AV: why I am voting Yes to a beautiful British compromise

Referendum Day approaches and the polls are tightening.  The public at large has yet to show much interest, but the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) is an important event in our political history.  Yet nobody can be surprised that the quality of public debate is abysmal.  If the arguments put forward by the Yes campaign, desperate not to lose people in technical detail, look a little weak, those of the No campaign seem like a calculated assault on our intelligence.  The campaign is being fought on emotions: natural British conservatism pitted against the feeling that our current system is part of a stitch-up perpetrated by the political establishment on the people.  I hope this post lifts the level of debate a fraction.

Not that I want to deny the importance of emotions in making decisions like this.  I will start with mine.  My views about proportional representation (PR) have fluctuated a bit over time; but my views on AV, from the beginning political consciousness in the 1970s, have always been in favour.  First past the post (FPTP) is an outrage; a primitive system that belongs to the age of rotten boroughs and not a modern democracy.  AV is an elegant answer to its most egregious features, and the one that is most appropriate to the British culture.

We start with the system of single member constituencies.  This is embedded deeply into the British political culture, though I do not regard it as sacred.  This carries with it the idea that an MP represents her whole constituency, not just the party and voters that put her there.  This is indeed what most MPs claim to think.  But if the election is contested by more than two candidates with broad appeal then the process rapidly degenerates into farce and the winner can be elected on quite a small minority of votes.  You need a degree in game theory to make your you are voting for the right candidate.  This is so obviously wrong that in most elections for an executive office, where you choose one candidate from a diverse field, the system has been abandoned, if it was ever used – from small societies up to presidents of countries, and even Mayoral elections in the UK.  The job of an MP is a serious job, and surely exactly the same logic applies to them as to the London Mayor or the Leader of the Conservative Party.

And that should be enough.  But the consequential results of the system don’t make it any better.  As this video using animals explains, the system soon resolves into a two party system.  Any candidate who wants to challenge the party machine and stand against the official candidate usually fails, and worse, lets in the candidate from the opposing party.  So a lot of the process of democratic choice is handled by two party machines which do not have a strong incentive to be democratic themselves, for example in the way they select candidates.  Of course, if you are a party machine politician you are inclined to think that this is a wonderful political system, but it is fundamentally undemocratic.  It is quite clear from the declining combined vote share of the Labour and Conservative parties that the British are losing confidence in the two party system.

So what is the solution?  PR is popular, but brings with it plenty of problems of its own which are not directly relevant to the debate.  If you support PR the risk of voting No is that a No result is likely to kill the question of electoral reform for generations.  The Americans have developed a system of primary elections, which have the effect of undermining the party machines and making them more democratic.  It has the major virtue of making all safe seats competitive.  The odd Tory proposes it for the UK.  A second alternative is to stage run-off elections in seats where there is no overall winner – the French system.  Both these systems require a second full-scale public election.  They both have the advantage of simplicity: electors make a single choice at each election – the most attractive aspect of FPTP.  But two elections mean doubling up the cost, and campaigning costs in the US system are astronomical, giving rich candidates a big advantage.  And they both seem un-British.  They require a more prolonged period political campaigning.  The British like the drama of a competitive General Election (such as last year), but quickly tire of the electoral process.  And anyway, neither system is being offered to us in the referendum.

Which leaves AV.  This is a built-in run-off system, requiring voters to think ahead about how they would vote if there was a run-off.  It loses the simplicity and immediacy of the single decision, but the whole process is decided in a single, easily comprehensible process in a day.  How quickly the British would take to it is less clear (we can guarantee that the political parties’ campaigns will try to confuse the picture rather then help explain it), but they would get used to it eventually.  It has settled down well enough in Australia, a country that has a very similar attitude to politics to Britain, though its effects there are difficult to disentangle from those of compulsory voting.  Incidentally, the suggestion made by David Cameron that polls show that Australians would prefer to move back to FPTP does not stand up to close examination.  What many Australians in fact dislike is being forced to mark a preference against all candidates for their vote to be valid – and we are not proposing that in the UK.  In Australia AV has not undermined the two party system, as it happens, but it has surely made the two main parties more sensitive to the risks of breakaway groups and so more democratic themselves.  Australia’s parliamentarians are a quirky, spiky lot – the sort of people to hold an executive to account, even if it is often not a  pretty sight.  All in all AV is a beautiful British compromise and I will be voting for it.

I will look at other arguments in the AV debate in later posts.  This one is long enough!

