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.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

What is the Westminster Parliament?

I'm sure some of you have rather blunt answers.

But the question of just what Westminster is lies at the heart of much of the debate about devolution and non-devolution. And the answer affects proposals for tackling the problems caused by devolution.

This applies as much to the House of Lords as much as the House of Commons. The Lords rarely gets a look-in when it comes to the West Lothian Question but if anything it presents even more challenges than the Commons. (And simply waiting for Lords reform is an unrealistic solution; besides some of the proposed alternatives present the same problems.)

Fundamentally the question boils down to whether the Westminster Parliament and Government are there to serve:
  • The United Kingdom as a whole albeit with various different packages of law making and services sub-contracted out for certain parts of the country?
Or
  • The United Kingdom as a "federal" entity plus England as a "state" entity all mixed in together with various other bits that are devolved to some but not all nations?
The answer is probably, in that typical British fashion, somewhere between the two without much thought as to precisely which. But we now have a greater focus upon the anomalies. And without consensus on what we have at the moment it's hard to obtain consensus on whether change is needed and if so what to.

At present Westminster largely operates as a UK entity. It is much harder to surgically extract "English-only matters" than many cries suggest. Taxation is a UK-wide matter. Most government departments combine UK and English elements - for instance the Department of Health runs the English NHS but also does UK-wide work such as negotiations on international reciprocal use agreements. And the Barnett Formula that determines the funding for the devolved nations is based on spending in England. It would take a major overhaul of how Westminster is structured before one could start restricting the voting rights of some MPs.

There's also the basis that MPs are supposed to serve the whole country, not just their own constituency. This makes every single one of the 650 MPs "our MP", not just the one elected in the local constituency. This is even starker in the House of Lords where peers do not have constituencies and it's impossible to filter out any except perhaps the Bishops.

(And although you could assign the Bishops as "English" it would get messier to divide them up by regions. Only five sees have permanent places in the Lords and the other twenty-one are the most senior representing the Church of England as a whole rather than their individual dioceses. Plus many dioceses cross regional and local government boundaries.)

I'll just add that this part of the problem doesn't necessarily go away with Lords reform. A number of proposals for both appointed and elected upper houses include UK-wide members, whether appointed by Westminster or elected by some of the PR systems.

Now one could undertake a major restructuring within Westminster. But whilst that would make it easier to determine what is and isn't an "English-only matter" it would not address the basic problem of having different majorities on different matters. Could Westminster actually function if conflicting majorities within a single chamber start voting in direct contradiction? Could a minister with a joint English and UK ministry find themselves appointed by one majority and then immediately no confidenced by the other? If a separate English executive was elected by the English-only MPs (let's just leave for now the question of matters devolved to Scotland but not Wales) then you could get the First Minister of England serving also as the Leader of the Opposition of the United Kingdom. Conflict could reign supreme and non-English MPs could get shut out of contention for leadership roles.

What sounds like a simple elegant solution brings a whole minefield of problems with no easy resolution. A more lasting solution must leave each body with a single function, even if some asymmetrical arrangements have to be put in place.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

How to make changes last?

No country benefits from having its constitutional affairs in flux. Uncertainty breeds instability which can lead to economic difficulties and social unrest. The approach must always be "Get it right, not get it first". And the outcome should be something that will last well beyond the next change of power.

But how to get change agreed and enacted can be harder than it seems. It is never possible to get everyone to agree 100%. There will always be cries of "what about...?" There is a risk that parties or groups will boycott the process and then spend years trying to undermine the outcome. Opinions can change. And so forth.

It's also critical to get public support for the process and outcomes - and that's the public at large not just the chattering classes of the left or the right. And this needs to be done in synthesis with the political classes - the system is there to represent and serve the public at large but those who have to operate it have to be comfortable to enable it to work.

Scotland's Constitutional Convention was an example of how things can work well and badly. It brought together parties and civic society to openly discuss the details of outcomes. It operated in public. It sought consensus rather than simple majorities. But it lacked input from outside Scotland and opened up problems in the process, both with the West Lothian Question but also because elements of the proposed Scottish Parliament were then copied wholesale for other parts of the United Kingdom. And two significant parties boycotted the Convention - the Conservatives and the Scottish National Party - so had no buy-in to the outcome.

A constitutional convention for the whole United Kingdom could address the basic questions of how to devolve power, how to grant equity to each part of the country and how to manage relations between areas. That could come up with a broad scheme that could be offered to the country. But it would need buy in by multiple players to be effective.

