Saturday, December 25, 2010

Friday, December 24, 2010

The bloggers we lost

2010 saw a lot of big name bloggers stopping their habit, especially those on the right (and yes Tom Harris, I include you in that).

Iain Dale's blog is hosting a skeleton service by Grant Tucker and he's just posted Bloggers say goodbye! including this tribute video:

Political bloggers say goodbye from Political Scrapbook on Vimeo.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Twenty years ago - Margaret Thatcher's last performance

Twenty years ago today Margaret Thatcher announced her resignation. Later that day there was a debate in the House of Commons on a motion of no confidence in her government, giving her the opportunity to defend the record of her government.

Without further ado, here is her speech:







Sunday, November 21, 2010

Enough Royal Wedding coverage already!

I know I'm not alone in being sick to death of the Royal Wedding coverage everywhere. Yes I hear someone cry that I don't have to read it. Well that would be true if it was confined to the likes of Hello magazine and so forth. But when you see a line of newspaper headlines all obsessing over minutia relating to the wedding and the couple, when you find the television news descending into celebrity dribble or when you see the couple's pictures up even in shop windows there's just no escaping it.

Okay the wedding itself will be massive and lots of people will want to watch it, so let them have the wedding day itself. But don't subject the country (and indeed the rest of the world) to months upon months of ramming it down our throats.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Election Leaflets Are Not Junk Mail

Anyone who has ever delivered any political leaflet for any party will know the scenarios.

1). You see a letter box with a sign saying "No junk mail". You avoid it. Later when canvassing the occupant complains they never get anything through the letterbox and says that their sign is just to stop leaflets about pizzas, doubleglazing, taxies and so forth.

2). You stick a leaflet in the letterbox and someone subsequently comes out to complain (or sends a complaint to party HQ).

Both scenarios can cause difficulties, but in the second case the person in the home is wrong because election & political communications are not junk mail, i.e. commercial advertising, but rather "informative" material. If people put up "no leaflets" or "no circulars" (or even the more specific "no political/election leaflets") then the situation is very different. This is the definition distinction in all the formal advice I've been given over the years, but it can confuse when people put up instructions without checking the terms used. See for example Stop Junk Mail: Political junk mail, and how to stop it which has the right idea but continues the confused use of the term. See also ft.com/westminster: Our junk mail isn’t junk mail.

For those who have been on the receiving end of angry recipients, here's an interesting story from an Official Monster Raving Loony Party leaflet:

Election Leaflets Are Not Junk Mail

Earlier in this campaign, I was confronted aggressively by an irate person who objected to the fact that I had just delivered a election leaflet through his letterbox. This was despite the fact that his notice merely said "no free newspapers or junk mail" but it did not say "no leaflets" or "no circulars".

I politely explained to him that election leaflets are not junk mail (junk mail means advertising such as pizza leaflets), but he mad a specific and overt threat that he would "punch me in the mouth" if I continued the conversation.

I immediately went to the police station and reported this threat, but I was told that the police would not bother to do anything because it was "not a arrestable offence". Such threats are unacceptable in a democratic society. Those of us - candidates and agents - who are engaged in the legitimate business of communicating our policies to the electorate during a election campaign need to be confident that we will be protected by the law if necessary.

The full leaflet can be seen at Official Monster Raving Loony Party: Croydon Branch: ELECTION LEAFLETS part 1: 2005 to 2010.

The campaigner subsequently produced a limited print run second version of the leaflet in question, this time including the above text, and delivered it to the same household to explain the point to the voter directly.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Who will listen to violent mobs?

In previous years I've been on a number of demonstrations about tuition fees and higher education funding. I can say hand on heart that we never took part in violent attacks on anywhere, and I have always been quick to condemn those who tried to divert the march in a ridiculous attempt to start the revolution and achieved nothing but destroying good will amongst the police.

(There's a lot of nonsense talked about the police but whenever demonstrations were being planned, whether in London or back in Canterbury, we found the police were actually quite sympathetic to the cause. This helped planning no end and undoubtedly increased the impact of the demonstration.)

This week's demonstration by the National Union of Students started well but got sidetracked by the atrocious scenes at Millbank. Anyone who thinks that violence is going to advance their cause one iota is seriously deluded.

