Monday, May 25, 2015

Who can and can't vote for what?

There's been a lot of nonsense today about how various people are being "denied" [sic] or "given" the vote in the forthcoming European Union referendum and it's clear some of the complaints stem from mistaken belief about who can and can't currently vote. So here's a quick rundown.

British citizens over the age of 18 resident in the United Kingdom have the right to vote for the House of Commons, the devolved Parliaments (when they reside in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales), local councils and the European Parliament.

The only exceptions are:
  • Members of the House of Lords (including, I think, those who've retired from it) who cannot vote for the House of Commons but can for devolved Parliaments (when they reside in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales), local councils and the European Parliament.
  • Convicted prisoners who have no vote at all for the duration of their sentences
  • Certified "lunatics" have no vote at all
  • People who have not registered themselves to vote
Citizens of other Commonwealth countries plus citizens of the Republic of Ireland over the age of 18 resident in the United Kingdom can vote for the House of Commons, the devolved Parliaments (when they reside in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales), local councils and the European Parliament. Indeed on the register I have in front of me there's no distinction whatsoever.

British citizens over the age of 18 who reside abroad and who left the United Kingdom within the last fifteen years are entitled to vote for the House of Commons and the European Parliament, with their vote allocated to the constituency of their last UK address. They cannot vote for the devolved Parliaments (when they resided in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales) or local councils.

European Union citizens over the age of 18 resident in the United Kingdom are entitled to vote for the devolved Parliaments (when they reside in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales), local councils and the European Parliament. However to exercise their vote for the European Parliament they have to complete an additional form confirming they are exercising their vote in the UK and not in their country of citizenship. This is a bureaucratic European procedure that may be modified by 2019 regardless of the outcome of the referendum.

(This doesn't apply, as far as I know, to Cyprus, Malta and the Republic of Ireland. Their Commonwealth membership or the special UK legislation trumps their EU membership in this regard.)

Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory that is part of the European Union via the UK's membership. Citizens in Gibraltar over the age of 18 can vote for the European Parliament as part of the South West England constituency. They also have franchise rights in Gibraltar's own elections.

As you can see from this list there are actually a lot of different potential electorates (the register I have here has no less than six codes for different types of voter) and this can create myths about who can and can't vote already.

In terms of who gets to vote in referendums, this depends on the legislation for each individual vote. At some point it would be better if Parliament passed some standing legislation to set this down in advance rather than have these rows each time.

Most referendums since the late 1990s onwards have been about either devolution or aspects of local government and have used the local government franchise. The Scottish separation referendum had special provision for 16 and 17 year olds to vote.

The AV referendum was on the House of Commons franchise except that members of the House of Lords were also able to vote; overall this was because this was a decision with would otherwise have been taken by the Westminster Parliament.

The European Union membership referendum has similarly been announced as using the House of Commons franchise plus the House of Lords and also Gibraltar. In other words pretty much the people who would otherwise have elected or voted in the Parliament that would otherwise take the decision. Oddly I've seen almost no comment about Gibraltar compared to all the talk about European Union citizens or Commonwealth citizens.

And apart from one referendum in Scotland, 16 and 17 year olds have never had the vote.

So all this talk of "denying" and "disenfranchising" voters is nonsense. They don't have the relevant vote anyway.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

The Balls moment

Here it is, courtesy of You Tube, the moment when Ed Balls lost his seat to Andrea Jenkyns:



In future we must replay this every year on Ed Balls Day.

Some thoughts on the election

During this election I was mainly focused on the local West Ham constituency where I was the agent for Festus Akinbusoye, our brilliant local Conservative candidate, and also on the Stratford and New Town by-election, where Matthew Gass ran a strong campaign. Both recieved more votes than any previous candidate I have records for. And that includes me.

Of the national picture I had no clear idea with the polls seemingly all over the place or showing more margin of error than usual but an underlying tiny Conservative lead.

Come the count my priorities were local, especially in the first couple of hours. So when I saw the exit poll showing us as the largest party with an increase in seats I just dismissed it as wildly inaccurate and went off to watch the ballot box openings. As it turned out the poll was inaccurate - but in the other direction.

Politics students up and down the country can now write essays on the question "Who had a worse election result in 2010 - Ed Miliband or Peter Kellner?" The polling industry is clearly going to have to reassess its methodology - the UK is just one of a number of countries ranging from Canada to Israel where polls have spectacularly got it wrong in recent elections.

I will not deny it, getting an overall majority was an expected joy. Seeing particular politicians defeated also brings a cheer, especially Ed Balls. For any Conservative who had to endure Portillo's defeat this was balance.

And Nigel Farage and George Galloway have proved to be great national unifiers. People across the whole political spectrum united in delight at their defeats.

Amongst the smaller parties it was a shock to see the Ulster Unionists return to Westminster. It's even more amazing that the Revd. Willie McCrea lost his seat to a pro gay marriage candidate. Let's hope this is the start of something in Northern Ireland.

The SNP surge in Scotland is one of the biggest shocks and a reminder that there is no such thing as a safe seat when such huge majorities crumbled. It's odd to think that my grandparents' old home in Edinburgh is now in the only Labour seat in Scotland. But Scotland has spoken firmly and cannot be ignored.

