reform. He terms it “directionless”, and “minor”. I suspect that a Lawyer specialising in human rights cases might disagree. As would anyone living in Scotland and Wales, and I suspect virtually every other academic studying the constitution.

The last 13 years, in fact, have been a period of unprecedented constitutional change, with implications resounding so deep that it threatened to be politically unsustainable. Just witness the attitude of the Conservative party, who even up till May this year favoured watering down the Human Rights Act, a document far more modest than most constitutional protections of rights.

But perhaps this is a case which is unique to Britain. Perhaps by international standards, this is still far too weak. But even when I think of this argument, I believe I see an easy, and chilling counter-argument. It merely requires a cursory look at some of the less careful, and as a result far more damaging legislation of the last decade and so.

In fact, I will look at merely one example. What would constitutional reform look like if it were not considered “boring”, and if change was considered directionless if it did not take a leap into the dark? Very likely there would be far more legislation like the 2003 Criminal Justice Act, which allowed for the denial of jury trial for the first time in hundreds of years. This is an example of careless reform which has so much direction it drives a fundamentally important part of the constitution straight off of a cliff.

Simply put, arguing for politicians to be less careful and more radical assumes that they have both the principles and the understanding to make a good job of it. I am far from convinced that this is the case. In looking for consensus, Labour may have occasionally erred on the side of caution. But just imagine how much worse things would have been if it had erred on the other side.

One final point. Nick claims that Labour could “easily” have won a referendum on PR. What leads him to draw this conclusion? You cannot merely point to Labour’s long-lasting stay in government. This stay, at least up until 2003, was based on shrewd assessment of the mood of the electorate, and careful avoidance of unnecessary controversy. Had Labour behaved differently it might have had a very different recent history. The easiest thing to do is to look for modern comparisons, such as Australia and the USA, where governments have swept into power on a wave of popularity but enjoyed less sustained success. In politics, without consensus there is little evidence of anything being an easy victory.

So now our new masters have managed the *impossible*. Now it is time for them to *manage* the impossible.

In Constitutional Spotlight, Events, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight on May 15, 2010 at 4:06 pm

David Weber

…Not the most pithy of titles, perhaps, but it sums up my feelings. I never did seriously believe that the outcome of the election would be a coalition between the Liberals and the Conservatives, although I did view it as a far more likely scenario than a coalition between the Liberals and Labour. I grin did momentarily play on my face today, though, as I remembered the incredulous reaction I suffered when, two years ago, at the height of the ten pence tax row, I declared that a Liberal-Conservative coalition was now a more realistic probability than a Liberal-Labour one. Not once did I seriously believe it, though.

The fact that it has become a reality can be mainly attributed to something I never expected; Cameron’s commitment to finding a majority. My expectation was that Cameron, in line with the tone of the Conservative campaign, would be bold and attempt to go it alone, winning votes on a case-by-case basis as the SNP in Scotland have done, perhaps with a supply and confidence deal with the Lib Dems. The Tory campaign seemed to back this assumption up; to the end combative and as sure of the Liberals’ wrongness as it was its own rightness, it made ideas of a coalition seem far away.

In retrospect, a large part of this was perhaps due to fright at the Lib Dems’ performance at the leaders’ debates, and worries that an election in which they came second might lead to a Labour-Liberal majority, or even a Labour plurality. But the attitude of the Conservatives in opposition was troublesome for considered, collective decision-making even before this; the party has behaved infamously in the practice of making up policy “on the hop”. Though the Lib Dems are not innocent of this, it at least tended to provoke reactions from their grassroots, whereas idiotic commitments from the Conservatives such as cutting the number of MPs and a 4 year mandatory sentence for knife criminals went largely unnoticed or uncared about. Only the imposition of female candidates sparked anger from the grassroots, which speaks of perhaps skewed priorities.

So the commitment with which Cameron pushed for this coalition speaks volumes to his credit, particularly after a 4 year opposition strategy undermined his reputation with those like me who feel policy and government should be matters of caution as well as boldness. The Conservatives’ continual press releases with instant policy recommendation, as impotent as they were frequent, was a matter of serious irritation to me, as was the Osborne “pulling a tax rabbit out of the hat” act at Conservative party conferences, even if I realised that this was more politically necessary. Cameron’s first bold act of government, using the coalition as an excuse to ditch many, if not most of the politically expedient but unwise policies out of his manifesto, is a work of political genius, far more meaningful and improving than Tony Blair’s “clause four moment” ever was.

