Tag Archives: electoral-reform

Polly Toynbee: you can stick your clothespeg

Think this election is different? Think the polls are showing this election has become a three way race and that the Lib Dems are insurgent? Allow Polly Toynbee to disabuse you.

For Polly, we are in a political Groundhog Day. 2010 is the new 2005. You remember 2005, don’t you? While Labour’s illegal Iraq invasion was at its height and its love affair with big business was at its most passionate, Polly Toynbee was telling everyone who would listen to stick clothespegs on their noses and vote Labour regardless. It would appear that Toynbee’s brief dalliance with David Owen in the Eighties has had the effect that, as a true prodigal daughter, she will always find a reason to back the Labour Party even though she can find precious little to agree with them on. Her argument is not so much “my party right or wrong” as “my party, wrong, wrong, wrong.”

The 2010 version of the clothespeg campaign appears to have taken this a step further. No longer interested in even attempting to defend Labour, the crux of her argument is rooted purely on the basis that 1) they aren’t the Tories and 2) voting Lib Dem is a wasted vote, all the time, always, regardless of what the polls say.

Here are four reasons why she is hopelessly, utterly wrong:

Firstly, there is plenty of evidence out there to suggest that Lib Dem support still has not peaked in this election and might still get us into the 38-40% level of support needed to not only be the largest party but to form a majority. The Sun commissioned a poll by YouGov which showed that 49% of the public say they would vote Lib Dem if they thought we had a chance of winning outright, a finding which clearly terrified them and they promptly attempted to bury. Will that happen? I have to admit it is unlikely, but it does suggest there is all to play for. Toynbee quote Ben Page who promises to “run naked through the streets” if Nick Clegg were to win. Of course, what she doesn’t mention is that Page said this on 16 April when pollsters were just waking up to the Lib Dem surge in the polls. I have no doubt whatsoever that if Page had held his tongue for just 24 hours, he wouldn’t have made anything like such a confident prediction.

The polls over the last couple of days have the Conservatives creeping ahead and the Lib Dems being stuck at around the 29-30% mark. Could this mean the Lib Dems have peaked? Possibly (which would still make them the second party in terms of vote share; Labour are resolutely in third place now), possibly not. What we do know is that the BBC’s leaders’ debate this coming Thursday will be watched by a lot more people than the Sky News one and will thus be harder to spin by the rightwing press. We are also now much more alert to “happy accidents” such as pollsters starting their survey before Clegg has finished his closing speech. And we know that there is plenty of time for the Lib Dems to accrue more heavyweight support and momentum. I’m not predicting anything, merely pointing out the futility of writing the party off at this stage.

Secondly, Polly is simply wrong to assert that if the Tories win the plurality in terms of both seats and votes, they will have “won” the election. They would certainly have won the right to try and form a government, as Nick Clegg has said, but that is where our obligation to them ends. If the Lib Dems come second, then the party the Tories will have to persuade to help them out will be the third party, Labour. Don’t see it happening? Well, I wouldn’t run down the streets naked if it did, after all Blue-Red alliances are not exactly unheard of, but I would certainly consider it unlikely. And even a Tory minority government is not exactly a stunning victory, hamstrung as it would be by a combined Lib Dem-Labour majority.

Thirdly, as I argued on Comment is Free last weekend, a strong Lib Dem vote in this election is the best possible result if you want meaningful political reform. At this stage one has to question Polly’s motivations. Is she really the stalwart electoral reformer she claims to be? She brands Labour’s commitment for a referendum on AV as “pathetic” yet for the past five years been a part of that happy band of Labourites who have been working behind and in front of the scenes to make the mood music for AV as a stepping stone towards full STV compelling. So why complain now? And if it isn’t good enough, why support them now?