There's a good post, Labour Uncut: The old cancer at the heart of the student riot, by Luke Akehurst about the problems the demonstrations have had in the past and the mentality of the far left extremists who have hijacked them. My favourite passage is this one:

They have to recruit. It's so unpleasant being a Trot – even more endless meetings than being a Labour activist, and you have to sell newspapers, and you have to split off and start a new party every time you disagree with the edicts of the central committee – that they need hundreds of new naive recruits each year to replace the ones they burn out and discard like political fag ends. What better place to find such recruits than on a demo attended by loads of young people who are passionate about politics? They can sidle up to them and tell them the big picture, the heavy stuff about the inevitable overthrow of capitalism – an enticing dream if you are an idealistic kid. Just sell these papers and nirvana is just around the corner They charmingly refer to the new recruits as "fodder" as in cannon fodder. One or two might be unlucky enough not to drop out and to get sucked into life as an otherwise unemployable full-time revolutionary "cadre".

Groups like the Revolutionary People's Popular Purified Revisionist Orthodox Socialist Communist Marxist Leninist Stalinist Trotskyist Maoist Are-You-Still-Following-Usist Workers' Front of Purley (sorry but Tooting has changed too much in the last three decades for that to still work) and other such fractions have achieved very little other than generating some business for glaziers. But they have also wrought fear and destruction, with many innocent people caught in the midst of this (Millbank contains many businesses and organisations, not just the Conservative Central Office).

Condemnation of these actions is insufficient for the NUS - the leadership must do everything it can to root up such militants, including expelling any and all officers who took part in the violence.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Advertising universities

In recent years more and more universities have taken to advertising themselves, ranging from the subtle such as railway station signs that tell us the suburb or town is "the home of the University of X" to the more in your face posters and billboards. I was a little taken aback the other week to discover a billboard for one university lurking under a bridge in Limehouse. You have to give the institution marks for ambition, if not quite for placing (the road under the bridge has been severed and although there's a nearby main road the board was against the traffic flow).

But however wild it may seem at the moment it's not yet reached the heights of some past institutions. Back in the days when I collected US comics I'd often come across 1960s & 1970s issues that contained adverts for the grandfather of aggressively marketed universities - LaSalle Extension University.

La Salle was a distance learning institutions founded in 1908 and lasted until 1982. More details about its rise and fall can be found at Boing Boing: LaSalle Extension University, snail-mail generations' University of Phoenix; suffice it to say it's the adverts that stand out to me the most.

Perhaps the most famous are the "Look who's smiling now!" set. These regularly appeared in magazines and the like in the post war period, telling of the success of one of the LaSalle graduates. The photograph might change with the ages but the message remained the same - here was a way to advance one's self through signing up to the university. The adverts appeared in many places, including those that even today you wouldn't expect to find universities advertising, such as comics. (That LaSalle advertised in comics is amazing in itself but it indicates one of two things. Either they were well ahead of almost every other advertiser in realising that even then comics were not just read by children but also by potential respondents. Or else they were trying to advertise to children to tell their parents. Given the tone of the adverts I'd incline towards the former as LaSalle were frequently ahead of the game.) LaSalle advertised elsewhere, even on matchboxes!

LaSalle also run some highly targeted adverts. To the right is one from a 1914 edition of the International Socialist Review. It's nicely targeted piece that knows the precise audience reading it and pitches explicitly to it. I find it hard to imagine the Open University ever running an advert like this!

Do adverts like this mean that LaSalle was an inherently left-wing institution? I doubt it. The next advert is not exactly left-wing after all!

This time the target is not the potential student themselves but rather bosses, telling them that the best way to deflect requests for wage increases was to direct their employees to LaSalle. It's a nice subtle trick, not dissimilar to adverts today that are designed to appeal to children to make them suggest the product to their parents.

Of course there were conventional pieces as well, such as this one advertising the university's home study law programme. This was the university's most popular programme but also the one that was ultimate LaSalle's downfall, as no state would accept a home study law programme as sufficient for qualifying to practice law. The Federal Trade Commission brought several actions and finally in 1980 LaSalle ended the degree before the university finally folded in 1982.

Still it left a legacy through its many graduates. As with many other distance learning institutions it did a lot to make university education accessible across society and in the era of segregation LaSalle provided a route to advancement for those to whom many conventional institutions' doors were closed. And the aggressive marketing practices have been picked up by other institutions around the world in an era where competition is ever fiercer.

You can see more adverts on Flickr at LaSalle Extension University ads.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Extreme rhetoric

In recent years the language of politics has been getting ever more overblown but of late it's reached rather worrying levels. Today it sinks to a new low with this, courtesy of Polly Toynbee:
(Hattip to ConservativeHome: Tories want "final solution" for the poor says Guardian's Polly Toynbee)

Has Toynbee lost the plot? Doesn't she realise just how offensive the use of such language as "final solution" is?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

London Mayoral selection - an asteroid in the works

Paul Waugh, Deputy Political Editor of the Evening Standard, has reported the following on Twitter:

Lib Dems suspend their London mayoral selection for a year..cos not enough approved candidates. Boris n Ken must be pleased
Roughly translated:

No credible "stop Lembit" candidate has come forward and the Liberal Democrats are scared he'll get the nomination
It's also a blow for Duwayne Brooks, a councillor in Lewisham who has emerged as the only other name in contention for the nomination. I guess he's just not big enough to be trusted to stop Lembit Öpik.