The second person to congratulate is Clegg. Equidistance has paid off volumes, as the approach now allows him to sell a Con-Lib deal as legitimate to his party and indeed his voters, where it would have seemed unthinkable a few years ago. The Liberal Democrats are no longer seen as an alternative left fringe party, but as a very serious party of political reality. Clegg has also played the hung parliament well, managing to secure a truly joint policy agreement, even if he did edge dangerously close to the line of using Brown’s predicament unkindly towards the end. Still, he can hardly be blamed for attempting to maximise his party’s advantage in negotiations.

The joint policy deal, which I have skimmed, effectively removes the least important and most unwise parts of each party’s manifestos. Gone is the IHT cut, in return for the mansion tax plan biting the dust. The Liberal Democrat’s income tax proposals are being gradually implemented, presumably in return for their agreement not to kick up a stink over a married tax allowance. An immigration cap will be adopted, an acceptable (and likely self-defeating) price to pay for the ending of the shocking detention of children for immigration purposes.

This is real progressive politics. Not the constant glancing over the shoulder at the tabloids when even the smallest redistributive measure is considered, but the hard-nosed negotiation for full-blooded reforms in specific areas. And the beauty of coalition is that, in the next election, both side can spread the blame around and allocate each others a more generous share in the credit than they really deserve. Risk is pooled.

Of course, it could always go badly wrong. And this is where my header comes in. In coming to this agreement, strong though it is initially, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories have only managed to do what was thought impossible. But now they have to manage, continually, to do the even harder business of hammering out the details in government. The process of continual negotiation, as it were, will be difficult, despite the comprehensive policy agreement. The latter is, in effect, political theory, whereas the former is political reality. And will prove far more difficult.

As such, their early efforts to make this coalition stable should be applauded, not sneered at. And the now controversial idea of a 55% threshold for dissolution should be counted as such. Contrary to what some people believe, it is not to protect the Liberal Democrats from the Tories! The Tories could not muster dissolution alone – they have 47% of the seats, and would need backing from Labour, Nationalist or Liberal Democrat MPs. The whole point is to protect the Tories from the Liberal Democrats, who with only a 50%+1 threshold for dissolution could easily break away and form a pact with the opposition at a time which looked politically expedient. Though they might be punished at the ballot box for doing such a thing, this is no guarantee.

What protects the Liberal Democrats is the historic transfer of the dissolution power, in the first place, away from the Prime Minister. And this is very important. It is a far bigger transfer of power back to Parliament than the super-threshold is a constraint of its powers. And as the architects of this policy point out, dissolution is not the same as confidence. The House of Commons could theoretically vote for a change of government mid-term, but not dissolution.

There is one danger in the legislation – that the House of Commons would be able to do the unthinkable, IE force a Prime Ministerial resignation but to refuse to put forward an alternative candidate. In this case, there could theoretically – very theoretically – be the risk of a government shutdown, similar to that of Bill Clinton’s administration in 1995. This must be avoided, and could easily be done so by the insertion of a safety clause to provide for emergency elections in the event of such a situation developing. The emergency elections could only hold valid for the remainder of the previous parliamentary term, thus creating an incentive against any party seeking to engineer one.

The only issue with 55% is that it is too low. It means that the Coalition as a whole can effectively vote for an early election if it believes it will do well. In reality, to have proper fixed-term parliaments, the threshold needs to be higher, as it is in the Scottish Parliament. So far from this being undemocratic, it actually safeguards the right of the House of Parliament to be superior to government – the representative body standing tall over the practical, but unrepresentative one.

Of Primary Concern

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, The Media on October 21, 2009 at 8:45 pm

David Weber

I have blogged on Primaries before, when it was hot on the political Radar following the Tories’ publicity scoop in Totnes, and thought then it was a very difficult issue that, unfortunately, did not avail itself to the normal simple practical level of analysis many policy questions do, but could have momentous future implications. In this respect it is a similar question to most constitutional reform ones, but unlike the electoral reform debate, a lack of such a wide variety of fields of comparison and popularity of debate mean that information is far less available and misinformation far more common.

Such as, for example, the application of the words themselves. The Tories have claimed to have been pioneering primaries around the country. However, though their recent initiative in Totnes did prove that they are at least capable of pulling off something akin to a real primary, most of the numerous events they have labelled as primaries have not actually been anything of a sort. A better term would probably be “Open caucus”.

I may be being a little cynical, but it strikes me that if you advertise something to Conservative party members, then those who turn up with registered places will be conservative party members.