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Off balance

The think tank Reform is a master of guerilla tactics.  It claims to be one of the most influential of right-wing think tanks, but it cannot be described as heavyweight.  It flits from one subject to the next, making eye-catching claims and recommendations based on very thin research.  Its reports contain thought-provoking insights alongside assertions based on air, amid lots of right-wing waffle.  Its most recent offering Off Balance, which looks at economic growth, is a case in point.  Based on its headline claims, I had intended to use it as base to blog on the subject of the conflict between economic growth and the pursuit of happiness.  But there was nothing in the report that I could get any traction on.  I’m afraid this doesn’t say much for the quality of national debate on the economy.

That’s a pity because the report does contain a very interesting idea, on monetary policy, in its final chapter.  The muddle and confusion within which this gem is set will unfortunately detract from it.  This idea is that interest rates have been set too low in the US, UK and Euro zone (for different reasons), which distorted the market for savings and investment, and that this was the prime cause of both the financial crisis and the unbalanced world economy.  Because interest rates were too low, there was too much borrowing, too much consumption, asset bubbles, and not enough proper investment in the developed economies.  Interest rates will need to be higher if our economies are ever to rebalance properly.  This means that the conduct of monetary policy over the last two decades, including the development of inflation targeting, has been fundamentally flawed.  Loyal followers of this blog will recognise something like this case being advanced by this humble undergraduate economist (Time to rethink the Bank of England).  Unfortunately the report’s authors have little to say on how monetary policy should be conducted in the future, beyond better prudential regulation of financial services.

What of the the rest of the report?  At headline level it all sounds quite sensible: we need more free market policies, with three priorities in particular: reducing the deficit, reforming public services, and a better business environment.  Sensible, but potentially highly contentious in each case – but you won’t find much in the text that takes the debate forward.  In particular there is a deep confusion over the concept of competitiveness, most apparent in its airy claim that:

The future competitiveness of the UK economy demands a move to a high-wage, high productivity workforce.

This is candyfloss economics; its reasoning collapses as soon as you touch it.  Businesses compete; countries don’t (except warfare and sport).  If the country’s productivity stagnates, for example because our system of education is weak, then overall living standards will suffer: we will be able to consume less.  Period.  The exchange rate takes care of competitiveness.  The are very good reasons to improve our education system (the context of this quotation), but competitiveness is not among them.

I could go on, but honestly the report isn’t worth it.  At a turning point in our economy it is such a pity that so much of our debate about the subject is so lightweight.

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Libya: the UN motion is not just a cynical gesture

I’m getting a bit fed up with commentators who launch into diatribes based on generalities, without bothering to examine the facts of the case in point.  Libya is the latest example.  I have read two articles critical of the UN motion authorising military action; Max Hastings in the FT, and Sean Collins in Spiked.  The situation in Libya is interesting because it is unique; these articles are almost worthless because they never get beyond generalities.  In fact exceptional circumstances make the UN-approved action a viable way forward; and no doubt that is why it was proposed.

Mr Collins’s article is the weaker – but it is a pretty typical offering for a Spiked writer.  (See my post on Spiked).  Its title is Libya: how the West just made things worse.  He says:

Far from rescuing the Libyan uprising, the resolution is a setback for the cause of democracy and self-determination.

He does not do a good job of explaining why though.  We get the usual complaints that it will undermine the rebels’ legitimacy; we also get a rather old-fashioned (and unsupported) reference to the sacred principle of national sovereignty.  He does not even attempt to explain how this is worse for the rebels than being overrun by Gaddafi’s forces, or at least how this would be better for self-determination and democracy.  This comes over as just another rant from a writer who would condemn any action taken by a Western leader, whatever it was.

Mr Hastings’s article is much more disappointing, because he is a military historian who should be able to deploy some insight and expertise, if he could be bothered.  His article is entitled US and its allies are too late to help Libya.  His contention is that only intervention by ground forces will save the Libyan rebels:

…the situation today is where it always was: once Muammer Gaddafi showed himself determined to fight, only direct ground intervention by the US and its allies would have enabled the ill-armed rebels to prevail.

This would ordinarily be a correct assessment; but Libya is different.  Libya consists of a series of settlements separated by expanses of desert.  Crossing this desert is the key to success, and that gives air power a much greater effectiveness than normal.  Ground forces must be motorised – but motor vehicles are vulnerable with so little cover.  Or you use airpower – which, of course can be neutralised by opposing airpower.  Added to which are the issues of logistics; advancing forces find it increasingly difficult to keep in fuel and ammunition the further they advance – and rely on motor or air transport for these too.  This is not Kosovo or Bosnia.  Gaddafi does not have huge forces at his disposal, so it is quite realistic for this intervention to halt them – although not to roll them back.