So the Liberal Democrat leadership has now got an extra year to sort this out - could they possibly be hoping that by then there will be a former minister in contention?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I still believe in free education

Yes in my heart of heart I still believe that charging for undergraduate degrees is wrong. I still wish it was free for all, allowing the opportunity for anyone who wishes to advance themselves through hard work and application. I don't believe markets in education work because of the special factors (mainly the one-off choice with little scope to rechoose and the "buy-before-you-try" position).

And over the years I've put that belief into action. I've marched against fees many times. Within my party I've argued for the scrapping of fees, before, during and after the time when we held that policy (and been told by some children that I should join another party; invariably they were hardliners from the so-called Conservative Way Forward).

So it's with a heavy heart that I receive the Browne Review. And it's not just the review. One of the heaviest facts to bear is that university fees of one form or another have been with us for thirteen years now. Every year that passes makes it that much harder to abolish them altogether.

And the economic circumstances make it very hard to embark on new expenditure ventures at the present time, even if some sensible moves are made like finally consigning the 50% target to the dustbin of history. The 2005 proposal of curbing expansion and using the money saved to axe fees is simply not viable now. Invariably some form of contribution from the students is a pill that has to be swallowed.

So it's a question of how and when to obtain that contribution. Paying huge amounts up front is nonsensical. Paying afterwards, when the ex-student is earning sufficient, is about the only way. And the Browne Review recommends raising the earnings threshold before repayment begins to £21,000. Is that so bad a thing to accept?

In such a situation it's ever harder to get worked up about the precise level of fees charged or if the amount will be variable. They will not be paid up front. And the Browne Review is also recommending increasing grants to poorer students.

If the message can be got forward that nobody will have to pay until they are earning significant amounts then maybe it can work.

But I'll still dream the dream and hope that one day we can return to free education when the time is right...

The student vote - a myth?

With Lord Browne of Madingley's review on Higher Education funding being published today there will invariably be a lot of speculation about the political consequences, especially for MPs with universities and a large number of students in their constituencies. There will be endless talk about the potential impact of the student vote in the next general election.

But all too often the "student vote" is massively overrated and fails to materialise in any significant measure; a fact that many are privately aware of but reluctant to speak out about. There are several factors, some relating to the mechanics of voting, some to the students themselves and some to timing that all suggest to me that the impact will be less than people predict.

The first key factor is the poor levels of registration for many students. Because of the way the registration system works (see Rethinking voter registration for details), many students simply do not get put on the register at their term time address. Some universities won't automatically register students in halls, citing data protection. Often the annual forms are set out in vacation. Individual rooms in halls of residence are especially immune to direct mailings. And so forth. So many students simply do not get on the register; nor do they easily get a form to add themselves. And this is often not picked up because previous occupants of their homes are still on the register; whilst it's especially hard to find a good time to reach students with a manual canvass (particularly if election services have limited resources).

Furthermore few political parties devote resources to targeting student voters in their constituencies. Local parties have limited resources and often have to leave out some areas in their leafleting and canvassing strategies. It's inevitable that student halls and suburbs with a lot of students renting will be amongst these - the high turnover renders much data obsolete, the weekend exodus means a high level of non-replies, students can't easily answer for their whole household, halls are difficult to access and so forth.

(And on a local level students can often be detached from the politics of an area because local media has limited penetration - free newspapers again don't easily get to students for starters.)

And one timing factor is that some university term dates put elections in the vacation or at a push the very start of term - this year's general election was three days into Queen Mary's term-time (and still in the vacation of my first university, Kent). Throw in the summer exam season when some students don't even move back but only travel in on exam days and you can see why the election is even less of a priority. The turnouts for campus based polling stations are often pitiful.

Then there's the basic fact that a large number of students simply do not vote (just) on the basis of student funding. The left-wing stereotype of most students is a myth perpetuated by the noisiest who aren't the loudest, and instead there is a coreish chunk for both main parties, another chunk for the Liberal Democrats, a large chunk that simply doesn't bother to turnout even when the polling station is on their doorsteps and only a small amount of swing voters. And they can be swung by other factors - everything from the economy, crime and public services to the environment, international development and support for the arts. Their basic philosophy on life will also play a factor here.