Back to my substantive point though, the best two arguments for PR are that a) FPTP produces undemocratic outcomes and b) FPTP doesn’t even produce the “strong” government (which is another way of saying weak parliament) its supporters insist is the only sensible way of carrying on. I can cite you examples worldwide why both are the case (FPTP using Canada has been stuck with a balanced parliament for six years and three consecutive elections now) but what will really motivate the British public is seeing how broken the system really is upfront. If Toynbee is interested in taking the case reform beyond the dinner table, then she should be urging people to vote Lib Dem in their droves right now.

All this will be undermined if people fall meekly in line by voting tactically. Not only does that exhaust the movement for reform of its momentum by boring people to death with psephological arguments about making the most of their vote in their constituency, it means that the Lib Dem vote share will inevitably go down and thus rob us of our strongest symbolic argument for reform. It isn’t just Toynbee making this mistake; Vote for a Change is ignoring the way the polls have shifted and adopting the tactic of trying to bore for electoral reform as well; these people badly need to get with the programme.

Thirdly, and most contentiously, I would argue that Clegg may yet emerge as the consensus choice for Prime Minister if the Lib Dems come first or second in terms of vote share, regardless of the number of MPs they get.

It isn’t that I think this is a shoo-in; it is just that I think that the three other options being talked about are highly problematic. A Cameron premiership would be dependent on Lib Dem or Labour support and an insurgent Clegg is unlikely to go along with that. If Labour come third in terms of vote share then it is surely game over for Brown; even he, surely, isn’t deluded enough to think he can hang on? But the “David Miliband” option isn’t exactly problem free either. There would still be the little matter of Labour losing the election, it would lead to the second consecutive Prime Minister with no personal mandate (after the first one had been rejected) and it would be problematic for Labour itself which is badly in need of a period of reflection and an open leadership election.

In comparison, Prime Minister Clegg doesn’t sound like too bad an option. It would be a vindication of the popular vote, it would allow Labour to go off and select a leader of their own and it has a certain constitutional neatness to it, with the Prime Minister of the day having to negotiate with parliament rather than take it for granted. It wouldn’t be an easy option by any stretch of the imagination – Clegg would be in for one hell of a rough ride. It might have to be part of a two- or three-way coalition and it would almost certainly not last longer than a couple of years, but two years of consensus politics guiding us out of the economic downturn and introducing a series of necessary political reforms (including a referendum on whether to replace the voting system with a proportional system) sounds quite enticing to me.

If there is a clearer and more productive way forward than that in the case of a hung parliament, I haven’t heard of it. So let’s stop all this talk about tactical voting and the risks of getting both Brown and Cameron if you vote Lib Dem. The only thing we know for sure in this election is that a vote for the Liberal Democrats will get you Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, more Lib Dem MPs and a stronger Lib Dem mandate for change. Everything else is just noise.

Finally, a short coda in response to David Miliband’s claim that the Lib Dems are anti-politics. If by “politics” he means establishment, then he is in fact correct. But the sort of system the Lib Dems are standing for in this election is a noisy, argumentative one in which ideas and policies are contested. Politics in other words. The one party rule that Miliband et al stand for is the very definition of anti-politics, where MPs are leant on to do what they’re told, where governments rely on huge majorities to force everything they want through, where oppositions can oppose without ever having to accept responsibility and where people like Messrs Miliband and Cameron merely have to wait in the wings until their inevitable rise as heirs apparent. If Miliband wants to defend the status quo, let him, but don’t let him get away with claiming it is “politics”.

Electoral reform and Parliament

At some point I need to write a comprehensive blog post about where I stand on AV. Today it not the time. But what I will say in response to last night’s vote in Parliament is that I find it appalling that MPs can be so complacent about how we actually count our votes whilst obsessive and dictatorial about as ephemeral an issue as when the votes are actually counted. It isn’t that I don’t think there is any merit in counting the ballot as quickly as possible – the more ballot boxes left overnight the more chance of ballot stuffing after all. But it just isn’t an issue worth getting exercised about.

