Tag Archives: AV referendum

Time to think of England

This week it was St George’s Day, a time when we in England reflect on what it is to be English – a few of us do anyway, especially when St George himself was so un-English. There was also a small flair in the ongoing campaigning over Scottish independence, when the British government poured cold water on the idea of a currency union between an independent Scotland and the what is left of the UK (which would no longer be a united kingdom…). As I have written before, it is a conceit that there is a Scottish problem for the UK. The issue with Scotland is just an aspect of the English problem. England so dominates the union that governance of England and governance of the UK get confused. We need to look at remaking the constitutional arrangements for the whole UK if Scotland, as expected, decides to stay in the union at their referendum next year. But how?

At this point it is all to easy to craft elegant new constitutional solutions to solve the problem. Alas, that is not how the British constitution works. We are deeply conservative. Any proposed change throws up a series of opponents, who are able to stoke up fear of change. The AV referendum in 2011 was a very painful experience for people who thought that sensible constitutional reform, or even sensible debate about reform, was an easy matter. So where does that get us?

First there must be a crisis. Most people must think that the current situation is intolerable. The crisis is presented by the Scots. Of course, if they vote to stay in the union, most English politicians will want to think that it is an end to matter, and we can go on as before. I don’t think many Scots think this, though. Even holding the referendum is a shocking event, showing that consent for the current British constitution is breaking down. Most think that if they lose the referendum, the Scottish National Party (SNP) will respond by pressing for “Devo-Max”, which will then look like a sensible middle way. Devo-Max implies a much greater level of devolution to the Scottish Parliament, leaving the UK responsible for just defence and foreign affairs in some readings, like Gibraltar, perhaps. Why, then should Scottish MPs have so much say in who governs England? This question is an irritant now, but it would become a much bigger deal. We need to head this problem off with a new constitutional settlement for the whole of the UK.

Second, messing with the sacred sovereignty of the House of Commons is to be avoided. To some people, including me, this is pompous twaddle. A parliament’s fitness for purpose is not derived from history, but from what it actually does. The people should be sovereign. But the sheer weight of traditions and interests that centre on the Commons is not to be trifled with. This body needs to rule all of the UK. Restricting its scope to England, for example, and having a new Federal Assembly is going to get nowhere.  And after the AV fiasco, changing the electoral system is off the agenda too.

And thirdly, there needs to be something for everybody in any new settlement. Each of the three main British political parties, and their backers should see at least some benefits, to weigh against inevitable threats. There will not be a consensus, but any new proposal must have broad support from a cross a wide spectrum.

And so to the English problem. In order to balance out devolution to Scotland (and to Wales and Northern Ireland) there must be an equivalent devolution to England. To many the sensible thing to do would be to establish English regional governments, of the same sort of size as Scotland, to give an overall shape resembling Spain or Germany. Elegant an idea as this may look, though, it has no legs. Local traditions in England have been so hollowed out over the centuries, unlike in Germany or Spain, that there is little in the way of tradition to build on. The English administrative regions, used for things like elections to the European Parliament are mostly named after points of the compass. London and Yorkshire, may be viable, but it ends there. Either identities are too diverse (the Celtic Cornwall compared to the Saxon Devon, for example) or else there is very little identity at all (where does Northampton belong to?). Constitutional change is hard: this is too hard.

Which leaves us with an English Assembly. I used to dismiss this as a nonsense, but it is growing on me. This should have equivalent power to the Scottish Parliament, whatever those are. That means an English First Minister and cabinet, control of education and the NHS, and, surely, over large chunks of tax. The bold, but necessary, step is to say that the capital of England should not be in London. Having it in the same city as the UK capital will make its identity and authority harder to establish, especially since London has its own mayor, making the  layer of government very crowded. Moving the UK Parliament and the paraphernalia of government out of London is too much as well. Besides there is a real grievance in much of England that too much of the establishment is based in London. Where? Geography points to Birmingham or Coventry; others may have better ideas. An old and grand but under-utilised Victorian classical building would be good to use as a base. Building a brand new building is asking for trouble. Like the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, it should be elected under proportional representation (PR).

So what would be left in London? The House of Commons would stay, but needs to be shrunk. It probably doesn’t need more than a couple of hundred MPs, but no doubt a compromise of 400 or so would have to be settled on. It is difficult to get turkeys to vote for Christmas. The House of Lords should be reformed too, though it is tempting to let it collapse under its own absurdity after last year’s reform fiasco. The UK cabinet would be shrunk. The Treasury, Foreign Office and Defence would stay much as is, as would much of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. But others would need to be shrunk down.

So how to sell it? To those in the north of England or Midlands, breaking the Whitehall stranglehold would be an advantage. Frankly this is a big attraction to me, even in London. Even under PR, the Conservatives would have a good stab at dominating the English government. Both they and Labour would benefit from PR giving them a political base in large swathes of the country where they are in danger of extinction – as PR has saved the Tories in Scotland and Wales. The Lib Dems would benefit from PR too, though they might lose out badly in the bigger and redrawn constituencies for the House of Commons. This losing out of the Lib Dems might be an attraction to both Labour and Conservatives, though – they might feel that they have a better shot at an overall majority for the UK if minor parties would struggle in the larger constituencies. Such are the sorts of calculations upon which British politics turn.