But then how to make it popular and lasting? Referendums are now an established part of our political system. Whatever their merits as a means to legislate they are the right tool to redistribute political power. If the public are to trust politicians again, the politicians must first demonstrate trust in the public.

Inevitably there will be problems along the way. There will be those complaining that the European Union, the monarchy, the House of Commons voting system, direct democracy or any number of other matters aren't being discussed. But you can't overload a convention to the point where nothing gets decided. Then there are the past referendums. To some voters it may seem as though they're being asked to vote again on something already decided in this generation. There are mixed mandates on devolution in England and a settlement will have to navigate these.

But at a broader level there are some basic questions to be grappled with. Including deciding just what the Westminster Parliament is...

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Time for a constitutional convention?

Traditionally we've not bothered with form and consistency in this country. Our governance has been riddled with inconsistencies and anomalies. Sometimes they've even come in a single package - for instance when the Greater London Council was created, rather than take sides on removing education from the control of the outer boroughs or expanding it to the inner ones, the compromise was created whereby it was a borough matter in Outer London but in Inner London it was a GLC matter albeit subcontracted to a committee consisting of only the Inner London members. (When the Mayor of London and Greater London Authority were set up there was the question of how to devolve scrutiny of the Metropolitan Police, as their Area wasn't coterminous with Greater London. Initially the solution was to be a joint committee of London Assembly Members and relevant Home Counties MPs but the MPA boundary was realigned.)

And we do things piecemeal rather than as a whole. Local government in England is a bewildering patchwork, with different configurations of powers and election cycles that confuse even hardcore political anoraks. We bemoan low turnouts but how can voters grasp what the elections mean and when they'll take place when even the political classes are confused?

A similar approach was taken with devolution. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have different arrangements. England has nothing meaningful (to most voters a Mayor is a piece of local government not regional and the London Assembly invisible). Anomalies abound everywhere. And it's no longer possible to close some of Pandora's Boxes.

It's not just devolution. In many areas discussion is not joined up. Look at the House of Lords where debate is all about how members are selected and not about what they will do or how the chamber should interact with the Commons.

It is time for a comprehensive look at the distribution of power in this country and to find a settlement acceptable to the whole United Kingdom. But that may not be as easy as it sounds.

In future posts I'll look at some of the ways to do this and obstacles to navigate.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The United Kingdom goes on

Scotland has voted to stay in the United Kingdom. It was touch and go during the campaign but I'm very pleased at the result.

However this is not the end of the issue. To prevent endless referendums and pain much has to be done to win the hearts and minds of many of those who voted Yes.

The wider United Kingdom needs its arrangements looked at in whole and I'll be posting on that in days to come.

But for now let's be glad the Union is here to stay, reinforced by a popular mandate.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Scotland deciding

If there's one political issue I get asked about more than any other at the moment it's Scottish independence.

I am not aware of any current active political consideration of independence for Scotland but I presume people mean the referendum on leaving the United Kingdom. But since the Scottish government wants to both stay in the European Union and enter a currency union with the rest of the United Kingdom it's not accurate to call this proposal "independence".

It's up to Scotland to decide but I can't deny it would be a body blow. I have many happy childhood memories of visiting my late grandparents in Edinburgh and beyond. Scotland becoming a separate state may not mean I could no longer visit Edinburgh and remember, but it would make it a different experience. It's not easy to put the feeling into words but the prospect is not something I would like.

However there are some issues that are not exclusively matters for Scotland. Whether or not there are border controls and passport checks between countries are a matter for both countries to determine. A separate Scotland is as free as one can be in the EU to decide what controls and restrictions are in place for entering the country, but it will have no direct say over what the rest of the United Kingdom chooses to do. If the rest of the United Kingdom chooses to have border controls to enter from Scotland - and it's quite possible we will as it's likely that Scotland as a new EU member will have to sign up the Schengen Agreement as a condition of entry (whereas Ireland is not a signatory) so this would be essential to prevent a hole in our immigration strategy - then all a separate Scotland can do is protest.

And a currency union isn't going to automatically happen just because the largest party proposing a Yes vote advocates one. The rest of the United Kingdom would also have to agree to it. You can find expert economists who support just about any position and argue endlessly over whether it makes it good economic sense for the rest of the United Kingdom, but membership of a currency union is also a political matter and the three largest UK parties have all ruled it out. A referendum might be a necessary hurdle. The UK has spent the last two decades seeking to avoid another currency union despite lots of people, including Alex Salmond and some expert economists, insisting it makes sense. So there's no automatic guarantee an alternative one would happen.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Iain Macleod

In 1968 a senior Conservative Shadow Cabinet member and former Minister of Health boldly took a stand against not only the government's proposed legislation on immigration but also in contrast to his own party's support or it. It was a brave move but very characteristic of a man who is in many ways the ancestor of much of the modern Conservative Party.