So it looks quite feasible for the West to sustain the rebel territory from Benghazi eastwards, especially given the moral boost that intervention gives them.  This still leaves Gaddafi in control of most of the country.  How is he to be defeated?  He will be defeated once his forces start to lose hope.  This is possible because he depends on two groups in particular: foreign mercenaries and tribal allies.  Both of these need to be on the winning side; a third group, Gaddafi loyalists who face the prospect of being lynched if Gaddafi loses, are more reliable but not enough.  Gaddafi’s problem is that the economy has collapsed: he needs those migrant workers and the oil trade.  More rigorous enforcement of sanctions is part of the UN resolution.

Which leads me to another exceptional circumstance: Gaddafi is diplomatically isolated.  The Arab League has come out against him, and he has no allies (apart from Syria perhaps and, who knows?, Iran).  This is just reward for his antics and excessive ego; he was never a reliable ally.  This puts him in the same situation as Saddam Hussein after his attack on Kuwait.  This isolation gives the West a much greater degree of legitimacy, as well as making it much more difficult for him to rebuild a sustainable state from the territory he does hold.

So the scenario for victory is this.  Gaddafi’s advances are halted and the resolve of the rebels sustained by the no-fly zone, and air strikes from Western powers and Arab states (with the US not necessarily playing a huge role).  Gaddafi’s support then gradually melts away as his tribal allies are tempted to change sides in order to bring the conflict to an end, and mercenaries become unwilling to expose themselves to air attack and the possibility of the regime collapsing.  This is not the only possible outcome – but it is viable.  Unlike trying to shift the Serbs from Kosovo with air power alone.

What are the morals for dictators wishing to avoid overthrow?  First keep the armed forces under your control (unlike Tunisia and Egypt).  Second make sure you stay friends with enough of your neighbours (unlike Gaddafi and Saddam).  All the worse for the incipient rebellions in Bahrain and Yemen.  Also it helps if your country isn’t mostly desert.  Robert Mugabe looks pretty safe.

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Losing voters we never won

Any Liberal Democrat activist will have been nearly buried by comments from people saying that they will never vote for the party again.  Mostly these are genuine, and polling shows that the party has lost half its support.  But I have long had a feeling that many of these complainants never voted for the party in the first place.  Nice to get some evidence of this from this post in politicalbetting.com .  It seems that in at least one poll, more people said they voted Lib Dem at the last election than voted Labour!  So many people want to join the betrayal bandwagon that they have actually forgotten they did not vote for us.  No doubt they thought about it, and the sense of betrayal comes from even thinking of voting Lib Dem!

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The strange cohesion of the Liberal Democrats

I was at the Liberal Democrat conference in Sheffield last weekend.  The most striking thing about it was how upbeat it was.  Disagreements were downplayed; discussion was civilised; people didn’t seem to be spooked by the polls, still less the demonstrators outside the conference hall.  And yet the party has lost half its popular support, performed atrociously at the Barnsley by-election, and comes under daily attack for supporting what are seen as vicious Tory policies. “You’re shafted,” a (perfectly friendly) local member of the public told me when I was walking between venues.  What’s all this about?

The obvious explanations don’t seem to be strong enough.  The novelty of being in government has certainly not worn off; and attack, especially of the vitriolic sort we saw on display by the demonstrators, tends to induce solidarity.  But a lot of members and activists are genuinely unhappy about the policies of the coalition government; it is often said that policy has been captured by an unrepresentative rightwing clique surrounding Nick Clegg.

The party’s democratic constitution helps.  To many political pros no doubt these processes look like weakness, conceded to encourage people to join and stay as members.  But they give countless opportunities for members and activists to feel consulted and involved.

The party’s leadership deserves some real credit here.  The party’s internal machinery for policy making has been generally respected, in contrast to Paddy Ashdown’s leadership in the 1990s.  Many critics have been co-opted in the policy formation process.  Predictions that party conference would quickly be made irrelevant have proved unfounded (I remember Mark Littlewood, former director of communications, almost gloating about this in the coalition’s early days).

The leadership’s sensitivity to criticism, and wish to avoid needless confrontation from within the party was on display at Sheffield.  The biggest issue faced by the conference was the NHS reforms.  These are radical, controversial, and seem to go well beyond the coalition agreement.  A rather defensive motion was put before the conference by the leadership, and an amendment submitted that was highly critical of the direction of government policy.  The leadership quickly conceded defeat.  Previously Paul Burstow, the health minister, who proposed the main motion, had been highly supportive of coalition policy.  But he quickly said that he was in listening mode and accepted the amendment.  At an earlier consultative session, Norman Lamb, part of Nick Clegg’s inner circle, appeared to admit that mistakes had been made over health policy, among other things.  What the consequences of all this are for coalition policy in health and elsewhere is unclear, but we are expecting changes.