Food for thought, anyway. The next step, though, is to start talking up the idea of a UK Constitutional Convention if the Scots vote to stay in the union. The idea of an English assembly does have opinion poll support, though no doubt iti s very soft. But in small steps the idea can grow momentum.


Lords reform: the real loser is David Cameron’s project

Today Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, announced that Britain’s Coalition government would end its attempt to make the country’s upper house, The House of Lords, mostly elected.  It is a bitter blow for Lib Dems, but not unexpected.  What does this say about the state of British politics?

The problem was that the plans did not command sufficient support on the Conservative benches.  There were 90 or so rebels at an earlier vote, and this is enough to kill the bill if Labour oppose it.  Labour had supported the reforms in principle, but said that, as a constitutional measure, it needed more time for debate in the Commons, so opposed the critical timetable motion.  This argument is entirely specious.  Debate on the floor of the Commons is an exercise in farce; it has to be time-limited or else it degenerates into filibuster.  The cynicism of Labour’s position is made plain by the fact that they would not be drawn on the amount of time they thought the bill actually needed.  But there was in any case a more substantive argument from the Labour side: in their manifesto they had said that reform should be made subject to a referendum, which the government side did not want to do.  We can argue about the logic of Labour’s position on the referendum, but a manifesto is a manifesto.

So Mr Clegg was quite right to abandon his attempt at reform.  There was very little credit in the wider world to be had for a fight to the death on this issue.  While the public is broadly sympathetic to the idea, they don’t care very much about it.  Mos readily agree to the trump card argument of British constitutional conservatives: that there are more important things to be doing.

Just about the only way of getting the reform through would have been to accept a referendum.  Although the current polls are favourable, it would be  a difficult referendum to win – a bit like Australia becoming a republic.  Australians favour a republic in principle, but the never the particular structure of republic that is on offer.  It was easy to pick holes in the specifics of the proposals – but that would be true of any proposal born of attempts to create consensus.  The risk/reward ratio just didn’t stack.

Lib Dems are very bitter, since they see this as a breach of faith, as Andrew Rawnsley has explained in the Observer.  They have knuckled down to vote for a number of proposals that they really hated, such as tuition fees for universities (though to be fair some high-up Lib Dems secretly liked the idea), and elected police commissioners, as well as immigration limits.  Of course Tories have voted for Lib Dem policies too, but these are mostly quite popular in the country at large, such as raising tax thresholds.  Although the Tories let them have a referendum on AV, their campaign to oppose this modest and sensible reform was so vitriolic and irrational as to come over as a breach of faith, especially when they attacked Mr Clegg personally on the basis that you couldn’t trust him because he entered into coalition with them!

But the public indifference left Mr Clegg with a problem.  Why bring the government down over this, and not tuition fees, or many other things which are currently unpopular with the public at large?  So the breach is not enough to end the Coalition.  Instead Mr Clegg has decided to withdraw the party’s support to boundary changes to Westminster constituencies.  This reform would equalise their size, to the benefit, so the conventional wisdom goes, of the Tories.

Here it is Mr Clegg’s turn to be politically calculating.  I have heard his supporters make the argument that since there will be no elected upper chamber, we need to retain a bigger Commons – an argument that I struggle to understand.  To be fair Mr Clegg does not use this argument in his email to members – where it comes over as a more straightforward tit-for-tat.  The Tory sophists argue that the Coalition agreement did not actually say that they would vote for the Lords reforms – just to bring forward proposals.  But the same can be said of the boundary changes.

And as things have turned out, the boundary changes are a real problem for the Lib Dems.  In ordinary times they would have been much more relaxed, as they have shown an ability to move out of their strongholds in held seats to win over adjacent areas.  The London MP Sarah Teather won her seat in 2010 in spite of major changes to the boundaries.  But the Lib Dem activist base has suffered with the coalition, and the campaigning environment is much tougher.  They have shown an ability to hold on where the party and its candidates are locally well know, but not elsewhere.  There are no reserves with which to flood new areas.  The boundary changes are a major headache.  Neither are the changes partilcualry popular amongst the general public, whatever the intellectual case.  To get equally sized seats they have run roughshod over traditional local sensibilities.  In Wales the impact  is particularly severe.  Even may Tory MPs will be relieved if the reforms died a death.

But it will create an awkward moment in 2013 when the vote is due to take place, unless the proposal is abandoned.  To defeat the changes Lib Dem government ministers would have to vote against or abstain – this would be new territory for the government and could easily bring it down.

So who gains from this sorry saga?  The first winners are Labour, where their cynical manoeuvring have bought rich rewards.  First they have made the Coalition look weak and incompetent.  But best of all they should now be able to defeat the boundary changes, which they hate.  Ed Milliband’s leadership can chalk up another success after his inauspicious start.

The second winners are the grumpy Tory backbenchers.  They genuinely hated the Lords reform, and will be glad to kill it.  They are also pretty relaxed about idea of the coalition failing.  And as individuals the defeat of the boundary changes makes their lives easier.