Finally there's the timing in all this. Very few of the students who voted at their term addresses in 2010 will still be students voting in those constituencies in 2015 - a few current undergraduates who go onto postgraduate degrees at the same institution and those on exceptionally long programmes but that's about it. Some more will settle in the area where they're studying (more on them later) but realistically any MP who this year made a local pledge to students about how they will vote will not be facing many of those students in 2015 about the pledge. Many of the new generation will have forgotten about the pledge unless prompted. But in past elections the generations who actually had to pay upfront tuition fees and then top-up fees did not disproportionately turn on Labour at the subsequent election.

It's my guess that the reason why a number of constituencies with universities in them have swung to the Lib Dems in recent years has comparatively little to do with the voting patterns of term-time students but rather to other university influences - in particular the votes of those on the university payroll or graduates who stay settled in their university town. So what was reported in 2005 as a student vote swinging over fees could actually have been a middle class public sector professional vote swinging over Iraq. (The students themselves might bring some keen activists who can provide the energy for a constituency party but that's a campaigning influence rather than a voting one.)

Of course with everything there are some exceptions and I've no doubt someone can find an example of high turnout amongst a particular university's students, perhaps combined with a niche campaign. But broadly I expect there to continue to be no major impact of the student vote short of a major targeted national campaign that manages to make it a force to be reckoned with.

(That's not to say any proposals to raise fees won't have any electoral impact. However look not to the students on & around campuses but to the parents back home.)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A quick round up

Over the past week I've been tied up with both work and a university alumni reunion event and so I've not had much time to comment on several big stories this week. So here are my quick thoughts on each of them, in chronological order:

* Tom Elliott has been elected leader of the Ulster Unionists in their first ever One Member One Vote election, albeit with votes cast at a meeting instead of by post. It speaks volumes about the Ulster Unionists' collapse over recent years that Elliott's election has gone unnoticed by many. I can't say that he strikes me as someone who is going to reverse the trend but then I've made several mispredictions in the past so who knows?

* Ken Livingstone has won the Labour nomination to be Mayor of London. So for 2012 Labour will be offering a candidate who doesn't give a toss about huge parts of London and who will instead spend much time patronising select groups who don't want to be patronised, filling up City Hall with corrupt cronies, and not giving a toss about huge parts of London. Is Labour even serious?

* Ed Miliband for Labour leader? I've never been able to take Miliband the Younger seriously at all. But now the trade unions have spoken and imposed "Red Ed" upon the Labour Party in an election where some people were hundreds of times more equal than others. I'm sure over the years to come Ed Miliband is going to give us a lot to laugh about as Labour continues to be a non-serious party that doesn't want to win elections.

Ironically when the Miliband election was being announced I was attending a lecture by David Starkey talking about another younger brother who unexpectedly came to power in place of the elder brother whom everyone had expected to be the one. It was a very enlightening talk about Henry VIII.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Voter identification

The final of my pieces provoked by Tim Archer's ConservativeHome piece Why we need electoral reform – and it's got nothing to do with AV.

Imagine the following situation at the last election:

A person walks into the polling station covering a particular part of Westminster, goes up to the polling clerks and the following conversation occurs:

"Name and address?"
"James Gordon Brown, 10 Downing Street."
"Ah, there you are." (Marks the register and produces the ballot paper.) "Here is your ballot paper Mr Brown."
"Thank you."

(Note: I have no idea if Gordon Brown actually was registered to vote in Downing Street.)

As absurd as it sounds, obtaining a ballot paper is that simple and legally it would have been entirely possible to obtain Gordon Brown's ballot paper. (The likelihood of Brown himself having already obtained it is next to zero as party leaders nearly always vote in their own constituency.) Whilst in this particular case it's likely the polling station clerk would have warned the applicant of the danger of committing fraud and called the police, the vote(s) cast would still be perfectly valid. But what about people the polling station officials don't recognise from the media? Well they would have no way of knowing if impersonation was taking place or not. And the law does not require it - it takes the applicant's word at face value. The only legal challenge before the vote is cast is if one of the party polling agents present in the booth objects - but few parties have the resources to spare.

Plus some of the checks are difficult to perform - there is no requirement for individual voters to provide their signature to the register so there is nothing to check against.

To anyone reading this from abroad it may seem like I'm making all this up - how an any advanced democracy have such a primitive system that is blatantly open to abuse and fraud (especially when combined with a registration system that makes it possible to register extra bogus voters). But I assure you that this is most definitely true - and a very worrying state of affairs. There are numerous allegations of fraud but it's very difficult to do much about them under the current arrangements (although even when something can be done it rarely is).

In Northern Ireland one now needs photo ID in order to vote at a polling station - is this a workable solution? As with so many things it would take time to implement - it's surprising how many people don't have it - but it would be a significant step towards restoring confidence. Here's hoping such a step will be taken soon.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rethinking voter registration

The second of my pieces provoked by Tim Archer's ConservativeHome piece Why we need electoral reform – and it's got nothing to do with AV.

