Monthly Archives: May 2009

You can’t libel the dead, but the English Democrats are having a bloody good go of it

Steve Uncles, the top candidate for the English Democrats in the South East region has decided to pick an argument he feels he has a reasonable argument of winning – on the basis that his opponent died a couple of years ago. In a forum post entitled “Fun with bloggers who hate their County [sic] ‘England'” he writes:

You may recall the “self hating” blogger – Chris Lightfoot, who in 2004, “went off on one” just because he got a leaflet through his letter box with an England Flag on it.

18 Months ago the poor lad Committed Suicide – that’s what happens when you hate your own country, you have no identity, no focus – nothing.

I vaguely knew Chris Lightfoot, firstly as a blogger and then in a professional and social capacity I met up with him on a couple of occasions. I liked him, and am pretty disgusted at seeing his name being rubbished in this way – especially by a serial political failure such as Steve Uncles. So let me clarify a few things:

1) Chris’s blog is still online and you can see for yourself if he or Uncles, to use the latters’ phrase, “went off on one”. It should be noted that his argument with the English Democrats was not primarily in their use of the flag but in their anti-immigration policies and support for victims’ justice. He referred to them as “quasi-fascist.” When it comes to flags, he pretty much condemned all parties equally.

2) I don’t know the full story about why Chris committed suicide and nor would I wish to pry. What I do know is that it took place three years after this incident and that his dislike of flag waving nationalism (which I happen to share) was not a preoccupation of his.

3) Uncles goes on to ask “Do you believe the SNP (Scottich [sic] National Party ) are racist biggots [sic]?” Well personally speaking, not particularly, no, although I do deplore their tendency to flirt with it when it suits their political agenda. They also don’t pursue regressive zero-immigration policies of the kind that the English Democrats’ espouse.

4) This whole “self-hating” stuff has been lifted directly out of the emic debate about zionism. It is a daft debate there and an even dafter debate in the context of English nationalism. What’s more, what could be more self-loathing than defining your identity on the basis of flag-waving and land? By definition it is a call for the very sublimation of the self in favour of the herd.

There is something irredeemably vile about someone who tries to make political capital out of a suicide. Worse, even, than someone who buys the odd duck house on expenses.

AV+??!! Eleven year old reheated Westminster leftovers will do nothing to restore trust in politics

I’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate Nick Clegg on launching a terrific campaign today. I really do. He pulled a blinder. The 100 Days theme, combined with this populist stuff about ‘no summer holiday until this is sorted’ injects urgency and raises the stakes in a much needed way. The party can be seen to be leading the debate on democratic renewal for the first time in over a decade.

It is a genuine shame then that the line on electoral reform is so lame, simultaneously managing to be both less radical and less consensual than he could be at the same time. It’s doubly a shame because it forces us to discuss electoral systems at a time when we should be establishing broad principles. Yet, notwithstanding complaints about the dullness of the subject (of course, at least it isn’t paranoid, ranting libertarianism – the most boring subject on Earth bar none – not that you hear me complainig), it is a debate we must now have (apart from anything else, it now ensures that as a member of the Electoral Reform Society – and a candidate for their Council elections – I will now be bombarded by even more ranting letters and emails than I was steeling myself for over the next few weeks anyway – cheers, Nick).

So, let me now write the blog post I really didn’t want to write at this stage: why AV+ is such a bad idea.

To be honest, it never ceases to amaze me how this system keeps raising its ugly head. No country in the world uses it. It was devised by, and looks like it was devised by, a committee. There is no respectable academic research to back it up. No campaign organisation to promote it. An classic example of Westminster Fudge (and in particular, that now rare vintage of fudge which emerged during that unique period of time when we had a signally unprogressive and non-intellectual Prime Minister – Jenkins himself famously said he had a ‘third class’ mind – who had managed to get to power by making promises to do numerous progressive things), its objective was to produce a non-proportional voting system which satisfied the campaigners for a proportional voting system. To the surprise of nobody it flew like a lead balloon when it was first unveiled. If only that was the only thing wrong with it.

A fundamental problem with it is its complexity from ther voters’ perspective. PR systems are always attacked for being ‘too complicated’ by people who can’t count to five and somehow think that while the average uneducated person can cope fine with the complexities of the football league, an electoral system one tenth as complex will somehow flummox the average person. It is a bogus argument but nonetheless a very well rehearsed one that will get in the way of any call for reform (from what I’ve seen it is the main one that was used in the successful ‘no’ vote in British Columbia earlier this month). The problem with AV+ is that from this perspective it is the worst of all possible worlds.

Under AV+ you get two votes – one for constitutuency and the other for a ‘top up’ – like the AMS system. But you also get to number candidates – like STV. So in a referendum we will have to contend with all the arguments about the confusingness of AMS AND STV.