To those who might feel this to be an unfairly semantic distinction, consider what the ‘it’ constitutes. A caucus is an informal meeting, in this case open to anyone who wishes to go and contribute. But meetings in conventional buildings have a limited size, far below the capacity needed to stage a primary for all constituency members. When contrasted with a primary vote conducted by post, the distinction is even greater: for there is not even any travelling distance needed to exercise one’s popular choice. Open caucuses are essentially a lottery as to who gets to vote and who doesn’t.

This aside, consider something further: these open meetings were publicised and advertised on the local Conservative website in advance. Now, I may be being a little cynical, but it strikes me that if you advertise something the most to Conservative party members, and make it possible to reserve tickets in advance, then the vast majority of those who turn up with registered places will be conservative party members. Thus even the description of lottery is too generous — what it really is is an open conservative party selection meeting, to which keen-eyed political independents might secure a place if they’re on the ball.

Now, this sounds like enough of a deconstruction of what looked like a series of noble endeavours by the Conservative party, but there is more. Firstly, even the open primary had a narrowed-down selection of constituency candidates — meaning there had been prior selection by the inner party. This would be anathema to, say, the US system, where the system is open to anyone who wishes to stand as a party candidate (and has the funds to do so, more on that later). Secondly, and also anathema to the US system, only registered party members could stand freely for selection (and quite possibly there were other requirements as well, I am not familiar enough with the internal Conservative party politics to comment, however). This contrasts to the United States, where a formal party organisation structure does not even exist — parties are truly open (to those who have the resources to compete within them, naturally).

But still, maybe, you could argue, there is something genuinely progressive about the idea itself, however flawed the application. And many would argue this to be the case, that primaries genuinely are a positive step in electoral reform.

The fact that primaries open up choice to the electorate is beyond doubt. Even closed primaries require fairly little effort to register for, and are not in fact a complete safe-guard against “opposition voters” attempting to swing the primary, if I remember my A level politics correctly. Open primaries make the debate far less formal and far more open to the vaguaries of the electorate. Party ‘leaders’ have to truly persuade, rather than simply lead; in order to get the type of election desired on the local level, they have to inspire their supporters to come out in enough force as to render any opposition movement redundant. As the political scene in the US indicates, they transform the nature of politics into something quite dramatically alien to a tightly-run system of party selection, as operates in the UK and most European countries.

The difference to PR, which is where most electoral reformers start to back away from the bandwagon, is that primaries have enormous potential to cement the two-party system even further.

It would also be fair to suggest that they weaken the party system, albeit in a rather different way to most electoral reformers seem to be in favour of. The party system becomes far more democratic and far more open to a diverse array of candidates geographically — the US is also an example of this. In a true primary system, where party registration is unnecessary to stand for selection or to vote for it, parties become “broadchurch” entities, where voters can shape them rather than simply elect them, and can secure a minority platform even within a majority party. Though this is technically possible in all systems, it is more of a rarity in British and continental politics.

Of course, the difference to PR, which is where most electoral reformers start to back away from the bandwagon, is that primaries have enormous potential to cement the two-party system even further, despite weakening internal party systems. The reasons for this are multiple.

One of them we have already seen — as they open up the party system to a demonstrable extent, many people would not see the point of third parties anymore. If a party is broadchurch and malleable enough to a minority force, then it often becomes a far more efficient way of entering the political system than the headache of setting up a third party, risking splitting the vote, and fighting an uphill media battle. The electoral glass ceiling is impenetrable enough within first past the post systems such as Britain’s, but the addition of primaries might well institutionalise the two-party system for good — particularly if they are legislated for the two largest parties.

For there could be serious practical objections to any attempt to legislatively extend primaries beyond the main two parties. The first is simply financial. Primaries cost a serious amount of money, and if parties cannot pay for this themselves, then the only alternative is what would amount to de facto funding of the political party process, something I imagine the Conservatives might strongly back away from.

Even if one could ensure that all political parties received independently run primary elections for their selection procedures, the electorate would find themselves inundated with elections. This would raise multiple concerns about media reporting of the primary process too, for if party selection processes are being interfered with to ensure fairness and transparency, the call will immediately be made to do the same for the media’s reporting of it.

Then there is the question of how small parties would cope with a lack of demand for primaries in the first place. For ever constituency contested, there would have to be a minimum of two willing to stand for candidacy. Attempting to create primary elections in every constituency to compete with mainstream parties could squeeze the number of constituency elections small parties are capable of fighting, and thus damn them either for not having sufficient candidates to satisfy primaries, or not being able to contest the optimum number of constituencies.