For the Lib Dems the outcome is mixed.  It’s a policy failure but it is very clear who is to blame: the Tory backbenchers and the scheming Labour politicians – unlike the AV referendum.  This fiasco is out of the way a long time before the next election is due – and defeating the boundary changes will give their campaigners the best possible chance of hanging on to the 40-50 seats needed for the party to survive as a political force.

The big loser is the Tory leader and Prime Minister David Cameron, and his project of turning his party into a credible one of government.  For all the soft soap he puts into the Party’s manifesto, it is clear that he can’t carry his party with him.  He took on his backbenchers and came out second.  His party can unite around a right-wing Eurosceptic platform, but winning a General Election, especially on the old boundaries, looks impossible.  A centrist Tory manifesto will not be credible.  His plan to use the coalition with the Lib Dems to de-toxifiy the Tory brand has come completely unstuck.

And the country remains stuck with an antiquated system of government that increasingly loses the respect of both the public and the world at large.  The public is paying a big price for its indifference.


The House of Lords is broken – now’s a good time to fix it

The denial stage is over.  Opponents of Lords reform have woken up to the Government’s plans and are mobilising.  But the reform plan is far from dead.

What’s the problem with the House of Lords?  It chalks up the odd success in challenging and revising legislation, without challenging the democratic credentials of the Commons.  But that doesn’t mean “It ain’t broke, so don’t fix it” – the argument used against regulating the banks more tightly before the financial crisis.  The fact is that the Lords is not up to its job and things are getting worse.

Appointment to the House of Lords is one way traffic.  Once appointed, almost nothing short of death deprives you of the right to take part in the legislative process.  This gives rise to two practical problems, never mind democratic legitimacy: size and accountability.  There is no one-in-one out rule for the Lords.  Political leaders regularly appoint new members to maintain political balance and to make sure that there are enough peers young and enthusiastic enough to do the hard graft – not forgetting the need to offer consolation prizes to victims of the political process.  There are now over 800 – compared to the Commons which has 650, with a plan to reduce it to 500.  This is a bit of a joke.

But this is less of problem than it might be because of the second issue: there is no accountability for what peers get up to after they are appointed.  That means that most of them don’t do much at all.  Many just turn up on the big occasions, make a speech, vote, and then clear off thinking that they have added to value to the legislative process.  But the Lords’s key work is detailed revision – this is the bit people say works.  Legislation that leaves the Commons often lacks detail or hasn’t been thought through.  This revision doesn’t happen in set piece debates.  It happens in and around committees, and requires a serious commitment of time – you need to get into the details, take evidence, and so on.  That the Lords does this as much as it does is one of the wonders of the British system, but only a tiny minority of peers actually get involved in this grind, and they are self-appointed, and get little logistical support.  It is distinctly ad-hoc and amateur.  This creates a lot of charm, that seems to bewitch many of those that come into contact with it But it really isn’t up to the job in the increasingly complex world of legislation.  And its failures are largely invisible.  Poorly thought through legislation happens all the time – the last government had to introduce a new act on criminal justice almost every year, since they kept failing to nail the problems – but we blame ministers and the Commons for this, not a House of Lords that was out to lunch.

So the Lords (or whatever else we might call a revising chamber) needs to be more accountable and more professional.  That means appointing professionals to it with some process of reporting back to those that appoint them, and for limited terms.  That has to mean elections of some kind.  This is what the Government’s reform is trying to do.

And that is all it is trying to do.  Many of us would like a new constitutional settlement for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, based on a constitutional convention.  The primary purpose of such a convention would be to resolve the status of the country’s constituent parts, in the face of demands from many Scots for independence.  A reformed upper chamber could play a role in any such settlement.  But we aren’t going to get a convention, because our political class doesn’t see the need, and the public at large seems indifferent – in England especially.  Meanwhile the Lords bumbles on in its current form.

Will the proposed reform do the job?  I don’t know.  It’s a messy compromise because the government needs to build consensus.  The important issue is to break through the untouchability of the Lords’s status, and bulldoze aside the biggest roadblock to change, which is the unelected Lords themselves.  We can amend later the bits that don’t work as well as they should.

And now is a good time to take the issue on.  The Government has passed most the new legislation it wanted to; it has three relatively uncluttered years to push things through.  Of course the economy is in a mess, but, God help us, we don’t need our parliament to pass lots more laws to help us out.  The economy is a matter for the executive, not the legislature.

Will it work?  It stands a better chance than changing the voting system.  Then the forces of darkness (by which I mean the conservative press and political donors) mobilised against the AV reform, making supporters look weak.  The Conservative Party was united against it.  This reform has the Prime Minister on board.  The forces of darkness have not yet mobilised one way or the other, and may be persuaded to stay quiet, given that upping the temperature could really hurt the Tory party.

But the reform’s supporters may well need to concede a referendum in order to get it through parliament, whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue.  The opinion polls suggest that such a referendum would be won comfortably – but they are near meaningless.  But if the press barons are silent, and a reasonably strong coalition supports them, with important figures from across the political spectrum and and outside it,  then it’s winnable. There’s all to play for.