And the Lib Dems have had a spectacular crash. There are many mistakes they made, and I may blog on them separately, but one thought spring to mind. It seems that the only people who thought the Lib Dems made a pro Liberal Democrat difference in government were either Lib Dem activists or frustrated Conservatives. Many have pointed to disillusion left-leaning Lib Dem voters deserting the party for Labour, the Greens or the SNP. But equally some right-leaning Lib Dem voters felt that the government was more to their liking than they expected and they didn't think the Lib Dems had much influence. So they concluded that it was down to David Cameron. So Nick Clegg has achieved the detoxification of the Conservative Party.

When David Cameron first became leader he set out to see off the Lib Dem threat. First he tried direct appeals, hoping for mass defections, but it didn't work. Then he tried dismissing and ridiculing them, but it didn't work. Finally he tried bearhugging them. And it crushed them.

We now have five years to complete the rebuilding of the economy and society. We must not shirk the task.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Spot the breaches... or just enjoy the song

Here's a blast from the past - the time Mr Bean stood for Parliament:


My readers who are candidates or agents will doubtlessly have spotted all the various breaches of election law in the campaign. But I don't know if there's a follow-up song entitled "Petitioned".

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Clock changing

Yes it's the twice annual debate about clocks changing. These days more and more equipment does it automatically and it may not be that long before the primary mechanics of the changeover are completely hassle free. The secondary ones, such as how to cut an hour out of long train journeys, may not be so easy to solve.

But am I the only one for whom it rather crept up this year and was expecting it to be next weekend? If there weren't already so many bank holidays at this time of year then "Clock Changing Day" might be an idea for adjustment. Of course it wouldn't actually be on the days clocks change.

And yes there's the debate about whether we should have GMT+1 in winter or switch to Central European Time all year round. But I wish people would remember the effect varies as one goes further west and/or north. It's very easy for someone who lives just and the south and just east of the Greenwich Meridian to overlook just when dawn will come in the rest of these islands. And much of the debate in the UK overlooks that we have shared time with Ireland since the late 1940s, changing at the same time and both taking part in the all year GMT+1 experiment in 1968-1971.

All points to ponder...

Saturday, January 31, 2015

"No junk mail" means "No junk mail" but "junk mail" means "junk mail"

With the general election coming this year there's going to be a lot of leaflets flying about. And they often generate complaints about delivery... in both directions.

Activists in all political parties I've spoken to report the same things - people complaining about receiving political leaflets when they have a sign up saying "No junk mail" but also people complaining about not receiving them when they have such a sign up. This is because of what the term does and doesn't cover.

To cut to the chase the term "junk mail" covers unsolicited commercial material but not non-commercial political communications. As a result many homes that have clear signs up that say "No junk mail" also have signs saying "No leaflets" or "No circulars" or "No unaddressed mail" or "Posted mail only" or "Royal Mail only" or some such. This covers political leaflets in a way that "No junk mail" doesn't.

Consequently most deliverers will post political leaflets through letterboxes that have signs that say "No junk mail" because they're not "junk mail". If a person does not wish to receive them they will need a sign that covers them.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Referendum problems

Okay let's get the easy one out of the way first. The plural is "referendums". Not ~a. I won't take up this post with the rationale (but see the very end for a bit).

The more complicated problems stem from their haphazard use in this country, with the result that we now have a mixture of precedents and popular decisions. Exactly what has been rejected beyond the specific measure on the ballot paper is often disputed and that brings up the question of what would be ignoring the will of the people or subjecting them to a neverendum until they "get it right". And some of these decisions covered only specific nations, regions or cities so are they binding on the rest?

In general a referendum is assumed to settle a political question for some period longer than a single parliament or council term. Of course one can find examples internationally of the same question being brought back almost immediately and rather more cases of losing sides declining to give up the cause. And there are countries where the political culture is such that a second referendum is actually expected if the measure is initially defeated, allowing the first vote to be used as a chance to protest some of the detail rather than an outright rejection. Legislation (and constitutions) only sometimes addresses this matter. More usually it's left to political will.

(In another post I'll detail what we have and haven't voted for on constitutional matters over the years and ask just how far that stretches.)

And if a referendum is going to formally settle a matter for a long time then there's the question of just what should be an acceptable threshold for enacting a change. It's fashionable to decry super majorities. turnout thresholds, total electorate requirements and multiple sectional consents as undemocratic, but is democracy really served well by measures passing on tiny turnouts? With some referendums and elections attracting turnouts in the teens or below, the prospect of just 5% of an electorate deciding a matter is not unrealistic. Is that really "democratic"?

The UK's mixed history of using referendums has thrown up a lot of anomalies. We've had them for a number of differing reasons including:
  • A desire to transfer the decision making to a local level to get out of the issue altogether.
  • A way for a national government to duck a divisive issue that splits the party or parties.
  • A way for a government to lock in constitutional change by getting a direct mandate from the people, making it harder for a different party to undo in government.
  • A way for opponents of a measure to put a populist roadblock in the way of a change.
  • A way to demonstrate to the international community that the constitutional situation has popular support.
  • The broad principle that a change in the distribution of political power should be decided by the people not by the politicians.
The last one is often appealed in calls for referendums but is rarely the reason we actually get them - whether we have a vote or not is decided by politicians in the first place.