Tim writes:

Tower Hamlets is known for its overcrowding and currently has 221 homes where more than 8 people are registered to vote. These include a number of infamous Labour party households. For example, one Labour councillor who lives in a 3 bedroom property has 12 people registered to vote at his home – 7 of those were added on to the register in the month before the election. His sister who lives locally has 13 voters in her flat, two brothers have 16 voters in their two flats and three cousins have a further 23 voters between their 3 flats. That's 64 voters in one family between 7 homes, all in Tower Hamlets. Most of those were registered in the last 20 days before the election and had postal votes.

Many people campaigning in other parts of the countries have similar tales of finding homes that have rather more people registered to vote there than could possibly be accommodated. The pattern suggests fraud but it must also be noted that a great degree of accidental and semi-legitimate registration happens as well. This has particular implications for the plans to get greater equality of constituency size, since the numbers used will be the registered voters.

For those not familiar with the process of registration, it works roughly as follows:
  1. Each year the council election services send out a form to every "household" they have on their list (I'll come back to this later), listing all voters currently on the register.
  2. The "head of the household" is required to remove adults no longer living there, add anyone who is (including children who will soon reach the age of majority) and sign the form before sending it back.
  3. If a form isn't returned the election services will try to arrange a visit to call on the property to ask directly.
  4. Throughout the year it's possible to be added to through the "rolling register" process by sending a supplementary form.
It sounds simple doesn't it? But many problems arise in practice and the result is a lot of people find they are not on the register at all; whilst others remain on the register long after they have moved away or died. Some homes have people registered to them who have never lived there.

It is very easy to make a deliberately fraudulent return on the register and include extra names (and for that matter register them for permanent postal votes). But it's also surprisingly easy to make accidental errors, and the system isn't able to cope with them too well.

The first problem is that the system is not easy to understand. The "head of the household" is not well defined, especially in some arrangements such as student halls of residents, joint flats and the like. It is very easy to misunderstand the form and provide the wrong information. Examples I've found over the years include:
  • People putting down their entire family instead of just the adults living there.
  • New occupants of a home failing to remove previous occupants.
  • Tenants putting their landlords down instead of themselves.
So far all these sound clearly wrong, if understandable. But often there simply aren't the resources available to check up on these
  • Adult offspring being included on the register, even if they have never lived at the current address, on a "this will always be your home" attitude.
  • Adult offspring being included on the register so that they can more easily get services such as bank accounts whilst renting short term.
The second of these is a real problem where the solutions could have awkward consequences. The root of the problem is the use of the register for non-electoral purposes and the result is that people find they have difficultly completing credit checks and the like without it. Many who rent in the short to medium term also don't like the hassle of having to change details when they move, especially if they will not be able to receive mail sent to old addresses. (And when bank statements get bounced back there's a danger of banks automatically freezing account access.) Something has to be done to limit the use of the register purely to election matters, but what alternatives will be in place to deal with the latter such cases? And the former is often a greyer area than it may seem.
  • Someone who has moved into the home since the annual register has not been added.
This one is quite common and the problem is knowing what to do and where to go. (The best place is Electoral Commission: Voter registration and the electoral roll where you can get a registration form.) What is even less well known is how a person can take themselves off the register mid year - the Electoral Commission form in theory offers this but in practice many do not realise they were on the register and of course this doesn't help with registrations at multiple addresses.
  • A dwelling of multiple occupancy has a flawed or missing registration.
The biggest cases are student halls of residence but there are many others. At the root level there is a difference in addresses between "where to send the mail" and "where you are registered as living", and voting is one of the areas that brings the distinction to the forefront. (TV Licences are another, and they too have problems.) For a standalone house occupied by a single family things are clear, but student rooms in a hall of residence with a central letter box are not. And between the two extremes there are many flats & houses internally subdivided and all manner of other arrangements that may not be on the election services database of homes and where getting the forms to individual units is difficult.

Some universities and landlords automatically register all their tenants. Others don't, citing such "problems" as the Data Protection Act (even though it doesn't stop counterparts). The result is that many people slip through the net completely. An individual unit in a dwelling of multiple occupancy can also have the address in many different formats, which only adds to the problem when people try to register. (TV Licensing seem have long had similar problems and there are many cases of students getting licences for their rooms only to then receive threatening letters from an incompetent agency that hasn't checked the variants.)