AV referendum – the return of the old politics

So the Nos won the UK AV referendum comprehensively, with 68% of the vote, on a higher turnout than expected.  Their campaign only seemed to gather momentum as time went by.  This is a bitter blow to me, as I actually liked AV – while having reservations about proportional representation (PR).  Now it will be considered politically toxic, probably forever.  It doesn’t help that most people that voted No did not understand what they were voting against.  In fact very few voters seem to have understood the system or its implications.  It is highly frustrating that so many nonsense arguments were tolerated, and even encouraged by the media (turning back on hundreds of years of history; would cost £250m; gives some people but not others more than one vote; and so on).  What went wrong?

There were clearly tactical errors by the Yes campaign.  They failed to find compelling reasons to change.  Their two favourites, making MPs work harder and ending safe seats, were very weak as AV would not make a huge difference.  They took a tactical decision not to explain the system to voters, on the basis that it would turn them off.  So they left that to the Nos, until finally they found a good way of communicating it (the Dan Snow broadcast with pub vs coffee shop).  That broadcast proved that you can communicate new ideas if you apply enough thought and creativity to the task.  There seemed to be too much time spent online, and not enough trying to get through to proper floating voters.  It is more difficult to say whether the later idea to portray a Yes vote as an anti-Tory one was right; it certainly swayed some.

Why was the No campaign so effective?  The use of the Tory machine clearly helped.  The campaign was very well funded, so they were able to put much more, and much better produced literature.  They weren’t even trying to win the argument, simply repeating a whole series of misleading sound-bites endlessly.  But particularly striking was their use of of mainstream politicians.  David Cameron and the Conservatives put on a strong, united front.  And enough Labour politicians supported them to rally many traditional Labour supporters.  By comparison, the Yes campaign had only the much weaker Lib Dem machine behind it, and tried to use non-politicians much more.

So the voters were not engaging with the arguments and trying to make sense of them, but taking a lead from people they trusted.  Conservative supporters rallied to a very impressive extent behind the official Tory line (80-90% according to one poll).  The newspapers may also have helped.  If all these respectable people were reinforcing even the more spurious No arguments, people thought there must be something to them.

So people actually have quite a lot of respect for good old-fashioned politicians when it comes to political arguments.  A year ago we thought that disillusion with politicians was ushering in a new politics.  The surge for the Lib Dems after the election debates.  The coalition with political enemies coming together in the national interest.  But this new politics seems to have been a mirage.  People are happier in the more familiar, tribal territory.  They will follow the old politicians, who don’t seem to care what they say in support of causes they think are in their interest.  The expenses scandal is completely forgotten now.

There also seems to be a deep conservatism amongst British voters.  They are sceptics of almost any change, though they are quick enough to get used to changes when they happen.  This is quite comical at times.  I remember huge resistance to the London Eye being erected; now nobody would want it taken down.  David Cameron’s and Boris Johnson’s appeal to “hundreds of years of history” to support FPTP is comical in the same vein, given how recent our democratic institutions actually are.  The idea of a “progressive majority”, popular with some on the left, is a nonsense.

A further lesson is that we should be highly suspicious of referendums to decide constitutional changes.  If people just follow the politicians, then shouldn’t just let the politicians decide?  Independence for Scotland – yes to a referendum; electoral systems, European Union treaty changes – no.

So the old politics is back.  What does that mean for progressives?  And what does it mean for the Liberal Democrats?  Topics for another day.


Yes or no to AV?

Truly my last blog on the arguments for and against AV for Thursday’s UK referendum on AV.  It’s been quite a campaign, but the arguments made by either side are weak or worse.  This may get a little better in this last week.  In its broadcast tonight the Yes campaign is at long last explaining what the system is and why it is a good idea, and even toning down some of its exaggerated claims.  The Yes campaign had left too much of the explaining to its opponents, while spending too much time twittering to to the converted.  By contrast the No broadcast seems much more about rallying the converted, especially Labour supporters; it rehashes the usual arguments in quick soundbites, using a variety of politicians and vox pops.  Up to this week the No campaign has been much more vigorous, albeit scurrilous.

First, for the benefit of those that haven’t decided, and want to get beyond the soundbites, let’s have a quick round up of the usual, weaker, arguments before identifying the stronger ones.  First the Yes:

  • It will make all MPs work harder.  The idea is because most MPs will need second preference votes to win, as well as a good haul of first preferences, then they will be more sensitive to people’s needs.  Well maybe.  But they are already trying quite hard for the first preference votes of minor parties.
  • Tackles “jobs for life”, duck houses, etc.  Well it should reduce the number of safe seats – but there will still be plenty left.  So some change, but not that much.
  • All MPs will need 50% of support.  A stronger argument, but of course this is 50% before abstentions.  Some voters will not offer second or third preferences so they will drop out, meaning that the winner gets a bit less than 50% of the voters who turned up.  The Economist newspaper seems to think this is a big problem, but if voters are indifferent between candidates then surely that’s fair enough.
  • It’s change.  True, but is it for the better?  Change would certainly rock the older politicos – but this is weak stuff.
  • It will keep the Tories out of power forever.  Not an argument to persuade Conservative supporters.  Frankly, I’m not at all convinced.  The Lib Dem vote could implode, the Tories scoop up second preferences from UKIP; if Labour fluffs it that could easily deliver the Tories an outright victory.  And if David Cameron succeeds in “de-toxifying” the Tory brand, it’s all to play for.

