Tag Archives: general election

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Will the UK voting system survive 2015?

Consider the following bizarre potential outcomes for the 2015 general election:

  • The SNP romp home, winning well over 20 seats. The Green Party also do the best they’ve ever done, gaining 5% of the national vote. Yet the latter party only win a single seat despite getting a higher UK share of the vote than the former.
  • UKIP do the best they’ve ever achieved in a general election, with 16% of the vote. They only win around half a dozen seats however. The Lib Dems meanwhile creep home with just 15% of the vote, yet hold onto over 20 seats.
  • Labour gets slightly fewer votes than the Conservatives. Despite this poor performance, they win more seats than their opponent. Their total vote share hovers at around 60% of the vote, the lowest combined score since 1918.
  • No single party gains a majority. More than that, no two party majority is possible, with the exception of a Labour-Conservative coalition.

I’m not suggesting that all of these outcomes are going to happen, merely that at this point in time they are all feasible. If they do all happen at once, it will be the perfect storm of electoral outcomes which will put our single member plurality voting system (“SMP”)* under greater strain than it has ever known.

This has in fact been a long time in coming. The reality is that “two party politics” is a historical quirk that has only enjoyed a very brief period of popularity. The modern political party as we now regard it didn’t even exist when the Third Reform Act was passed in 1884 enfranchising most men over the age of 21. 16 years later the Labour Party was born and we had decades of 3+ party politics until the Liberals pretty much gave up the ghost in the 1930s and 40s. In 1951, two party politics reached its apex with the combined Labour-Conservative vote reaching 96.8% but by 1974 that was down to 75.1% and in long term decline.

We can see this trend by looking at how the gap between Effective Number of Parties (“ENP”) by votes and seats has widened over the last 70 years (ENP is an academic concept used to estimate the number of parties active in an election according to their relative strengths). As you can see, the disparity between votes and seats has widened almost inexorably.

Effective Number of Parties by UK General Elections, 1945-2010 (Gallagher, Michael, 2014. Election indices dataset at  http://www.tcd.ie/Political_Science/staff/michael_gallagher/ElSystems/index.php,  accessed 1 January 2015).
Effective Number of Parties by UK General Elections, 1945-2010 (Gallagher, Michael, 2014. Election indices dataset at
http://www.tcd.ie/Political_Science/staff/michael_gallagher/ElSystems/index.php,
accessed 1 January 2015).

Indeed, it is also worth bearing in mind that the voting system itself was stitched up to reinforce this hegemony. SMP is not, in fact, the only voting system to have been used in a House of Commons election. Multi member constituencies were quite common for urban areas at first, and university seats were elected using Single Transferable Vote from 1917 until 1950. You can see how, in the first decade after single member constituencies were universally adopted in 1950, the disparity between votes and seats actually got worse. By contrast, if we had not gone down that route, it seems likely that UK elections would have done a better job at reflecting votes cast.

Josep Colomer asserts that as political systems embrace multi-party politics, they tend to drift inexorably towards proportional representation.

A crucial point, however, is that coordination failures can be relatively more frequent under majoritarian electoral systems, especially for the costs of information transmission, bargaining, and implementation of agreements among previously separate organizations, as well as the induction of strategic votes in favor of the larger candidacies. With coordination failures, people will waste significant amounts of votes, voters’ dissatisfaction with the real working of the electoral system may increase, and large numbers of losing politicians are also likely to use voters’ dissatisfaction and their own exclusion, defeat or under-representation to develop political pressures in favor of changing to more proportional electoral rules.

In other words, eventually the ability to “do politics” using a majoritarian system becomes increasingly difficult as more parties become effective agents within the system. He goes on to suggest that “above 4 ENPs, establishing or maintaining a majority rule electoral system would be highly risky for the incumbent largest party, and possibly not feasible either due to pressures for an alternative change supported by a majority of votes.”

Sadly Colomer doesn’t actually tell us how this switch will happen, but we are already seeing the current system falling apart. Of all the potential outcomes I listed at the top of this article, the biggest problem from a governance point of view is that difficulty we might encounter in forming a government. In 2010 (and despite the more fruity speculation by some), the arithmetical logic behind the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was quite straightforward: there was simply no other way to form a two party coalition, apart from a Conservative-Labour one of course. Despite some sunny optimism about the viability of a Labour-LD-SNP-Unionist government, the fact is that such a rainbow would have been incredibly hard to maintain.

A lot of political commentators have asserted that the outcome of the 2015 general election is impossible to predict. They are only half right. It’s actually quite clear which way people are going to vote; what is unpredictable is a voting system that is so poorly suited to its purpose that the numbers that it chews out could go anywhere. That this doesn’t lead more people than it does to declare that it is time to pick another system is a sad testament of how badly let down our media and politicians are letting us down.