Those are the problems but is there an obvious solution that can solve them without at the same time making it exceptionally difficult to vote. Some form of individual registration is clearly desirable but it will do no-one any good if vast swathes of the population are not on the election register because the process to get on it is too difficult - does anyone seriously think requiring all people to queue up at a town hall during working hours with a passport and three separate utility bills, all personally addressed, is going to ensure everyone is on the register?

(Have a read of Antony Green's Election Blog: NSW Moves to Automatic Electoral Enrolment for a description of two very different systems of registration operated in New South Wales - automatic registration based on existing data for the state register, manual registration with a witnessed form known as the "purple people eater" and identification for the federal register. One version seems dangerously close to the super databases that no-one in the UK likes, the other seems excessively complicated.)

There is much talk of moving to individual registration but it needs to be extremely easy for people to find out how to do it and access the forms. And I wonder how it will solve the problem of people not having much proof of their current address (for example if utilities are included in the rent). Done right it could work well, but done wrong and it could make it very difficult for the ordinary citizen to exercise their democratic rights through no fault of their own.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Rethinking postal voting

There was a good piece recently over on ConservativeHome by Tim Archer on Why we need electoral reform – and it's got nothing to do with AV. It covers three areas - registration, postal voting and the ease of fraud at polling stations - and there are good suggestions in both the piece and the comments afterwards. I'll address each one in turn, today starting with postal voting.

Tower Hamlets issued 24,898 postal ballots, that's 25% of all the votes cast. Why? For a few, a postal vote makes the difference between being able to cast your vote and not. But a postal vote can also facilitate fraud and intimidation. It's hard to intimidate someone in a secret ballot where you can't follow them into the polling booth. It's much easier though to turn up mob handed at someone's door the day their postal vote has arrived and 'help' them fill it in. Postal votes go missing in the post, take longer to count, are more expensive and increasingly, because of their complexity to complete, disenfranchise the very people who want to cast their vote in the first place. My experience in Tower Hamlets has led me to conclude that we need to revert to the pre-2000 system of needing a reason to have a postal vote, something that Northern Ireland has already re-adopted.
When I first applied or a postal vote I had to jump through quite a few hoops, made harder by the fact I was a student away at university and not contactable by phone (yes there was a time when not everyone had mobiles). Nowadays I am permanently registered for a postal vote and it's a simple process of ticking a box on the annual registration form. I find it convenient, especially as it means I don't have to make sure I'm around my home between 07:00 & 22:00 on polling day (and there are often days when work and/or research trips and/or evening functions mean I'm not).

But it's a system that's easily open to fraud. I used to have to get someone else to "witness" my declaration statement when sending back my postal vote; I no longer have to do that. All that is required is my signature. It's also worrying just how many postal votes can go astray, especially in places with communal letterboxes. Then there's the intimidation mentioned above.

Something needs to be done to tighten up the system but it also needs to be compatible with modern lifestyles. A lot of members of the public find voting on Election Day inconvenient, especially given the awkward location of some polling stations, whilst it's also more common these days to find oneself away at short notice. The old system of having to have one of a strictly limited set of reasons and make various calls and postal applications was incredibly inefficient and I'm not convinced that simply switching back to it will improve matters.

But what about a system of "early voting", as practised in other countries? There they set up advanced polling stations in central locations - town halls and the like - covering multiple polling districts and over the course of a couple of weeks voters are able to visit at their leisure and cast their vote. It requires the same level of checks as at polling station on Election Day itself and also when done right can cost a lot less than huge numbers of postal votes. It also makes it easier to ensure both that the early voter gets their ballot paper and that it makes it back in time.

And it's an idea that has precedent in this country. In past centuries elections were not carried out on a single day. Instead the polling station would open for days on end and voters would turn up over a longer period - especially helpful in an era when travel was more limited.

The other system used abroad that has possibilities is allowing votes to be cast at any of a number of polling stations. In most of these jurisdictions voters are assigned an individual polling station but those who are elsewhere in the constituency/city/state/country on polling day can go to any polling station and have ballot papers for their own constituency printed & stamped on demand; these votes are then placed in an envelope, sealed & signed, then transported to the count in the original constituency where they are verified against the election register to confirm the voter has not voted more than once, then added to the count.

(One side-effect of this is that votes can take some time after the close of polling to arrive, and so the final declaration takes longer. It's this system, plus a requirement that postal votes only be sent, not received, by polling day that means the election count in countries like Australia seemingly go on for weeks. But is it really essential to have a final result declared within five hours of polling closing?!)

Both of these would be a very useful alternative to postal voting on demand and would make it easy to limit the latter to just the cases where voters are out of the area for a protracted period - people on holiday, students away at university and so forth. They deserve serious consideration as means not only fight fraud in the system but also to making voting more accessible.