In fairness to MPs, the blogosphere seems just as obsessed. Truly we are in the End Times.

STV is beautiful

uk09stv_smallDenis Mollison has an article on Next Left about how STV would work in practice. He also shows off a map of how the UK could be divided up into multi-member constituencies.

I really like what Mollison has done here. He hasn’t simply drawn lines on the map but created constituencies based on local authority boundaries. Ironically this would mean that people would identify with parliamentary constituencies more than the largely artificial ones we currently use (if the Tories get their way and replace the current system for drawing boundaries with a more technocratic one based on number of voters, this problem will get even worse). His model would also result in 140 fewer MPs.

I’m sure there are decisions here and there that you could poke holes in; the London boundaries in particular are likely to prove controversial. But this is valuable work as it instantly changes the debate around STV from a very abstract one to one of practicalities.

And, fundamentally, it makes a pretty picture. Any chance of a hi-res version to put up on my wall?

Comment is Free: Gordon Brown and the Alternative Vote

Wondering what I think of Labour’s plans for a referendum on electoral reform? Well wonder no longer!

The alternative vote is a small but significant step forward in the ongoing campaign for a fair electoral system fit for the 21st century. On a good day. Maybe.

If Brown’s system of choice bores campaigners, what hope is there of inspiring the public?

Everything in the middle can be found here.

Open Up: any candidate you like, so long as they are gleaming white.

Another day, another TWO new big ideas for solving the deep problem inherent in our electoral system. Without, you know, actually solving the deep problem inherent in our electoral system.

First we have Geoffrey Wheatcroft who proposes annual elections. Because, you know, the Chartists did. Imagine that. Political parties in permanent election mode – even more than they are now. I guess it is one of those ideas you either think is genius or stupid and no-one is going to persuade you either way. Needless to say, I come under the latter category.

Second, we have Open Up, a new campaign to persuade ALL the parties to hold Open Primaries in ALL constituencies before the next general election. Again. Once you have gone down the route of such mental decrepitude, there is probably no helping you.

I will however point out a little fact. On their FAQ, they state the following:

Of course, it will cost money to hold Open Primaries. But what price better government?[1] From the financial crisis to the expenses scandal, it’s obvious that our system must improve. As taxpayers we pay a lot now, and we’re going to pay more. We need the best people to be the stewards for our money and our future. Against this background the extra cost of Open Primaries seems very small.[2]

On top of this consider the costs of a General Election…where we don’t have a choice in our candidates:

o The Department for Constitutional Affairs estimated the cost of administering the 2005 general election in England and Wales was approximately £71 million in public funds. (House of Commons Written Answers for 25 May 2005)
o Spending for the three main parties in 2005 was more than £40 million. (Electoral Commission, “Election 2005: Campaign Spending”). This is in addition to the £71 cited above.
* Conservative Party £17,852,245
* Labour Party £17,939,618
* Liberal Democrats £4,324,574

[1] Is there any evidence, at all, that this will lead to better government? Where is it?

[2] Since they have given us some costs to look at, let’s look at the cost of holding primaries for all 628 constituencies in Great Britain (I’m excluding Northern Ireland here for the not unreasonable reason that the three main parties do too):

Sending a second class, franked, letter costs 25p these days. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that if they are mailing the entire British population of voting age (approx 40 million) they could get a discount down to 20p. That is still £8 million – nearly double what the Lib Dems spent in the last general election (including the unlikely to be repeated dodgy donation of £2.4 million from Michael Brown).

Assuming that the voters won’t be expected to pay to vote, and also assuming a LOW turnout of 20%, that adds another £2 million to the bill.

The cheapest I can find C5 manilla envelopes on Viking Direct is £24.99 for 125. Assuming that the party can get envelopes at HALF that cost, the total envelope cost (one to send out and another to get back) will be another £8 million.