After the 2011 AV referendum, the No campaign declared the matter of the voting system settled for a generation. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum has already demonstrated to us how such things are rarely that simple, and it seems likely to me that the debate over whether SMP is any longer fit for purpose will kick off in a big way after this year’s election. At least, it will among the public. The question is whether civil society and the media will join that throng or allow it to peter out. It can’t be left to the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy to make the case.

And how will the political class respond? Will they embrace the tide of history in the way that they did eventually over the Reform Acts and female suffrage, or will they continue to resist it? I hope they’ll take the pragmatic, former option; if they don’t we could be looking at decades of instability. For me, it’s the only truly interesting question about this year’s general election; until we have a system which in some way reflects the settled will of the people, everything else will just be a case of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

* Personally I prefer to refer to the UK voting system as “single member plurality” and not “first past the post”. This is for several reasons. Firstly, it is a simple fact that it better describes the actual system: we have single member constituencies and you win by getting the plurality (largest share of the vote). “First past the post” on the other hand doesn’t actually describe how the system works at all – ironically, to the extent that it describes anything, it better describes the Alternative Vote system/instant run-off voting which actually has a “winning post” (50%). Secondly, it is the internationally recognised description of the system; the UK loves its quirky and confusing names for voting systems (Additional Member System instead of Multi Member Proportional for example), and it is a fairly contemptible bit of British chauvinism. Thirdly, I think that allowing the supporters of SMP to use their preferred, familiar term puts them at an advantage as all other voting systems sound alien and technical in comparison. That’s nonsense, and I don’t think we should allow them the privilege.

Andreas Whittam Smith and why Democracy 2015 should be called Technocracy 2015

Andreas Whittam SmithI’ve been following the development of Democracy 2015 in a professional and personal capacity since it launched this summer and listened with interest to Andreas Whittam Smith’s speech at the Unlock Democracy AGM on Saturday. Sadly as a result of Whittam Smith’s speech on Saturday I’ve been forced to reassess the project, away from a relatively harmless hopeless cause and towards a dangerous, profoundly undemocratic idea – which fortunately is unlikely to go anywhere (I should emphasise at this point that these are my personal views only).

If you don’t know, Whittam Smith’s big idea is as follows: he’s trying to find 650 people to stand in every constituency in the 2015 general election, sweeping the board and helping to establish a reforming parliament that will take all the difficult and radical decisions that the politicians from established parties consistently fail to. The candidates, who will preferably be selected by primaries, will served for a single term and all have experience of “running things” – be it the head of a school, a trade unionist or a someone with a business background. And finally,this will all be paid for by supporters donating a maximum of £50 each.

As a former party agent and campaign organiser, it is easy to scoff at the practicalities of all this. Even leaving aside the election campaign itself, there is the question of how all these targets will be reached. Whittam Smith stated that he expected the £35,000 cost of running a primary in each constituency that the Conservatives have had to spend would be lowered if you had economies of scale – ignoring the fact that largest single cost will be on postage which will have a fairly flat marginal cost. If you think this all sounds hopelessly impossible and impractical however, Whittam Smith has a simple answer: he agrees with you but feels he has to try anyway.

That isn’t a remotely satisfactory answer. I don’t find it especially noble or inspiring to see people embarking on a project without any credible strategy or targets whatsoever. It is, after all, other people’s money – and blood, sweat and tears – which he is planning to use up on this project. He isn’t so much a Scott of the Antarctic as a Lord Kitchener: sitting safely behind enemy lines while sacrificing others on deeply flawed plans. I can guarantee that his followers will remain quite as enamoured as they clearly are if they end up with nothing to show for at the end of this little adventure.

Thus far, this is nothing I didn’t conclude from the first week of Democracy 2015’s launch. I was struck however during Whittam Smith’s speech on Saturday by how his analysis was not only wrong but positively scary.

His main broadside against the political establishment is that it is fundamentally incompetent. No argument there, we see evidence of this pouring out of Whitehall and Westminster on a daily basis. But his analysis is that at the root of all this is the fact that politicians are simply poor at managing things: replace them with people with managerial experience, so the argument goes, and everything will be solved.

I’ve been a “manager” for the last 5 years but it is only in the last 12 months that I’ve had to fully manage staff on a daily basis. What I’ve learnt as both a manager and an employee is that “management” and “competence” can often be wildly divergent. Often the most talented person in an organisation can be someone who lacks the temperament or inclination to be a manager. Often the people who rise the most rapidly are people who’s ambition is far greater than their actual ability, but manage to float to the top because other people lower down the food chain manage to keep things on the rails and because few organisations would risk giving an incompetent employee was a bad reference and face either being stuck with them or an industrial tribunal. And then there is the Peter Principle, the dictum that “employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.” Great members of staff can make terrible managers, and vice versa. So when Whittam Smith dismissed the idea of cleaners and lower down the work chain as making suitable MPs, he wasn’t just being snooty but actually quite naive.