It says much about the Yes campaign that they haven’t said much more than this until this week.  The Nos, on the other hand have given us a massive battery of arguments:

  • It will cost £250m which is best spent on other things.  There has been a lot of heat generated by this claim, based on the costs of running the referendum (too late) and buying counting machinery (unnecessary).  Still, there will need to be an information campaign to explain the system, and it will take longer to count the votes, which will mean a bit more overtime.  Cheaper not to vote at all, of course.  What price democracy?
  • More countries use FPTP than AV.  My Tory leaflet says 2.4 billion to 29.5 million.  So?  I don’t know who they have counted into their 2.4 billion, but a large part of it is India, where there are literacy issues (and which doesn’t deliver stable government either).  The US has got round many of the weaknesses of FPTP through primary elections (which really are more expensive!) .  Many states also use run-off elections which work a bit like AV, and AV itself is not unknown.  And for President, if they used FPTP then Al Gore would have beaten George Bush in 2000 – but in fact they use an electoral college system.  New Zealand abolished FPTP for proportional representation.  That leaves Canada amongst developed countries; that country’ electoral experiences are not an advertisement for the system.  Today the Conservatives won a general election because the left-wing NDP took votes away from the centre parties.  What’s more many other nations, including France and Italy, have a single member run-off system that works a bit like AV.
  • The Australians don’t like AV.  My Conservative leaflet claims that 60% of Australians want to go back to FPTP.  That isn’t what the poll in question actually asked.  What many Aussies don’t like is that they are forced to preference ALL candidates, even if they are indifferent.  We aren’t proposing that in the UK.  In fact the principle of preferential voting (as they call it) is not controversial there.
  • AV gives weight to extreme parties, like the BNP.  Extremists will find more difficult to win under AV.  But they find it hard enough under FPTP (though George Galloway did sneak in in 2005).   But their second preferences will count.  Just as they would if there was no candidate of their party at all.  This is true, but it’s called democracy.
  • Soppy centrists will get elected.  This is the exact opposite of the extremist argument.  It isn’t made by the mainstream No campaign, but it is the argument of choice of the magazine Spiked, and Matthew D’Ancona.  The idea is that the trawl for second preference votes will put a premium on being unobjectionable.  But you still need first preference votes to be in contention, since you will almost always need to be in the top two on first preferences to stand a chance (and this is the Australian experience).  Soppy centrists are likely to get knocked out.  Besides appealing to the centre is how marginal seats are won under FPTP too.
  • There will be permanent hung parliaments and coalitions.  This is a valid argument against proportional representation, but not AV.  The argument runs that the Lib Dems will get more seats, denying a majority to Labour or Conservatives.  You have to believe in a Lib Dem recovery to think that; they will have a real problem to get enough first preference votes to be in contention in enough seats.  Even if you accept this, the balance between the top two parties is likely to favour the winner (because they get more second preference votes as well as first preference votes), and this will offset the effect.  One academic has suggested that the only election since the war that would have given a hung parliament under AV was last year’s, which, um…
  • We want PR.  AV is not remotely proportional; that’s why a lot of people like it.  But FPTP isn’t either.  PR isn’t on the menu.  The danger is that a No vote will put people off electoral reform of any kind for a long time.
  • We’ve been using FPTP for 300 years and we should stand by our traditions.  Well I’m exaggerating, but only slightly, based on Mr Cameron’s utterings.  One person one vote has only been around in the UK since 1950 when the university seats were abolished.  It’s not all that long ago when we abolished rotten boroughs.  We forget how much our constitution changes and adapts.

Enough.  What are the arguments that count?  For yes:

  1. It reduces the chances of rogue candidates splitting the vote and letting the enemy in.  This will make it easier for MPs to take an independent line against party managers.  Perverse results where people vote for the left and let a right wing candidate in (which seems to have happened in Canada today) are prevented.
  2. It’s more transparent.  Today a lot of voters vote for their second preference because they don’t think their first has a chance of winning.  The importance of first preference votes under AV will not stop this entirely, but it will be a big help.  And the winning candidate will know where his or her second preference votes came from.  Today they like to claim that all their votes are positive first preference ones – time to expose this.
  3. It’s a majoritarian system, like FPTP.  Coalitions only happen when the public really can’t make up its mind.  Of course many people prefer coalitions…but see above.  We aren’t turning the political world upside down, just making it a bit better.

And for the Nos:

  1. There is clearer bond with the voter, who needs to make a binary decision, which then gets counted in a highly dramatic process.  There is a little magic in the old ways.
  2. If No wins then the Conservatives will have to give the Lib Dems a consolation prize, perhaps in Lords reform.  If Yes wins then the opposite applies.

And that’s enough!


The Economist shoots itself in the foot. Twice.

This week The Economist has come out for a No vote in a leader on the UK’s referendum to the voting system.  It argues that AV is no improvement on FPTP, so we should vote no.  It wants the system to be more proportional, with 20% of parliament’s seats reserved selected by proportional representation (PR), and the rest on FPTP.  It dismisses the argument that a Yes vote would make further change more difficult, without really saying why, beyond “It might exhaust the national appetite for reform.”  This is pretty weak stuff, but on two counts the paper has undermined its own argument.