So even before we get into paper, printing and distribution costs (which are much harder to estimate) we are looking at a low estimate of £18 million, or more than either the Tories or Labour spent nationally in 2005.

Throughout the summer I’ve heard vague assertions that if all this were done at the same time, these costs could be brought down, but even if they were halved that would still mean each party shelling out £10 million that most don’t have.

I’ve heard suggestions that primaries could be held on the same day as local elections with the ballots being held at polling station, but this idea couldn’t work for Open Up’s campaign who want candidates installed before next year’s local elections (it isn’t for that matter clear how it would work otherwise since local elections all take place on different days and it would mean essentially putting candidate selection into the hands of the state – a radical measure to say the least). I’ve even heard wacky suggestions of all the primaries being held online, along with all the scary potential ballot stuffing that would imply. Presumably Open Up wouldn’t be in favour of that as former ORG Director Becky Hogge is one of their key supporters.

Either way, there is no running away from the fact that what Open Up is calling for is an exclusive club in which only the wealthiest parties are allowed to participate. Any party not able to participate will be clobbered to death for hating democracy. Cheekily, they use the existence of safe seats as a reason for justifying their campaign. The idea that safe seats themselves might be the problem isn’t even entertained. In another video, weirdly, they claim that the Spanish electoral system is corruption free. Spain uses a form of proportional representation but significantly also uses closed lists – giving the electorate very little in the way of a choice in candidates. I’m not sure this is an especially wise assertion to make two weeks after the imprisonment of Francisco Correa.

I’m not fundamentally opposed to primaries, although I do think they are a distraction which in practice will have very little effect on the nature of our politics. I certainly think that the open primaries idea being spelt out by Open Up would lead to more identikit politicians, with Labour candidates under even more pressure to be Tory-ish and Tory candidates under pressure to be Labour-ish (and of course Lib Dems to be all things to all people), but since it has no chance of happening – less of a chance, I’d argue, than Gordon Brown introducing PR before the general election – why worry?

I worry because the anti-politics rhetoric that is informing this campaign (and others) is leading people up the garden path. Instead of embracing the opportunity to shout loudly for pluralist politics and for moving beyond politics meaning little more than voting every few years, people are grasping at ideas that don’t even amount to half measures. There are people out there who seem to believe in both primaries AND pluralist politics, but they have chosen to emphasise the former because somehow they imagine it would be easier to introduce – I will certainly concede that it is easier to explain. But this fatal lack of confidence seems to be leading us towards a system of politics where you have to be richer than ever to participate in and preferably entirely self-sufficient because that way you won’t have to ever claim for any troublesome expenses.

Open Up itself is overwhelming dominated by people with a PR or media background. In short they represent a subtler, more insidious form of corruption – the kind which has told us for years that citizenship is a defunct concept in a brave new world of consumerism. And now, proudly marching around with their Che Guevara t-shirts, they are here to tell us all to be good little revolutionaries and to embrace a politics which looks remarkably like shopping. Choice of whatever brand of washing powder you choose, all of which are exactly the same. It is the ultimate grand joke.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the party leaders’ contributions to the Speakers Conference today. I’m finding it increasingly difficult to tell apart the establishment and the insurgents in this debate; they all seem to be arguing along the same lines and I don’t like any of it. Maybe I should just accept that my views are just too unfashionable to even contemplate.

You can’t be a half-iconoclast

If there’s a problem with the Unspoken Constitution its that it barely qualifies as satire. The shenanigans surrounding MPs’ expenses, Carter-Ruck’s single handed attempt to rewrite the UK constitution to favour their client Trafigura and this torrid little paper sneaked out by the Ministry of Justice today (which patiently explains why Royal Prerogative powers are, in fact, all wonderful and the only thing that stands between us and authoritarianism), all amply illustrate that Stuart Weir and co’s attempt to write the famously unwritten constitution is more a reflection of reality than an exaggeration of it. A Modest Proposal is satire. Yes, Minister and The Thick of It are satires. The Unspoken Constitution is merely frank.