That man was Iain Macleod, who died forty-four years ago today.

Macleod did not initially seem destined for a political career. Born to a GP in Yorkshire but from the Western Isles, he at first undertook a career as a professional bridge player, even being on a team that won the top award. He would subsequently write a book entitled Bridge is an easy game; a title I cannot agree with. But then came the war in which he served with distinction and was severely wounded. Throughout the rest of his life he was often in great pain, a sight all to obvious when he made many of his great speeches. But he did not regard his pain as a great disability in politics - after all how was it bad thing to be a Conservative who couldn't look over his left shoulder?!

He turned to politics, notably standing in 1945 as the Conservative candidate for the Western Isles despite there being no Conservative Association there. He and his father held a meeting of themselves and emerged as candidate and association chairman respectively. Subsequently Macleod worked in the Conservative Research Department and contributed radical ideas to the post war reimagining of Conservative aims. Elected in 1950 for Enfield West, Macleod was one of many talented Conservatives to enter Parliament that year who would dominate politics for the next quarter of a century. He soon proved his great oratory in a debate on the Health Service and in 1952 because the first of his intake to head a ministry when he was appointed Minister of Health, albeit outside the Cabinet. (In those days not all heads of department served in the Cabinet and Churchill's style at the time was to have a smaller team of "Overlords", including some non-party cronies, taking general responsibility for direction whilst leaving the detail outside.) Over the next decade he served in a variety of posts including Minister of Labour, during which he defeated a bus drivers' strike, Secretary of State for the Colonies during which many got their independence, and then jointly as Chairman of the Conservative Party and Leader of the House of Commons. These two roles were hard to mix, the one requiring a non-partisan consensual approach, the other a robust partisan. (Subsequent Leaders of the House who have combined it with a campaigning position have had similar problems. William Hague please take note.)

He was a man that many modern Conservatives have much in common with even if they don't realise it. A moderate laissez-faire in economics (in 1965 he remarked on Powellite economics that "I'm a fellow-traveller, but I prefer to get out one or two stops before the train crashes into the buffers at the terminus") and a supporter of liberal causes and keeping the state out of enforcing morality, he was also prepared to take bold stands against his own party's right. As Colonial Secretary he realised the Empire was dying on its feet and it was essential to decolonise quickly even when it meant ignoring the entrenched privileges of colonial elites - in response to those who argued he moved too fast he replied "...although it was extremely dangerous to move quickly it would have been far more dangerous to try and hold back..." This may have cost him any chance of the party leadership but he remained convinced he had done the right thing and, in his close friend and biographer Nigel Fisher's words "saved Africa for the Commonwealth". He disliked the word "Conservative" but oddly preferred "Tory", looking to the traditions of Disraeli and Lord Randolph Churchill.

In early 1968 Britain faced the prospect of hundreds of thousands of white and Asian Kenyans coming to the UK as the recently independent country pursued a policy of Africanisation, including the outlawing of dual citizenship. Few batted an eyelid at the prospect of white Kenyans coming to the country - indeed previous legislation had left open the relevant loophole precisely to allow their entry. The Asian Kenyans provoked a very different response. The Labour government introduced the Commonwealth Immigrants' Bill that would restrict their right of entry. Macleod was outraged at the breach of past promises - indeed it was the prospect that any further government assurances would be reneged on that was accelerating the pace of migration - and took steps to publicly commit himself to opposing the Bill before the Shadow Cabinet had agreed to support it. He did this by two ways, one was by firmly sticking to promises he had made as Colonial Secretary that he could not break, and the other was through publishing an article setting out his views whilst nominally in opposition to a Private Member's Bill in the Spectator, exploiting the publishing schedule, and thus made it impossible for him to do anything but oppose the Bill. It was a risky strategy but a courageous one. Macleod strongly believed "...quite simply in the brotherhood of man—men of all races, of all colours, of all creeds. I think it is this that must be in the centre of our thinking..." The idea that the character of citizenry was determined by a person's skin colour was complete anathema to him.

He faced the dilemma of being opposed to both racial discrimination but also to the idea that legislation can change people's minds and hearts. Ultimately he concluded the Labour government's proposed legislation was unworkable and wrong but that in no way meant that he endorsed the views it sought to tackle. However to help colleagues in the Shadow Cabinet he used his influence to get the Party to not vote against the Bill. After Enoch Powell made his notorious speech, Macleod refused to speak to him for the rest of his life. Later that year Macleod put his career on the line by threatening to quit if his friend (and later biographer) Nigel Fisher was deselected for being too liberal and replaced with a Powellite MP.