Rob Brown commented in a recent post on the usefulness of Primaries in terms of furthering electoral reform, however, and it is this which I find most interesting, and wish to consider. Could it be that, despite the practical limitations on the scope for legislating for primaries, they satisfy both the criteria of improving the electoral system, and boosting interest in further, more comprehensive electoral reform?

As we have seen, despite practical considerations, the germ of an idea in theory looks to be a hugely beneficial, corrective of a democratic deficit that exists in safe constituencies, open to greater voter choice and, critically, participation. I clearly agree with Rob of the need to treat the idea of primaries seriously, and that the recent attempts to suggest them have been lacking and, possibly, cynical.

I also consider his argument, that primaries could be a way of cementing interest in electoral reform, to be a compelling one. It is certainly true that it cannot be stated with confidence that introducing primaries would “kill off” the idea of electoral reform, as it would move it high up on the radar, and be certain to stimulate debate, of a quite new kind in British politics, which would be impossible to call. I perhaps think that it is a risk, and that a Conservative government in power could be looking seriously at the prospect of arguing primaries as a way of influencing the electoral reform debate in favour of its own interests, as I have blogged before.

One thing that I perhaps feel very strongly that those on the left (which I make the assumption, perhaps erroneously, that the author of the previous article might broadly include himself with) should feel very cautious about the long-term implications of primaries, in terms of the basis of electoral politics. Now, the left in general, and I am probably stereotyping quite dangerously here, have tended to stress the important of social equality of access and opportunity, particularly recently, with the movement of politics away from the post-war consensus into more liberal territory over the last few decades. Not just social mobility, but an equal start for all groups in society to attain the same opportunities, has been an important theme. The levelling of a playing field that might be tilted at birth, if not culturally loaded against certain social groups.

This explains why argument for electoral reform has tended to be greater among those on the left than those on the right until recently, for the basis of our electoral system is already individualist in structure (with constituencies being directly, individually represented in theory, with no institutional mechanism of party driving the process). Granted, there is a lot more to the debate than this — the system also invariably results in governments to whom the idea of electoral reform is politically undesirable, and the predominance of conservative governments in the latter half of the 20th century doubtlessly also has something to do with the predominance of the debate among the left.

But it is equally undeniable that the broad structure of the debate has tended to be a contrasting of PR against the current system, despite the fact that there are many more nuances to it which often go ignored. Hence the confusion of the media as to exactly what the Alternative Vote is, with Simon Heffer pronouncing it to be a grand plan of Gordon Brown to stay in power through PR, a nonsensical argument. And most systems of PR, and even other alternative systems such as STV, fundamentally change the individualist dynamic of the electoral system, either subjecting it to collective correction in the form of a party mechanism (PR systems), or securing far more moderate outcomes within which collectives can play a more dynamic role (STV).

Both of these corrections enable one crucial thing: they greatly increase the ability of collectives (parties) to ensure greater social access for under-represented social groups. They greatly increase the scope for corrective representation, though naturally they do not guarantee it, for I am sure that certain parties, such as the BNP, would not be interested in furthering this goal. But even there, one could argue that a PR or Moderate Representation system would correct the nature of political representation through the BNP, as one could argue that fascists and racists are under-represented in our national parliament. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is an argument one rarely hears from advocates of PR.

So it is understandable, and in fact natural, that those broadly on the left should favour electoral reform in the direction of PR or similar alternatives, for it has enormous potential to ensure greater social access and equality of opportunity through the political system. The effect of primaries, however, could be in the opposite direction; for primaries open a huge can of worms when it comes to social opportunity and the electoral system.

Firstly, primaries greatly lengthen the election process, immediately adding a burden that will fall disproportionately onto candidates who come from the most disadvantaged circumstances. Though one could argue that this might potentially increase the willingness of parties to direct resources at securing representation of these sort of candidates, this strikes me as grasping at straws, and having far too much faith in the nature of parties, particularly if they were opened up American-style.

Secondly, primaries are problematic from the campaign finance perspective. If you impose strident caps upon individual candidacies, then it is difficult for the primary to be a meaningful one, as candidates will struggle to make themselves heard. In this case, it is quite possible that candidates from disadvantaged circumstances will still disproportionately suffer, as in an election of style and not substance, they could quite forseeably find it hardest on average to appeal to a broad base. Indeed, one could make the case that such candidates would need to spend considerably more than more conventional candidates to receive the same chances, meaning a simple cap upon campaign spending would not be sufficient to level the playing field.