I have to admit to finding this week somewhat depressing in that it is clear that a great many MPs have returned from recess determined to shut down any further discussion about reform and that, to an extent, they are succeeding. The media itself has been very helpful in this respect, detailing the process almost moment-to-moment but almost entirely lacking in analysis. Let us not forget that the people who are now complaining about the unfairness of Sir Thomas Legg applying new rules to them retrospectively are for the most part the same people who attempted to keep this little scam of theirs shrouded in secrecy – in defiance of the law – for years. All the indications are that for the most part, they still haven’t learned why that was an utterly stupid and damaging thing to do.

The media, frankly, loves the status quo because it means it can write about politics on its terms. Everything can be about story; the notion that politics is about a battle of ideas takes a back seat. There has, if truth be told, always been a tension between the two, but the latter took a distinct turn for the worse 20 years ago and has never recovered.

The paucity of vision in politics today was on display at the Vote for a Change/All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Continuation of First Past the Post debate on Tuesday. I won’t attempt to sum up the debate because there wasn’t one to speak of; as Oona King pointed out very early on, almost everyone in the room had made up their mind already so what was the point? But I was struck by the number of MPs who stood up and waxed lyrical about how they regard their main role being to represent their constituents and their constituency, above all else.

Historically, that is quite a new notion and I know it is a notion that has a lot of support within the Lib Dems. But it is a dreadful one nonetheless. MPs’ primary role is to scrutinise – both the executive and legislation. Their first duty should be to the national interest, surely?

I’m not suggesting, incidently, that a sense of place for MPs is unimportant or that local issues should play no part. My beef is with the notion that this should be the priority. What’s worse is that it is a fiction to suggest that they do. Most MPs put party loyalty above parochial concerns most of the time. Local campaigns can force them to abstain or even defy their whips, but only if a lot of pressure is created. True, MPs are generally more likely to defy the whips than at any point in the recent past, but this is still the exception rather than the norm.

Either way, the notion of the MP as an independently minded individual who cares passionately about working within the system to bring forth their vision of the good society is extremely unfashionable. This is true whether we are talking about party politics or even this current vogue for indpendents; in fact, when it comes to the Martin Bells, Richard Taylors and Jury Teams of this world, ideas appear to have gone out of the window entirely – at least political parties have manifestos still. What I found on Tuesday was that the supporters of FPTP were united in arguing for this idea of parliamentary politics.

It’s a real problem for supporters of proportional representation because it is an argument that holds real resonance amongst the public. Who wouldn’t want an MP who is committed to doing whatever you tell them to do (leaving aside the fact that there will be 70,000 other constituents with competing interests for one second)? This idea of the ultra-local politician has taken a firm grip in the popular psyche; people even imagine that it was ever thus.

The problem for electoral reformers is that thus far we have failed to take on this argument. Worse, a great many electoral reformers actually agree with it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people tell me that they are a) pro-proportional representation and b) in favour of retaining the constituency link. It is one of the main arguments that people who support the Jenkins system assert.

I don’t believe we can ever win the argument for proportional representation until reformers can agree that what we need is a radically different kind of politics. Each time someone argues for essentially the status quo with a few tweaks to neutralise the worst aspects of it, they concede almost all the ground to the other side. It becomes, essentially, a narrow and technocratic argument about systems and practicalities. The moral force behind the argument for PR is entirely lost. We might as well not bother.

Ultimately this argument applies to the reform debate more widely and brings me back to The Unspoken Constitution. Our current system has become so toxic that the time for incrementalist change is now past. We need a fundamental shift, not an attempt to meet the status quo halfway. Tim Garton Ash is correct when he says that the Lib Dems aren’t arguing for this any more and that it is a crying shame. What’s odder is that Nick Clegg’s language nine months ago – before the MPs’ expenses scandal erupted – was significantly more radical. Even Cameron comes across as more forthright on this area now, even if he is hopeless when it comes to specifics.