Update.  Having read more of this week’s edition, the Economist’s hidden reasoning looks a bit clearer.  They are worried that a Yes vote would make the Conservatives so angry that they will derail other reforms, such as that for House of Lords.  Alternatively if there is a no vote then these reforms are more likely to go through as a consolation prize.  They appear to think that these other reforms are more important.

Also they are making a big deal out of the fact that because many voters will not preference all candidates, then some candidates will be elected with less than 50% of the vote.  They think this is a major problem with the Yes case; and yet I think this is simply equivalent to an abstention.  Nobody suggests that MPs should be elected with 50% of the whole electorate.  And enough people will cast preference votes, especially if there is a major left-right polarisation, to make the change in system worthwhile.  This article on NSW and Queensland state elections, which use the same preferential system envisaged here, makes that quite clear.

In the first instance, in the very same edition, the paper covers the Canadian general election, held under FPTP, with the sub-headline “A last-minute surge for the left might end up benefiting the right.”  This is exactly the sort of perverse outcome that AV can do much to prevent, because it reduces the problem of the split vote.  In Australia, which uses AV, the rise of the Green party has not benefited the right.  Under FPTP, using first preferences, the right would have benefited royally from the Green’s success in the last Australian general election.  So, “no improvement”?  The Economist makes the case against its own editorial with wonderful succinctness.

Next, the paper has changed its view.  It used to be a strong advocate for AV in the UK.  Admittedly that was a long while back (and certainly before 1997, when the paper’s online archive starts).  But the paper routinely refers to previously held positions, sometimes dating back to the 19th century.  And yet the paper’s leader makes no reference to this earlier view, and why it has changed its mind.

I have been reading the Economist since 1984 (and its position on AV swayed me in its favour back in the 1980s – one of the reasons that my support is not as lukewarm as some).  This is very disappointing.  The editorial team was probably deeply split.  Its Bagehot columnist, burnt by experiences elsewhere in Europe, hates PR and fears that AV might eventually lead to PR because more people will cast first preference votes for minor parties.  Others no doubt favour full PR.  I can imagine the poor leader writer trying to reconcile all this.  And failing.



Is Vince Cable right about AV?

The AV referendum campaign is hotting up.  The No campaign are throwing a lot at it, and seem to have captured the initiative.  By and large they are deploying the same old arguments (e.g. “save one person, one vote”), which are nonsense to those that know about the system, but which still serve to muddy the waters.  What has changed is the weight of campaigning.  David Cameron is taking a very high profile; it looks like the full Tory machine is distributing literature.  The Tory friends in the press, like the Evening Standard here in London, are throwing their weight in.  Opinion polling seems to show this is paying off.

But the campaign looks more Tory by the day.  So perhaps it is natural for Vince Cable to hit back to suggest that first past the post (FPTP) is a Tory plot to win power against “the progressive majority” of Labour, Lib Dem and (not usually mentioned, but relevant) Green voters.  What helps this argument is that the Conservatives clearly seem to believe it.  They are so vehemently opposed because they think it kills their chances of ever winning a majority.  One of the Tory papers (the Mail, I think) suggested with horror that Mrs Thatcher could never have won under AV.  Mr Cable clearly thinks that Tory voters are beyond hope, but that the Yes campaign may be able to do a better job of mobilising Labour voters.  Given that the Conservatives seem to command about 40% of the vote, and that many Labour activists and older voters are sceptical, this looks like a bit of a gamble.  But how solid is his argument?  Just because the Conservatives believe it doesn’t make it true after all.

The “progressive majority” is an old idea, hatched in the 1990s (if not before) when the Conservatives were last in power.  It is founded on the observation that if you add Labour and Lib Dem votes together they pretty consistently get a 3:2 advantage over the Conservatives.  Certainly, it is difficult to see that small-state Conservative policies (much lower taxes, much lower benefits abd public spending), beloved of the Tory right, will ever command majority support.  There is an anti-right-wing-Tory majority.  But to call this majority “progressive” is a stretch.  Much of the opposition to such a right-wing agenda is conservative – something that characterises large parts of the Labour party (and dare I suggest some Lib Dems?).  Remember Tony Blair railing against “conservatism” in his own party?  It may be truer to suggest that there is an inbuilt conservative majority that opposes radical ideas, left or right.

Semantics, perhaps.  Would AV permanently stop the Tories?  It wouldn’t have stopped Mrs Thatcher.  The SDP-Liberal Alliance would have picked up some more seats from the Conservatives, no doubt.  But the Labour party of the time was so distrusted that they would not have picked up enough second preferences to take enough further seats off the Conservatives; they may even have lost one or two more seats to them.  AV is good for a political party with momentum (which sways second as well as first preferences) – and Mrs Thatcher had that.  She won because the Labour Party was strong enough to block the SDP-Liberal Alliance, but too weak to be a credible alternative to the Conservatives.  This dynamic would have been almost as deadly under AV as it would under FPTP.

But the Labour Party is a much superior political machine now, that knows it has to win votes at the centre.  For the Conservatives to beat them under FPTP and get a full majority they need other parties to undermine Labour, be they Lib Dems, Greens, or a future left-wing threat.  Meanwhile they need to hang on to at least 40% or so of the vote themselves.  This is a tall order if the Tory right was in the ascendant…but it would be more difficult for them to pull this off under AV, provided that the Labour Party made some attempt to attract middle ground voters.   Strategically Vince is mainly right.