Of course, allow candidates to spend freely in an effort to make the primary process more meaningful and debate-driven, and you have all of the strings that come attached with high-spending primary campaigns, last year’s US presidential primaries being a good example, with Barak Obama backtracking from a campaign promise concerning campaign spending. Another alternative could be complete party funding of primary candidacies, which is problematic from two angles: it would deliver parties an inordinate amount of leverage over the supposedly independent campaigns of the candidates, and it would be unfeasible to think of legislating to such an intrusive degree — and it is incredibly unlikely that all parties would take up such an approach.

And even if neither of these drawbacks existed, there would still be the problem that, in a US open-party style system of primary selection, the process would become far more mainstream and parties would have fewer resources to use the selection process to correct social deficiencies of representation, meaning that the electoral process would become more closed off to candidates from disadvantaged circumstances, and thus disadvantaged social groups would be fighting an even more uphill battle to secure political representation. Thus the problems with primaries appear not only practical but also ideological, and could conceivably have long-term consequences for representation, opportunity and collective opportunities within the electoral system.

Introducing Primaries will not Halt Electoral Reform

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs on October 12, 2009 at 5:45 pm

By Rob Brown 

First I should say that I believe in democracy and hence I believe in shifting as much power as possible to the electorate; for me this means that electoral reform, primaries and a whole host of other reforms. The reason I address this is because a post by Julian Ware-Lane (who I tend to agree with on constitutional issues) suggests that the introduction of primaries will hold back the introduction of electoral reform.

Julian’s post is focussed on whether primaries are a good thing. That is not the aim of this post, but I must quickly say that the selective way in which primaries have operated in the last few months has been a disgrace; they should be considered and implemented in a way in which they engage everyone; not in a way designed to gain publicity for the resulting candidate.

There is an argument that some change can appease reformers and let constitutional conservatives regain a foothold. For example with the House of Lords, we were told that the original reforms were only the beginning, that soon we would be rid of all the hereditaries and see real movement on the idea of an elected Upper Chamber; no further changes have occurred and a dismally undemocratic House of Lords has become more active with a renewed mandate.  Essentially the argument states that a little change is worse than no change, that to reform we must go the whole hog at once.

I do not think the example or indeed the argument is relevant to this debate because electoral reform and primaries are independent changes, to change primaries would have no necessary bearing on electoral reform. In fact we now have an appetite for constitutional and institutional change among the electorate, this could ensure that once we see primaries run properly, momentum may be built up and the electorate could call for more change.

“We now have an appetite for constitutional and institutional change”

 Another argument, and one Julian makes in the comment section, is that there is no point establishing a system of primaries, if we are to move to a different system, with a different method of selection. There is an element of truth to this, if we were to turn to a system that had multi member constituencies, primaries would become unfeasible, and reduce the role of parties in elections too much. 

However I had my first lecture on political science recently, a point was made by the lecturer that I thought was particularly insightful. He suggested that a judgement in political science is only useful if it has a possibility of actually impacting change (or the lack of it). I would take this logic to a practical level and say that there is no point in suspending primaries in the expectation of the systems that make them untenable when those systems are not going to be adopted in Britain. The only way we will see electoral reform is if Labour win the next general election, which looks unlikely. If they win, then act on their policy and it does not get stopped by the various institutions (three major provisos) then we will likely see one of the following: AV, AV+ or possibly AMS all of which would, in my view, benefit from primaries. The likelihood of getting STV or something similar is tiny and hence makes the point about the irrelevance of primaries irrelevant.

I think primaries will let the public see that constitutional change does not have to be dangerous, since a referendum has been promised on electoral reform this is a particularly important factor. Primaries will enhance the idea of change, enhance the idea of choice and most importantly put power on the hands of the public. Primaries will only work if they become votes on policy and trust not votes based on name recognition or inflated campaign funds. They must be implemented for all constituencies, the major parties for that constituency should all organise them, although that could not be legislated for. Julian mentions cost, an argument I have little time for because the cost of not having primaries is safe seats for life; democracy is worth a bit of money.

“Democracy is worth a bit of money”

In conclusion I think it is clear that the introduction of primaries will not hamper the progress of other reforms, including a change to the voting system. I also don’t treat a change in the voting system as a sort of Holy Grail like many other reformers, it is no more important than the many other democratic changes we need. I want a combination of reforms; rather than aim for a fairer voting system, I would aim for greater devolution. Not just geographical devolution, but devolution of all power to the lowest sensible level. Primaries are integral to the choice the electorate want at election times, while the voting system needs changing, it must not prevent us from moving forward with democracy in other, more obtainable, ways.