Maybe it doesn’t poll well, but I’m not convinced that sounding like everyone else does either. Either way, the lack of a clear iconoclastic liberal voice in this debate at the moment is lamentable.

Comment is Free: We need a harder line on voting reform

I’ve written a new piece on Comment is Free about the prospects of electoral reform. The gist:

The one thing Labour can’t afford is to have the Lib Dems on the other side of a referendum on electoral reform. With that in mind, Clegg should be hardening the Lib Dem line on electoral reform. Incremental change is simply not good enough at this time of political crisis; if Clegg doesn’t wish to become Brown’s patsy, he needs to get used to saying so. The “pragmatic” line of going along with AV or AV+ on the basis that it would be a step in the right direction, which has been received frontbench wisdom for the best part of the decade, needs to go out of the window.

Full article here.

While I’m here, can I also recommend to you Matthew Sowemimo’s latest article on Lib Dem Voice about the Lib Dem manifesto?

“Open Source Politics” in Totnes?

The Tories’ open primary experiment in Totnes intrigues me. Douglas Carswell describes it as “credible attempt to create a new system of open source politics.”

I am a bit dismissive about their experiments with “primaries” thus far (most of the Tory candidate selections which have been labeled as “primaries” have in fact been caucuses). The reason for this is that I’ve seen very little evidence that they have done anything significant to increase participation. Certainly, non-members have been able to participate, but it has generally been in the hundreds. Swapping one self-selecting group for another doesn’t amount to much. Doubling, even trebling, participation in candidate selection is almost meaningless in the face of such mass alienation from the process.

The Totnes experiment is different because all 69,000 voters in the constituency have been sent a ballot paper. At a stroke it means that the major problem inherent in the caucuses – that the people who turn up could be dominated by a single group of entryists (whether they are a political, ethnic or religious grouping) and thereby select a candidate that is less likely to find favour amongst the wider electorate – is gone at a stroke. There certainly will be Labour and Lib Dem members participating in this ballot, but the majority of people who do will belong to no political party. The winning candidate will therefore have already won a constituency-wide test. All things being equal, that will give him or her a significant advantage over the other candidates.

Could this system be used to revive political participation nationwide? I think it could, yes. If the top three parties were to do this in every constituency, the way elections are fought would change dramatically. For one thing, I suspect it could do a lot to increase ethnic diversity. As an alternative to all-BAME shortlists – widening participation instead of narrowing it – it has to be a winner. But it would also work in more subtle ways by making seats less safe.

Let’s say a really strong Lib Dem candidate were to emerge in a safe Labour stronghold. Would people, having got to know that candidate in the primaries, automatically revert to their tribal loyalties come the election itself? More than that, the candidate him or herself would be able to use the primary to build their own supporter base. We do see this sort of upset occur in the US in a way that is much less common in the UK.

There are questions that need to be answered. For one thing, to what extent should candidates be free to campaign during the primary contests? I would imagine that in the case of Totnes, this being the Tories, candidates would have a pretty free hand. But how do we prevent the system from giving the rich such a major advantage, thereby leading to a less diverse Parliament? As with UK elections, for the system to be rolled out nationwide we would surely need some kind of spending limit.

There is also a question about where all the candidates will come from. The big barrier, certainly in the Lib Dems, would be the candidate approval system. The party simply doesn’t have enough approved candidates to have a even a two-way contest in every single constituency. Should we lower the bar for candidate approval, in essence allowing any party member to stand? If so, how would we prevent non-liberals from getting selected as the Liberal Democrat candidate? Indeed, one of the main things we see in the US more than the UK is a convergence with the two main parties ending up almost indistinguishable in terms of broad political philosophy – certainly at a local level (nationally, things inevitably become more distinct, but even so the Democrats and Republicans amount to little more than two sides of the same coin). There is a danger that this will lead to vision-less, pandering politics. Politicians will be more responsive to the electorate, yes, but will be unable to actually say what they mean because they will be in the thrall of every single opinion poll.