But at the same time, it isn’t actually proportional. The proposal is for a 15% ‘top up.’ That amounts to a scattering of minority party seats, the odd extra Tory MP in the North, the odd extra Labour MP in the South and the odd extra Lib Dem MP everywhere. But fundamentally, a party could still get a safe working majority with less than 40% of the vote.

Indeed, in certain circumstances, the AV constituency vote will cancel out the top up vote to leave us precisely where we started. Because AV can exaggerate swings by encouraging an ‘anyone but X’ vote (it almost certainly would have done in 1997 for instance), most top up MPs in such a situation will end up being from the parrty the swing was against. In that circumstance, the losing parties will just be minority parties. If you think PR and FPTP can lead to some anomalous results, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Another problem will be the scale of the task to actually introduce it, and the enormous scope for gerrymandering. When I was on the Lib Dems’ Better Governance Working Group a couple of years ago, one of the myths the anti-PR brigade was pushing was that it would take years and years to do a boundary review for STV. This is total nonsense. Drawing up STV constituencies based on the existing FPTP boundaries is childs play – you simply clump them together in groups (you could do it yourself with a list of constituencies and their population size, a calculator, a big electoral map of the UK, a marker pen, a free afternoon and a deep sadness at the pit of your soul). You could even account for a reduction in the number of MPs with little difficulty. If the Boundary Commission, at a push, couldn’t come up with a first draft within a week, there is something wrong with it – and it will have years.

But AV+ is a different prospect. Essentially, every seven constituencies would have to be changed to six distinct constituencies, to allow for the top up seats. And because it is unproportional and the top up is so small, gerrymandering will be a real worry (it isn’t a problem for multi-member constituencies where gerrymandering is extremely difficult to engineer) – especially if the process is rushed. To make matters worse, you will have to do the whole of the UK in one go. This is a formula for utter chaos.

In short, AV+ represents more pain than STV for much less gain. I would vote for it in a referendum – all things being equal it would be an improvement on FPTP – but it wouldn’t be a campaign I would look forward to fighting as the anti-PR campaigners will have their work cut out for them. They will be able to use all the classic anti-PR arguments while the ‘yes’ side won’t be able to make ANY of the pro-PR arguments. At the height of Blairite hysteria and the depth of the Tory nadir, we MIGHT have been able to pull it off. But can anyone tell me, with a straight face, that it could be won now?

Remember that referendum in the North East about having an elected assembly? The fundamental problem with that campaign was that by the time the politicians had finished fiddling with the assembly model in Westminster – stripping it of any power – there wasn’t anything left to campaign for; just a lot of pain and the forlorn hope that something better night come along eventually. An AV+ referendum campaign will be a rehash off that one. It might yet be something we have to live with, but for the life of me I can’t understand why we would want to encourage it.

But the daftest thing about all this is that it is a break from the well established consensus that has been built, with Lib Dem inside involvement, for the past six months. Getting Compass and Jon Cruddas to finally get off the fence a couple of months ago was a mini-Glastnost. Yes, some of the more institutionalised electoral reformers like Alan Johnson are banging on about AV+, but arguing that this makes it incumbant on the Lib Dems to stand behind them and vigourously agree like a pack of nodding dogs is like saying Thatcher and Reagan should have called for a gentler, kinder form of Communism just because Gorbachev said so.

The current malaise about politics is entirely a Westminster creation. I really did think that the last thing anyone thought was that the solution would lie in a Westminster report that has been gathering dust for eleven years.

There is another way. The alternative is for us to take the issue out of the hands of politicians entirely and let a grand jury of ordinary citizens make the decision for us. That decision can be ratified by a referendum (either at the beginning to establish the principle first, or at the end). We don’t have to rule anything in or out at this stage – we just need the politicians to recognise the need to back off. In this respect, at least, it meets the rhetoric coming from all three party leaders at the moment: it is one thing to oppose electoral reform; quite another to say that the public can’t even make their own mind up.

That principle is at the heart of both the Electoral Reform Society’s Referendum 2010 campaign and Unlock Democracy‘s Citizens Convention campaign – both of which launch properly in the next few days. Although the two campaigns differ in that the latter has a slightly broader remit and a slightly broader cross-party appeal than the former (this isn’t a boast by the way – it remains to be seen which one will fly), they are both fundamentally complimentary. Nick Clegg ought to be supporting that emerging consensus not challenging it.