Tactically – by which I mean up to the next election – the picture is much less clear.  As I have observed before, the Conservatives will be under attack from left and right simultaneously.  UKIP are showing real resilience and are gradually earning the right to be seen as a proper political party (like the Greens, but unlike the chaotic BNP).  The Lib Dems will want to make the best of their coalition nightmare with the voters by appealing to softer Tories.  The more Mr Cameron tries to appease one group, the more he will put off the other.  AV would make this situation much easier to manage.  So far he is keeping this nightmare at bay quite successfully – but there’s a long way to go.

AV will help stop a radical party on either side of politics take exclusive power without  genuine near-majority support.  Mr Cable is right about that.  But there is no progressive majority.  And the effect of AV (or FPTP) on the next General Election is much too hard to call.  The best reason for voting Yes is that AV is a fairer system that preserves the essence of the present one (single member constituencies; likely one party government).  Voting Yes or No because it will be good for the party you support is the road to disappointment.  For all three main parties.


Why vote no to AV?

In my earlier posts on the alternative vote (AV) in advance of the forthcoming referendum, I have focused on the positive case for the reform, and considered some of the practical consequences.  Now it’s time to consider some of the arguments being put forward by people advising us to vote No, in support of first-past-the-post (FPTP).

The leading argument from the No camp, to judge by the reporting on the BBC, is that AV undermines the principle of one person one vote.  Partly this argument is used simply to confuse matters, alongside the idea that AV is complicated.  But the more serious point is that idea that people who vote for candidates who are eliminated get another go, so it seems like they get a bonus.  Meanwhile, as my local Conservative leaflet puts it: “This means that supporters of the major parties, the Conservative Party and the Labour party, will not have their votes counted more than once”.  This is a candy floss argument that disappears if you try to think about it.  AV is in effect a succession of run-off elections, with the loser of each election being eliminated between each round.  The voters of the top two parties are counted in every vote, without their votes needing to be transferred.  Far from being disadvantaged, they are setting the agenda.

But this argument leads to a more subtle one.  Voters of the eliminated candidates  influence the outcome, and these voters are less deserving.  This is endlessly backed up by a quote from Winston Churchill that AV would give power to “the most worthless votes for the most worthless candidates.”  A group of prominent historians were somehow persuaded sign a letter to The Times in support of the No vote, that managed to put this quote alongside the argument that AV undermined “one man, one vote”.  We can summarize this juxtaposition so: “FPTP means one man, one vote as long as you are not worthless.”  Supporters of AV argue that it is precisely the principle of one person, one vote that means that we must count the views of people who initially back less popular candidates.  Even if they support the BNP.  Far too much has been said about the BNP in this debate already; the BNP does not support AV for reasons that I talked about in my last post on AV.

There are rather better No arguments on offer, though you rarely hear them.  Brendan O’Neill of Spiked offers two.  The first is that AV will tend to promote insipid middle of the road candidates.  He doesn’t try to justify this claim very hard, but I think the argument goes like this: when making their choices voters will put less offensive candidates above ones that are more offensive to them.  That means that major parties with a real chance of winning a seat have an interest in selecting inoffensive candidates.  A conservative candidate, for example, will be trying to pick up second preferences from both UKIP and Lib Dems; Labour candidates will be after the Lib Dems too, and the Greens and any fringe left candidates, as well as hoping for some of the UKIP votes; this might be done simply by being less offensive than your main rival.  But it is hard to make the case that this is any more true under AV than FPTP, where the major parties fight hard for these voters’ one and only vote on the basis that only the top two parties count.  Also if a candidate is too insipid voters won’t preference them at all.  There is a more strategic argument too: FPTP suppresses spoiler candidates (i.e. breakaways from the major parties) because by standing these candidates might simply let the real enemy in.  If it is more likely that major party candidates will be challenged by breakaways, as would be the case under AV, won’t politics become more dynamic?  Mr O’Neill spoils his own argument by praising the spikiness of Australian politicians, which he puts down to compulsory voting.  But since Australia uses AV, this shows that at worst AV is not much of problem on this front.  Australian politics is full of challenges by independent candidates, many of them successful; AV helps them. (Incidentally there is an interesting analysis of the impact of AV in  recent Queensland and New South Wales state elections here, important because they use the same system that is being proposed in the UK, rather than the full preferential system used in Australian federal elections.)

But Mr O’Neill also fields a much stronger, if less tangible, argument for FPTP, which comes close to the real reason why most ordinary No voters are going that way.  FPTP is simple, direct and dramatic.  The voter focuses his or her mind on making a single, dramatic choice.  The votes are counted and the election resolved in a very clear process.  This strengthens the bond between the system and the ordinary voter.  AV is by no means a complicated system, but it does reduce the immediacy and drama of the process.  Is this enough to tolerate the problems of FPTP, with the power it gives to unaccountable party machines?  I say no.  And if it was, I would replace FPTP with a system of run-offs, like they use in France and Italy, which have the best of both worlds, but are much more expensive.