Despite all that, I’m sure that these problems could be overcome and no doubt some will argue I have overstated them. Fundamentally, the higher the level of political participation, the less pronounced they will be (for example, if there were more people engaged, less wealthy candidates would have an easier time fundraising). However, there is one problem that I can’t see getting resolved any time soon: the cost.

I’m surprised there has been so little discussion about the cost of the Totnes primary. It must be costing the Tories around a pound per constituent to hold this contest. Even if they had managed to bring it down to 50p, that is still about £35,000 to hold just this primary. For a national party that is chickenfeed, but to roll it out nationwide would cost at least £20 million. Even the well-funded Conservatives will struggle to raise that amount of money ON TOP OF the amount they need to raise for electioneering locally and nationally (not to mention the costs of each candidate in the primaries). Where US states use open primaries they are at least part funded by the taxpayer, but the Tories would surely be ideologically oppose to such a subsidy. One thing that would be unarguable is that this form of state funding of political parties would do more to entrench political parties and make them a part of the state than almost any other version. You certainly couldn’t fund every single party to run primaries in this way so what would your cut off point be, and how would you prevent it from entrenching the established parties at the expense of everyone else?

Assuming you didn’t fund open primaries out of taxpayer money, and couldn’t afford to hold one in every single constituency, how would you choose which seats got a primary and which seats didn’t? Limit it to target seats? In which case, the whole “open” nature of the system would be undermined. It would only be open in places where the election was already competitive. In safe seats, the electorate would remain just as shut out as ever. A more imaginative approach would be to fund open primaries in safe seats held by political opponents, but it would be a risky strategy (and it is certainly not the approach being adopted in Totnes).

What I can’t see, with the best will in the world, is how such a system can improve on having single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies. STV works by effectively combining a primary with an election – you don’t just get to choose between parties but between candidates within parties on the same ballot paper (of course this depends on the parties themselves playing ball and providing the electorate with a choice, but there is some evidence in Scotland which suggests that the parties which did field a broader range of candidates did better). You don’t end up with a group of candidates who all argue for the same thing because the system recognises that the electorate is not an amorphous whole but a group of individuals with a diverse range of opinions. Instead of all elections being won by the lowest-common-denominator, minority views are allowed representation as well. And the enormous cost is saved, to be spent on other things or even not raised in the first place.

Ultimately then, while I can see that open primaries have real merit, it is hard to see how even the Conservatives can afford to roll them out on anything like a national basis. Without safeguards, they could just entrench plutocracy and lowest-common-denominator politics. It is hard to see how this can be a real practical solution to a nationwide malaise. And everything the system purports to do can be done much more cheaply and simply by changing the electoral system. The question boils down to whether you see the future of UK politics as lying in competing parties setting out broad visions for how the country should be better or narrow communitarianism. For better or worse, that is the debate we should be having about electoral reform, not an argument about reform versus the status quo.

Who killed the rainbow?

An unseemly spat has broken out between Bethan Jenkins and Peter Black on Twitter:

PB: @bethanjenkins you were considering rainbow option weeks after LD exec vote. Your rejected it. Nothing delusional about that.
BJ: @peterblackwales- your party refused it before that.
PB: @bethanjenkins no it didnt Bethan.My party voted for it. Stop rewriting history.
BJ: @peterblackwales i think you are the one doing that.
PB: @bethanjenkins not at all. Review the events not the myths generated by your spin doctors.

…and so on. Speaking as an outsider, what surprises me is that this is even a matter of debate. The timetable of events is quite clear:

24 May 2009: Rainbow Coalition talks in disarray after Lib Dem NEC rejects the proposal on the chair’s casting vote.
25 May 2009: Rhodri Morgan reelected first minister unopposed.
26 May 2009: Special Lib Dem conference overturns executive decision.
27 June 2009: Labour and Plaid form “One Wales” coalition.