The good news is that, for all the strengths of the Take Back Power campaign, it will go nowhere without wider cross-party support. It stakes out a marker and a strong challenge to the other parties but it can’t actually produce consensus where none exists. The Lib Dems will have to work within cross-party campaigns if they are serious about electoral reform and so will have to come back in line anyway. So it doesn’t particularly damage the wider movement for change. I just have to wonder why, when we are in such a position of strength, we are being seen backpedalling so enthusiasticly away from real reform. We shouldn’t merely be ‘going along’ with calls for more radical reform – we ought to be leading those calls.

Is an honest debate on electoral reform possible?

David Cameron’s big speech about democratic reform is most notable for its chutzpah. Like Jack Straw, a man whom Cameron has seemingly impressed, he has managed to make a speech saying very little fool journalists into thinking he is being radical. It doesn’t say much for the state of modern journalists that they are impressed by proposals to send out text messages about legislation; it should have been laughed out of court for being the modern equivalent of John Major’s Cones Hotline.

To the surprise of precisely no-one, Cameron has drawn the line at electoral reform. In doing so however, he repeats a number of canards that I have to say I am sick of having to rebut every time these bozos repeat them:

The principle underlying all the political reforms a Conservative government would make is the progressive principle of redistributing power and control from the powerful to the powerless. PR would actually move us in the opposite direction, which is why I’m so surprised it’s still on the wish-list of progressive reformers. Proportional representation takes power away from the man and woman in the street and hands it to the political elites. Instead of voters choosing their government on the basis of the manifestos put before them in an election, party managers would choose a government on the basis of secret backroom deals. How is that going to deliver transparency and trust?

This is utter nonsense from beginning to end. It does, to be fair, depend on the electoral system. If Cameron were to use this as a reason for ruling out the Additional Member System or Closed Lists, that would be fair enough. But of course, first past the post is a closed list system. In an FPTP election, electors are not given a choice of candidates. Primaries are all very well, expanding the level of engagement in candidate selection by, at maximum, a few more hundred people per constituency, but the candidates are still vetted by party headquarters.

Only electoral systems that offer voters a choice of candidates within a single political party give the voter greater control. And what are reformers calling for at the moment? AV+ and STV – both of which satisfy that criteria. So what is Cameron objecting to exactly?

He might be objecting to the way, where no single party has a majority in parliament, parties must negotiate to form a coalition or other working relationship. It doesn’t happen automatically – as the Scottish Parliament currently exemplifies – but coalitions are certainly more common under proportional voting systems.

But does that hand power to ‘elites’ or to the public? What is more open and transparent: the difficult and fraught negotiation process that happened in Cardiff Bay in 2007 or the behind-closed-doors Warwick Agreement thrashed out within the Labour Party before the 2005 general election? The process that lead to a Lab-Lib Scottish government in 1999 and 2003 or the ridiculous internal bunfight within the Conservative Party in 2006 that lead to Cameron’s laughable opposition to Grammar Schools but support for something called “grammar streaming” (three years on, and I still don’t understand what that meant).

The fact is, if you have politics dominated by hegemonic parties more decisions – not less – get made in proverbial smoke-filled rooms. With coalition talks, the media tends to cover the negotiations blow-by-blow, warts and all. That is openness. Private chats in the tearoom are the very opposite.

More to the point though, no-overall control is not a unique phenomenon to PR systems. In local government it is quite common. In Canada, which also uses FPTP, the last three general elections have resulted in a balanced Parliament. Worse for Cameron, as the level of support for the big two parties declines, the likelihood of balanced parliaments massively increases.

Academics talk about a thing called the “effective number of parties.” In the UK, we have an ENP in Parliament of 2.5 but an ENP in terms of vote share of 3.6. That is an alarmingly high missmatch and as the disparity increases the chances of no-overall control increases accordingly. If the ENP in terms of vote share reaches 4, according to Josep Colomer anyway, “maintaining a majority rule electoral system would be highly risky for the incumbent ruling party” – essentially they lose any real claim of having a mandate (see Helen Margetts’ chapter on Electoral Reform in Unlocking Democracy for more on this). If an election were held tomorrow, it would almost certainly push us over ENP 4. In 2010 it may well happen anyway.

In short, a lot of the objections Cameron and others have to PR apply to FPTP in a multi-party system anyway.

Another common canard was expressed by David Hughes in The Telegraph yesterday when he claimed that “The problem for the PR zealots is that there’s no public appetite for it.” Actually, that isn’t a problem for us. The public consistently support electoral reform in opinion polls, the last State of the Nation poll being a case in point. True, they aren’t manning the barricades for reform at the moment, but you would have to be blind, deaf and brain dead to be unaware of the fact that the public are fundamentally disatisfied with a political system that doesn’t listen to them. If that were the case though, why not go along with the call for a referendum? If the Tories are so confident that no-one wants electoral reform, what are they worried about?