Which leaves me with the real reason that major party establishment types want a No vote.  FPTP makes it very hard for rebels in their own ranks to challenge the officially selected candidate, for fear of letting the opposition in.  AV makes it much easier for party rebels.  Candidate selection processes are subject to heavy influence from party hierarchies and give the established order real power over our political system.  Now, ask yourself, is that a good reason why ordinary voters should vote No?  Ed Milliband is very brave to see through this to wish for a more democratic political process, and support the Yes campaign.  He is consistently under-estimated by the politicos that dominate what passes for political debate in Britain.  It will be good for the country if he wins this vote.


How would AV change UK politics?

In my post last week I explained why I am supporting the Alternative Vote (AV) in the forthcoming UK referendum.  This case was based on principle.  We have a system of single member constituencies.  First past the post (FPTP) carries a high risk of unrepresentative candidates being elected.  Of the various systems in use around the world to counter the weaknesses of FPTP (primary elections in the US, run-off elections in France, AV in Australia), AV seems to fit the British situation best.  I avoided asking what the impact of any change would be: just that the system is more democratic.  But there are pragmatic types out there for whom the likely impact of the changes is more important than first principles.  Today’s post is for them.  It will help show them why it is best to think about principles.

The trouble with most analysis of this in the UK is that it is based on looking at past FPTP results, supported by some opinion polls on second preferences, and then predicting how the outcome would have been with AV.  This runs into two problems.  First is that the next election is going to be quite unlike the last few, if for no other reason than that the current government is a coalition.  The next problem is that AV will change voting behaviours, and the campaign pitches of the political parties.  The usual conclusion is that the Lib Dems will benefit quite a bit, Labour marginally, and the Conservatives would lose out.  None of these effects would have been enough to change the outcome of elections except maybe the last one.  Extra seats for Lib Dems and Labour might have made the current coalition impossible, and even a Labour-Lib Dem one on the cards.  That’s enough for most Conservatives.  If we had had AV last time, Gordon Brown might still be PM.

The Lib Dems should benefit.  About time many will say – since the party is badly under-represented in parliament.  More pragmatic types worry that this would give a smaller party too much influence in the choice of coalition partners.  But the Lib Dems do face a problem.  In order to benefit their first preference votes need to get past either the Labour or Conservative candidates (in England – it’s more complicated in Scotland and Wales).  They might then attract second preference votes from whichever of these parties gets knocked out.  And yet the classic Lib Dem campaign technique is to persuade voters to vote for them because one or other of the major parties doesn’t stand a chance; this argument has much less resonance under AV.  Voters will say that they will simply give the Lib Dems a second preference, and give their first preference to their most preferred party.  As a result Conservative or Labour candidates currently in third place might sneak into second, knocking the Lib Dems out.  The Littleborough & Saddleworth seat at the last election was a Labour seat that people count as vulnerable to the Lib Dems under AV; but the Conservative vote was strong and under AV they might well have pushed past the Lib Dems into second place, which would, in fact, have made the seat safer for Labour.  This could be a big help to the Labour Party in the South West.  In Australia the two party system is entrenched (one of the “parties” being a coalition in an electoral pact).  The Lib Dems will be desperate for first preference votes under AV, and in the long term it cannot be taken for granted that the party would flourish.

Labour has less to fear.  It might help them pick up in areas where they are in third place – now great swathes of England.  They may not do so well from picking up second preferences from Lib Dem voters next time – but only because they will have done such a good job of persuading them to vote Labour as first preference.  They get some insurance against those voters drifting back.  It is a moment of truth for Labour supporters who believe that there is a “progressive majority” – a majority of voters for whom the Conservative Party is toxic.  If so the system ensures that the Conservatives never get a majority.

And that is the challenge for the Conservatives.  It will be much more difficult for them to sneak in a majority government against the votes of the a majority of the electorate.  But many Conservatives believe in something like a “silent majority” – the opposite of the progressive majority.  There are lot of people sympathetic to their policies that do not say so, and will not give them a first preference vote.  If so, they may pick up a lot of second preferences.  This could be particularly helpful to them at the next election, when both UKIP and the Lib Dems will be trying to pick off their voters.  If Labour succeeds in pulling past the Lib Dems in South Western seats, then this will make a few seats a bit safer for them, since they will get more second preferences from Lib Dem voters than Labour ones.

For the smaller parties AV is ambiguous.  It is difficult to see that extremist parties, like the BNP, will make any headway, since other voters will gang up against them.  Their best hope of an MP is under FPTP in a split seat.  But UKIP and the Greens may well think they can pick up a majority in favoured seats by scooping up enough second preference votes.  In the UKIP case they need to push past the Conservatives, either in what would now be very safe Conservative seats, or in Lib Dem held seats where they can hope to scoop up some Labour voters too.  For the Greens the game is to push past the Lib Dems, and scoop up enough of their votes to push past Labour (or the other way round), to mount a challenge on the Tories.  In both cases these are long shots, but you need a deal of optimism in politics.

In sum, the impact of AV is very uncertain in the UK.  The Lib Dems could assert themselves with a permanently larger block of seats, alongside a scattering of seats for the greens and perhaps UKIP.  Or the two party system could reassert itself, with the other parties finding it more difficult to pick up enough first preference votes.  But the outcome is uncertain for a good reason: electoral politics will be more competitive.  Who knows what voters would do?




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!