In 1970 the Conservatives won the general election in a surprise to many. Macleod had fought a good campaign and I know many Conservatives who can still recall his great oratory on display then. He became Chancellor of the Exchequer and seemed set upon a bold reform of the tax system but the following month he was struck down with abdominal pain and subsequently died of a heart attack. How the Heath government would have gone had he lived remains of much speculation.

But Macleod's legacy is clear to see. Progressive socially liberal conservatism that values opportunity for all, which sees a role for the state to prevent and correct societal wrongs, which is compassionate and cares for the most vulnerable in society, which seeks to free the individual as much as possible, and which seeks to control public spending firmly is present for all to see. In his youth John Major was an admirer of Macleod and much of his approach in government lived up to that legacy. Today's generation of Conservatives are less likely to remember and recall him but they too live up to his legacy.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Sometimes you have to fail to succeed

So David Cameron tried to block Jean-Claude Juncker's appointment and failed. It happens - not everyone can win all the time. But it was also necessary. If he'd just thrown up his hands and said there's nothing that can be done to reform the European Union many would have doubted it all the way to the inevitable referendum.

Instead he set out to do what he could to stop this federalist taking office. But it was impossible to do so and that's been shown. Would all those now piling in rather the United Kingdom had meekly nodded its head to Juncker's appointment? Of course not - they'd have been critical of that as well, protesting that an effort should have been made. Well one was - and even though the immediate objective was unsuccessful it has shown how unlikly it is that the EU can be reformed. Many may need further convincing before it becomes clear the only two options are a federal superstate and withdrawal, but it's a start.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Comments on ballot papers don't deliver a message

At some point I'll post my more general reflections on the council and European elections last week but for now I want to focus on one aspect that doesn't get much discussion - spoilt ballot papers at the count.

For those who've never been to an election count, one of the important later stages is the adjudication. This is when all ballot papers identified by the counting as "Doubtful" - i.e. those that don't seemingly express a clear & correct number of intentions - are ruled on by either the Returning Officer or a formally designated deputy. Candidates and/or their agents are entitled to attend to witness the rulings though challenges must be submitted through the legal process. Crucially it's often the case that not every candidate/party is represented at this but that's their own decision.

Coming late in the count and usually straight after a long and intense campaign, all the candidates and agents are invariably tired and focusing their remaining energies on spotting valid votes for their own side. The ballot papers also go by fairly fast, especially in a borough such as Newham, which has many doubtful votes.

Some votes are ruled as valid and returned to the pile. Others are ruled out for one of the following reasons:
  • Want of an official mark
  • Being unmarked or wholly void for uncertainty
  • Voting for more candidates than voter was entitled to
  • Writing or mark by which voter could be identified
The first is rare nowadays due to changes in the way ballot papers are designed, printed and issued. The fourth should be self-explanatory though it includes polling numbers as well as names. The third is also known as "Overvoting" and is particularly common when there are multiple ballot papers given out at the same time - in my opinion the vast majority of these that I saw last week were either people who read the instructions on one ballot paper and followed them on the other two or people who put both their first and second preference for Mayor in the same column.

The second is something of a catch-all category, including blank ballot papers, ticks and crosses in so awkward a place they couldn't be determined, various attempts to vote for "None" and a variety of comments.

Why people cast spoilt ballot papers is ultimately known only to them, though I suspect a lot of the blanks come from people being given three papers and mistakenly assuming they can only vote on one of them. I'd be interested to hear people's experience from other multiple election counts but I'm not persuaded they're a sign of a mass deliberate "Vote Blank" campaign.

The comments are usually clearer, expressing dissatisfaction with some or all of the candidates or the absence of a particular party. But frankly they don't make any impact beyond comedy and irritation - it's a common opinion at counts that nobody who has seen how this process works would bother trying to send politicians a message by the ballot paper. The official returns bundle them in with the blanks and mistakes. The agents are primarily concerned to a) save good votes and b) work out where their supporters made mistakes & how to get them to get it right next time. Nobody is transcribing messages. If the agents report any of the messages back to party activists it will be for a laugh rather than anything else.

So all the essays and brief comments scribbled on ballot papers are ultimately ineffective. If you wish to not vote or to cast a blank then you're perfectly entitled to. But if you want to send a message to politicians in general or in particular, this is not the way to do it. Try email or Twitter or even, to show how serious you are, snail mail.

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