Perhaps a good test of how good a manager an MP would be would be to force them to manage and motivate a team of volunteers, raise their own money, build relationships with constituent groups and the press and generally run a difficult and stressful election campaign? Of course that happens to be what most winning candidates in marginal constituencies do indeed have to do. Not all of them do (sometimes you can get away with recruiting the right campaign manager at an early enough stage and leaving them to it – the lucky ones have the right campaign manager allocated to them by the party), and not all of them go on to become good managers, but it’s as good a test as any and certainly suggests that the key to having good people with managerial experience in parliament is to have more competitive elections.

But is management the answer to everything? Here I just think that Whittam Smith doesn’t just misunderstand the problem but is actually seeking to reinforce the status quo which has got us into this mess in the first place. As well as believing that having more managers in parliament would improve things, his concern is that ministers spend too much time interfering with the peope who are meant to manage the implementation of policy – the civil service. As an aside, I think he has a rather uncritical attitude about the civil service (the civil service is often known as the fourth political party in party circles with good reason, as anyone who has tried dealing with them will know), but the simple question you have to answer yourself is this: if the problem is too much ministerial interference and micromanagement, how will promoting more of a management culture in parliament and government help? I can’t think of anything that would make it worse. Imagine the former head of a school blundering in as the new secretary of state for education attempt to run the department like a school?

I have a rather different analysis. In my view, while I agree that the problem is that politicians have become obsessed with micromanagement and find themselves out of their depth, the cause is that politics has converged. Because there are no longer any big ideas being fought over in parliament it is only natural that politicians will turn their attention to things like competence and organisation. If parliament was fighting a daily battle over what kind of immigration policy we should have, it would be rather more content to leave civil servants with the job of implementing government policy – and ministers would too.

If I’m right, then Whittam Smith’s proposal would only make things worse. Having hundreds of MPs elected specifically on the basis of their management skills and a mandate to crack down on incompetence will only lead to more micromanagement, not less. The civil service, will not thank us for it even if former members of their ranks like Gus O’Donnell and Siobhan Benita seem to have similar shortsighted views.

What’s more, it’s the same agenda that Tony Blair inherited from Bill Clinton and bequeathed Cameron, Clegg and Miliband: ideology is dead; what matters is what works and seizing power. Whittam Smith was extremely dismissive of the people who criticised him from the left and seemed proud of his position in the centre ground. It seemed pretty evident that if he has his way, Democracy 2015 will fight on a platform firmly in the middle of the major two parties, but with a populist, anti politics edge. That’s the platform Nick Clegg adopted in 2010 and it didn’t work out too well for him.

Where he differs from the Blair copybook is his insistence that his successful candidates should only serve a single term. Whittam Smith sees this as a way of avoiding corruption, but the main purpose of re-election is accountability. What accountability will we have over MPs who plan to vanish after five years? At one stage in his speech, Whittam Smith said that he was sure that his one term MPs would have no problems seeking future employment. I agree, but most likely in the same jobs all too many MPs find themselves doing: consultancy, lobbying and public affairs. How many will spend the last few months in office behaving like taxi cabs Stephen Byers and Patricia Hewitt? And how many will find themselves in the same position as Louise Mensch, bored of the role and walking after just a couple of years?

None of this remotely resembles anything which you can call democracy. When unaccountable “experts” take over a country we call them technocrats. It’s the last throw of the die for a failed state. Is the UK a failed state? It is certainly failing but I don’t see us having exhausted all other policies first.

NaBloPoMo November 2012What we need in the UK is almost the exact opposite of what Andreas Whittam Smith is proposing: greater accountability of parliament and a return of the battle of ideas. Neither are easy to achieve within a system which is as jury rigged to favour the status quo as ours, but even if it has as much a chance of success as the Whittam Smith plan, it is certainly a more worthy prize (which isn’t to say we should be as excited by adventurism and simply stumbling along in the way that he intends to proceed). By contrast, no good can come from a project which ultimately has nothing more to offer than the technocracy of modern politics without even the veneer of idealism.

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”.

That which does not kill me makes me stronger

Wondering why I haven’t been blogging recently? I’ve been building this:

After the nightmare that was Vote Match Europe, this one was comparatively plain sailing (on the launch of the Europe version I was still trying to make it work five minutes before Stephen Fry started promoting it at the launch). Nonetheless, I’m desperately in need of some sleep. Please spread the word and give us some linky love.