The leadership’s basic narrative is not seriously contested.  The Liberal Democrats had no alternative to the coalition that would not have done even more damage.  If they had declined the opportunity, the party would have “bottled it” and suffered disastrously at a rapidly called second election that the Tories would have won outright.  And the Lib Dems have won a lot of concessions, and are managing to turn a lot of party policy into law.  You only have to look at what the Tory right is saying.  All this is difficult to translate into a clear message for the public, but it helps instill a degree of confidence among activists.  The feeling is palpable that things will turn the party’s way in due course, and party’s critics will be confounded.  Again.

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10 years of Spiked

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of this online journal.  Spiked represents a different sort of liberalism to the type that I associate with.  It stands up for freedom all right; in the words of its editor Brendan O’Neill in his 10th anniversary piece Spiked exists to:

…to fight the good fight for freedom, progress, growth, tolerance and a bit of Enlightened spirit.

But it sets itself against pretty much any attempt by the established political leadership to uphold liberal values.  It finds itself against the idea that climate change is a threat worth doing anything about; it was against the smoking ban in public places; it got quite hysterical about Cleggmania.  It has defined its enemies as “miserabilists” or, the current favourite, “misanthropists”.  I browse their weekly email digest and sometimes click through to their articles.  What do I think?

I want to like them.  I may disagree with them most of the time, but it helps to have challenge.  The problems start when I click through.  Mostly, the articles just aren’t very good.  They are usually too long and self-indulgent; they rarely credit the strength of the other side’s case.  If you have the patience you can dig out the odd cogent argument and the occasional interesting observation.  There is a general tide of negativity usually directed against an ill-defined “elite”.  There can be quite a lot of description of abstract ideas.  For example, one writer (Daniel Ben-Ami) in criticising the the fad for well-being economics spends so much time describing how these ideas evolved, and the other ideas it is associated with, that he scarcely engages with the ideas themselves.   It mostly reads like contributions to undergraduate journals, but Spiked’s writers should have grown up by now.  Unfortunately those that have got beyond the undergraduate ramblings (for example Mick Hume, the founding editor) just seem to rant rather than engage in sensible argument (for example this article about the judgement that caused the Littleborough & Saddleworth by-election).  It is a striking irony that a journal attacking “miserabilists” is so miserable itself, without a positive word to say for any establishment position.

Just as striking is how defensive Mr O’Neill’s celebratory article is.  He spends a lot of time trying to fend off the argument that Spiked takes its positions purely to wind people up, rather than out of a coherent set of principles.  I suspect the problem is not the lack of a coherent view as an unwillingless to engage properly with the opposing argument; people won’t try to understand you if you make no effort to understand them.  They also seem unwilling to host much of the way in genuine discussion on their website; I have had only one of a dozen letters published; looking at the letters page today, it hasn’t been updated this month at all.

Would Spiked’s world view start to fall apart if they did try to engage properly with the ideas?  That would be an over-complacent view from a “left-liberal” like me; but I would like to read more stuff that is properly argued.  Surely a missed opportunity.

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The census and religion

Our census questionnaire hit the doormat yesterday.  As usual the census is stirring up a bit of controversy.  Simon Beard is worried about the data being managed by Lockheed Martin, a defence contractor.  I’m not overly bothered by this, but I do find myslelf getting exercised about how to answer question 20, “What is your religion?”

The British Humanist Association has been urging people to tick the box for “No religion” if they are not practising members of a faith, rather than tick “Christian” if they are merely baptised, or write in “Jedi Knight” as a general wind-up.  As I will explain, I agree.  But the main heat arises from the BHA’s advertising campaign; following  a ruling from part of the Advertising Standards Agency that some people might take offence at the ads, and they have been banned from railway stations as a result (although some buses have carried them).  This has generated lots of media coverage, which may have been the original idea, but I still find the whole episode very annoying.  The three ads are posted below.

But first, how to answer the question?  I am an agnostic, as I have already explained on this blog.  I am a confirmed member of the Church of England, but I don’t belong to a church.  I am not an atheist.  But I refuse to call myself a Christian either.  When I was a practising, I did not approve of people who did not commit to the faith, but still called themselves Christians.  I am happy with the label of “no religion” however, and so it won’t be difficult for me to answer the question.  Unlike the NHS job application form, which asks applicants to choose between various faiths and “atheist”; I have to tick “won’t say”, even though I am quite public about my religious status.