I am worse than Oona King, Alex Hilton, Melanie Phillips, David Miliband, John Redwood and Donal Blaney

Over the years this blog has appeared on the odd list of the best UK/Political/Conservative blogs and I'm very grateful to the various people who've voted for me in successive polls - I'm afraid I haven't always been quick to respond to these votes.

However there are other votes as well and there's one I've only recently heard of. For a while ago A Very Public Sociologist did their own awards and the results are at The UK's 100 Worst Political Blogs. And this very blog has been voted the UK's 71st Worst Political Blog.

However looking at some of the other blogs on the list I feel I'm in okay company. The likes of Iain Dale, Tory Bear, Guido Fawkes, Liberal Conspiracy, Socialist Unity and Tom Harris are but a few of the top twenty-five.

What is surprising are the blogs that have come above me. Given A Very Public Sociologist's leanings and readership the list's leaning is unsurprising and suggests voting owes more to political positions than actual blogging. But I do take bemusement at being voted worse than the following:

90 Melanie Phillips
73 John Redwood's Diary
72 Donal Blaney (by invitation only)

I wonder what I've done to be a bigger hate figure to the hard left than the above!

Still I'm also considered worse than some Labour figures too:

94 Oona King
92 Alex Hilton
87 David Miliband

Being labelled as worse than David Miliband and Oona King by the hard left is a badge I'd wear with pride.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

University book buying - some advice

Soon the university term will be starting once more, bringing a whole new generation of students with all the usual hopes and concerns. If you're one of them I wish you the best of luck.

One area where I can offer some advice on how to minimise costs and hassles is the age old problem of buying books. It causes some students to run up massive debts immediately only to make next to no use of the books. Others find they are at a disadvantage because they do not own key books that are essential for the course in question. And some find that they have the wrong edition, which can cause endless confusion and even make it impossible to take the book into an exam. Then there are those who order online, only to find the delivery proves impossible.

With a little advanced planning and careful research it is possible to tackle the task to best effect. Here's a few tips:

Find out just how "essential" a book actually is before purchasing.
There is no universal definition of "essential" on reading lists. Sometimes it means a class will be following a particular text book which the student will need to read week in, week out. At other times it means the book is useful background reading, but a straightforward readthrough in advance will suffice and it's not necessary to actually own a copy.

Some of the distinctions will take a little time to work out; others will become clear immediately. If you're taking a course based around a particular set of writings - for instance a history course on Heredotus, a literature course on Shakespeare or a philosophy course on Russell - then you will almost certainly need access to a copy for the entire duration (but see below for editions). On the other hand if you're taking a general survey module then you may not need to actually buy an overview book. The first classes will help make it clear which is which; though some lecturers will put explicit instructions in course outlines circulated in advance.

Check very carefully if you need a precise edition.
Some courses will use a very specific edition of a book, usually the current one. Others will be more general. In some subjects like Law and many sciences books are updated almost every year and using older editions can confuse. In others like History, Philosophy, Theology, Literature and so forth the books are not so often updated and have a longer shelf-life, but watch out for "readers", anthologies collecting extracts of key texts. Primary material books can date at very different rates - for instance one of the Penguin Classics translation editions I used as a first year undergraduate was in print for nearly fifty years and any edition would have done perfectly well (but in the last couple of years a new translation has been published). At the other end of the scale Law statute books, containing all the relevant legislation in a particular field, have new editions almost every year.

In some courses the exam is "open book" and students can take specified books in with them - but be warned these sometimes only permit a specific edition.

Look around for the best prices and convenience.
Most universities have a bookshop either on campus or very nearby. These are easily the most convenient placed to try but be warned they rarely have discounts. Bookshops in university towns often stock some of the most in demand course books but not the more obscure. There are several online sites that do offer discounts but you have to wait a while for the goods to arrive.

Consider the second hand market carefully.
Many previous students have sold their books to the second hand part of the university bookshop, or put them up on the likes of eBay and Amazon, or even self-advertised on online university forums. This is one way to cut the cost significantly but make very sure you are buying the right edition.

Make sure you can actually receive deliveries before ordering online, and choose the delivery service carefully.
I've blogged about the problems of couriers before; suffice it to say that couriers find some university addresses particularly difficult to reach. Remember also that thick parcels don't fit through all letterboxes so you may be facing a trip to an inaccessible depot in a different town. Also check you use the correct postcode for your building - it's surprisingly common for universities to use the post codes assigned to different buildings. (You can check it online via the Royal Mail's online Postcode finder.) Royal Mail should have no problems delivering but other firms have more mixed results.