Now, you could argue a lot of things here. The first thing would be that the Lib Dems were badly split, chaotic, unreliable and not exactly broadcasting their fitness to govern. You could argue that Plaid were only doing the sensible thing from both Wales’ and their own best interests. If you did, I’d be inclined to agree with you. What you can’t argue however is that the Lib Dems were the ones to kill the rainbow coalition talks – that responsibility rests with Plaid and Plaid alone. If you read the quotes from both Mike German and Nick Bourne at the time the deal was struck, it is clear that both of them considered the Rainbow deal to still be on the table. It was Plaid who walked away.

I simply don’t understand why Bethan is denying responsibility here instead of taking pride in walking away from a deal which I sniffed of stitch up (at least from the Tories’ point of view – they hardly seemed to be negotiating at all). I suspect it has something to do with the fact that she doesn’t feel particularly proud of Plaid’s record in office.

But the other thing about this whole debacle worth noting is that what was bad for political parties was very good indeed for democracy. One of the common criticisms of proportional voting systems is that they lead to government being stitched up by people in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms. What the 2007 Welsh (and for that matter, Scottish) experience shows is that this is far from the case. The Welsh negotiations were held in public – too public for a lot of people’s liking. They took place over a period of weeks and the challenge was to sort out an agreement that best reflected how Wales as a whole had voted.

Contrast that with FPTP. Normally there are no formal coalition deals, to be sure. But since all parties are coalitions of interest, that isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of negotiations going on behind the scenes. But ultimately, as the typical Labour backbencher will agree (off the record and out of the earshot of the whips), their power is strictly limited. The real power lies in the party funders and the pollsters. With so much focused on winning those all-important swing votes in those all-important marginal seats, the number of people who have a real say in proceedings is just a handful.

To be sure, parties are dependent on funders and pollsters in elections regardless of the electoral system, but their role is much more limited. Parties have to fight for every vote instead of being forced to take most of their core vote for granted and the party or coalition which goes on to take office has to have a mandate from at least 50% of the electorate.

The negotiations surrounding the running of Wales in 2007 were not very attractive, but there is little doubt that process was a robust one.

Will Labour “split” in speaker ballot?

The answer to that question is: no.

Why? Because after the last debacle, in which Martin rose to power, the Commons decided to move into the 20th century (the 21st being too much of a leap) and adopt an exhaustive ballot system. That means that unless a candidate gets elected in the first round with 50% of the vote, there will be a series of ballots until one does.

It’s a bit like the Alternative Vote system except, this being the House of Commons, they have to turn it into the procedural equivalent of the Hokey Cokey and do it by physically walking in and out of the division lobby instead of simply writing their preferences down on a simple ballot paper.

So at the same time as dismissing electoral reform for the rest of us, the Commons is not above a bit of electoral reform itself. I might not like AV for electing Parliament, but for electing a single post like this it is a no-brainer.

What all this means is that the speculation in pieces like this one in the Times is frankly bogus. Even if the Labour vote does split enough to put Sir George Young in first place in the first round, the Labour bloc is likely to have its own way in the longer run.

Personally speaking, I am a bit torn. I’ve always liked and respected Richard Shepherd’s quiet crusade for parliamentary reform and I can see the attractions of John Bercow. Alan Beith would be perfectly respectable. Sir George Young, in parliamentary terms, is a radical reformer. But he is also too much of an insider for my liking and I haven’t liked his stance on the expenses issue. Beckett, in my view, would be an utter disaster – no coincidence then that the Labour whips are hard at work to get her installed.

If Labour continues to be dominated by a bunch of self-serving venal toadies who have learned nothing over the past couple of months then Beckett is a shoe-in. Is it cynical of me therefore to be tempted to put a fiver on her?