So far, so good.  But what does annoy me is that so much of officialdom treats people like me as a lower form of life.  They protect Christians and others from even quite mild offence, but we don’t count.  This is actually quite offensive.  Fine.  There is no liberal principle that people should be protected from being offended, and accordingly I put up with it: the BBC not allowing humanist speakers on Thought for the Day; the Pope implying that I don’t have any moral values because I don’t believe in God; women wearing the niqab because I can’t be trusted to look at their face.  But it  annoys me that we have to mollycoddle people of faith against being similarly offended.

Suddenly ticking the “No religion” box feels like an important assertion of my identity, rather than a simple statement of fact.

Nowquestion 15, “How would you describe your national identity?” is something else.  I think I’m going to write in “European” alongside British and English.

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Liberals shouldn’t be scared of Murdoch

Here is a short piece of mine published on Lib Dem Voice.  In it I argue that Murdoch is part of scrap amongst right-wing newspapers which those of a liberal persuasion can observe without taking sides.  It attracted a few comments, but of pretty poor quality.  Mainly it was from people who so loath the Murdoch empire that they automatically oppose anything thing he does.  Somebody launched a rant against the BBC licence fee.

I have a wider concern.  By focusing so much on Mr Murdoch liberals are in danger of losing a bigger and more important argument; they are attacking the messenger rather than the message.  It’s a sort of displacement activity for people uncomfortable with the right-wing press.

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Walkabout: the fragility of understanding

Last night we went to a screening of this classic 1970 film at the BFI, followed by a Q&A session (which we hadn’t been expecting) with the film’s director Nicolas Roeg and two of its stars: Jenny Agutter and Lucien John, who play the innocent English girl and boy.  It’s a wonderful film about the encounter between two English (definitely not Aussie) children, she on the transition to adulthood, and an aborigine boy on walkabout.  It is a clash of cultures, but one suffused with the innocence of its characters; there was bonding, but there could be no reconciliation outside the innocence of childhood.  It is beautifully filmed in the Northern Territories (with a bit of Sydney), featuring many places that are now on the tourist trail (then undeveloped), and which we have visited.

The BFI supplied some wonderful programme notes written in 1971 by Gavin Millar.  To quote the closing words:

If the film suddenly slumps into setting social problems and answering them, then we must ask other questions too.  What innocence is lost? Is survival of the fittest an agreeable social plan?  How else to control disease, promote hygiene, comfort; the arts or culture as distinct from survival?  The questions don’t belong to the best parts of Walkabout and neither do the answers.  The savage is no noble, the sophisticate not corrupt.  Trying to prove it, one way or another, in the face of the camera’s evidence, would be a betrayal of the film’s real vision.

The magic of the film (together with its plot) evaporates if you try to think about it too hard.  Which doesn’t stop people trying; one of the questioners wanted to know the main character’s “back story”.  But the message of the film (in spite of its clumsier moments) is very simple but quite delicate.

Like so much of human experience.  In today’s Morning Service on Radio 4 (which I listen to while in the shower) the religious visions featured, in particular with the gospel story of the Transfiguration of Christ, but also the appearance of St Michael that is supposed to have dispersed an angry mob, and saved the convent where the service was held.  The power of these, too, disappears if you think about them too hard.  So much of our understanding of this mysterious world is so fragile.

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The real meaning of the Barnsley result

The BBC and the Today programme could barely conceal their delight about the Barnsley Central by election result,  gloating over the drop in the Lib Dem vote from 2nd to 6th place.  On this their coverage did not differ much from the rest of the media.  Indeed this was spectacular.  But it wasn’t the only spectacular thing about the result.  For the first time ever in a parliamentary election UKIP claimed second place, as the Tory vote plummeted.

This should give us pause.  It means that the Tories are leaking votes to the right, with UKIP, not the Greens, standing a real chance of being the leading protest party.  Come the General Election, the Tories should have little difficulty in clawing the votes back.  But that won’t stop their activists from panicking in the meantime.  That puts David Cameron in a tricky position.  His newly-acquired left-leaning voters offer the Lib Dems their best chance of clawing back lost ground; any moves to appease the UKIP tendency will simply drive these voters into their waiting arms.  Couldn’t happen to a nicer bloke.

There is a second pause for thought.  If the Tories leak votes to the Lib Dems on the left and UKIP on the right, they will benefit much more from AV than conventional wisdom has it.  Unfortunately their supporters are probably too thick to understand this, on past performance, and so they will continue to campaign vigorously for a No vote.  Mr Cameron is clever enough to appreciate this, no doubt adding to his dilemma.

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