Because of these varying reasons the thresholds for referendums to pass have also varied. In general if the prospective "Yes"/"Change" campaign is in control of setting the rules then all that's needed is 50%+1 of any turnout whatsoever. When the rules are controlled by the less enthusiastic or opponents then additional thresholds can come up. The old Scottish local prohibition referendums had complex requirements of super majorities and minimum support amongst the total electorate in order to enact prohibition. More notoriously the 1979 devolution referendums required a minimum of 40% of the total electorate to vote yes for the measure to pass. It's a surprise that council tax increase referendums do not come with any special threshold.

Because most recent referendums have had no additional thresholds it may be hard to consider them now. (That said I note the SNP are now calling for an EU withdrawal referendum to pass in all four parts of the UK to be valid.) But with turnouts in serious decline and ever more calls for public votes that could mean more stuff passing over the heads of the population. Even publicity is not a given. The myth of the obsessed citizen who always knows which noticeboard to consult and who is always aware of every vote and planning measure going is not one that matches the reality.

And in this great wave of calls to think again about how we do things, why should we be bound by past precedents? We should be able to consider this one carefully in a way that can empower the electorate without forcing them to have to turnout all the time to block measures they don't care for.

But there is a major problem that can't easily be overcome and that's different results in different areas. Can individual nations and regions rewrite the make-up of the UK without reference to others? An individual city may not want a Mayor but should it have a say in whether or not its rivals can get an advantage from a champion. Can only some parts of England have devolution or will it be an all or nothing offer?

All questions to ponder...

(So why is it "referendums" not ~a? The only necessary answer is very simple - loan-words absorbed into the English language take English language rules and people do not need to be familiar with the origin of a word and the rules of the original language in order to use it. We do not talk of "apparatchiki" or "octopodes" or "kindergärten". There is no good reason for making an exception for Latin.

And although it's irrelevant to the plural, those who argue for the original Latin usually get it wrong anyway. Latin has lot of "cases" and "declensions" and other terms that hardly anyone can remember and which even my spell check doesn't recognise, meaning the word has different endings depending on the circumstances. But the advocates for "Latin plurals" put forward a single plural in all circumstances. That's bad Latin even before it gets to English.

Turning back to "referendum", this doesn't even have a plural in Latin. The word means "referring". Using ~a would mean a multi-issue referendum, but almost nobody uses the word in such a narrow context.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Gough Whitlam 1916-2014

Gough Whitlam is probably the most intensely studied of all Australian Prime Ministers, not just in his home country but around the world. In just three years he brought sweeping changes to Australia, whether in education, health, foreign affairs, relations with indigenous Australians, the government of the Northern Territory and so much more. Even the Queen's title was changed to be more Australian.

It is in constitutional affairs that Whitlam attracts much global attention. Literally from its very first moment to its very last his government saw precedents broken and argument ensued. Rather than wait the customary period to assemble a full ministry and take office, he instead had himself and his deputy sworn into no less than twenty-seven different posts just a few days after winning the 1972 election in order to hit the ground running and immediately start implementing the government's agenda. Over the next few years more precedents would be broken and the two sides of Australian politics would fiercely argue over what practices were fundamental constitutional conventions and which were optional agreements to be set aside as and when.

Throughout its three year life the Whitlam government struggled with a hostile majority in the Senate. More legislation was blocked in three years than in the entire preceding seventy-two years of the Australian federation. Not even a "double dissolution" - a full election of all seats in both houses - resolved the gridlock beyond a few individual bills being passed (though they included the introduction of universal health care). How casual Senate vacancies were filled became another battleground with both sides crying foul about particular vacancies in Queensland. And then the Senate obstructed Supply, leading to Whitlam's dramatic dismissal by the Governor General Sir John Kerr on 11 November 1975. (The above picture is of Kerr's Private Secretary, David Smith, reading out the proclamation of the dissolution of Parliament in less than ideal circumstances with Whitlam literally glaring over his shoulder.)

Beyond the personalities and the use of the reserve powers of the Governor General, the Dismissal was a struggle over competing visions of how parliamentary democracy works in an elected bicameral system. It was more than just a dispute over the specific issue of both houses having powers over supply - the Senate was blocking much other legislation as well - and went to the heart of democracy and mandates. Did a government with a solid majority in the House of Representatives have the right to govern or did the Senate have the right to veto bring it down? Which democratically elected body was more democratically elected? Was it right for an upper house to demand an early election just because the political wind was blowing the opposition's way? Those considering elections for the British House of Lords would do well to look at the struggle between the Senate and House of Representatives in the Whitlam era to see how conventions are not enough to prevent check & balance powers being used for naked partisan aims.

The disputes about 1975 will last forever. Whitlam is probably arguing about it with Kerr right now. On this mortal coil we must look to see how these messes can be avoided.

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