Don't expect to make much money when selling books on.
University bookshops often offer a buyback service, but at quite a low rate. And they will only take the current editions of books they expect to sell. If you're the final year to do a particular course then don't expect there to be much interest. Some books just won't be accepted at all because new editions come very fast - Law statutes are often explicitly banned.

There are alternatives such as selling online, but the prices are invariably quite low. And postage rates will eat heavily into takings, especially on large books where postage costs significantly more than the maximum allowed rate. The best bet is probably selling to fellow students in lower years.

Finally if you do find your finances struggling to keep up with essential book purchases then discuss things with your lecturer(s). They will be willing to help.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Privatising deliveries

The recent news that the Royal Mail is to be privatised has had mixed reactions in me. I'm not a dogmatist who believes that privatisation is the solution to everything but I am open to considering ways that can improve the service for consumers. I'm way too young to remember the Thatcher era privatisations (apart from those wonderful Addams Family inspired adverts for, I think, electricity shares) so I don't know for sure if there really were similar concerns raised when telephone privatisation was first mooted. However there are some very real concerns about the effect on the service stemming from the unique nature of deliveries, and which can already be seen with courier firms.

(Interlude: If you're a courier driver who has arrived here by search engine, please read the full post before making a stock rant in the comments section. I do address some of the common comments there, and a lot of the problems are not down to the driver.)

Deliveries to the home are one of the few services I can think of where the vast majority of main consumers do not make the decision about the supplier. The average recipient gets limited choice over who delivers their parcels to them yet it is the recipient and not the sender who has to deal with the consequences of the choice. Even with online shopping many sellers do not state the delivery firm that will be used, and sometimes when they do that can change without the consent of the buyer. A common story is people explicitly choosing Royal Mail first class or Parcelforce and instead getting what was Home Delivery Network Limited (HDNL) and now Yodel. There's a huge difference between firms who come to my door and deliver the parcel when I'm in or leave a card for collection at an easily accessible local depot and firms who employ drivers who either never show up (according to CCTV) but record that they have or who do arrive but see a block of flats and drive off without even bothering to press the button to request entry, leaving me having to chase things up via a premium rate phone number then trek to a depot in the middle of nowhere with limited accessible opening hours or public transport. (HDNL/Yodel are not the only firm who often the latter approach. City Link do similar, with the addition of threatening the seller with additional return fees. However they do have better depot opening hours including Saturday mornings.) Searching the internet reveals many pages of complaints about particular firms, in the hope of discouraging others from using them.

The result is that the recipient gets a very mixed service. Glancing across various internet forums where senders, recipients (or non-), drivers and managers all rage it seems clear there has been a breakdown of communication between the various parties involved. Sellers are not providing buyers with sufficient advance information and/or choice about how the goods are sent (and often not passing on tracking numbers). Sellers are also making implicit or explicit promises that couriers aren't able to keep such as about which day to expect delivery (in particular encouraging expectations of Saturday arrivals). Couriers are offering highly different levels of service and buyers are expecting the upper end or the Royal Mail service to be the default, particularly when it comes to things like getting into blocks of flats (which is not as difficult as couriers claim - I should know both as a former Yellow Pages deliverer and as a regular political deliverer & canvasser). Other mixed areas include predicting delivery times - some firms predict a two hour window, others a twelve hour one. Some drivers will actually ring the recipient, others never. Drivers are often supplied with poor information and equipment by their firms - out of date maps that don't show new developments or no standard delivery keys that would speed up many flat deliveries. Some firms are also wasting their own time and resources, particularly with repeated attempts at delivery - there are many recipients who would rather their parcel stayed at the depot after the first attempt so they can collect it directly more immediately, and those who want to try again can (or should be able to) book the second attempt specifically. Firms being inaccessible online and using premium rate phone numbers onlys adds to the frustrations. Drivers also produce mixed results - some do brilliant service and go that extra distance, others do atrocious things like throwing parcels over walls to break or not showing up at all.

Buyers are not totally blameless here either. Many simply do not bother to check basic things like whether they actually have the correct post code (it's not unusual to have a wrong one and not notice it because the mail still keeps arriving) or providing special instructions when ordering (yes some sellers don't provide that option in the pro forma but even when they do it's not always used). And yes a lot of people do order even though they won't be in - not everyone can take days on end off work to meet an open ended delivery. But also some people take that as a routine hazard and expect to be left a card so they can go and pick the package up from a local delivery centre.

(Another brief interlude but I want to take on directly the "if you are't going to be in, don't order online" or "why not go to the shops?" points often left in comments sections. There are firms who do decent deliveries even if one is not in and the goods get to the recipient in timely manner, so it's not that simple. And people are buying more and more on the internet for a variety of reasons, both because of cost but also because some items are simply not available in shops - for instance my shoe size is simply not stocked in any shoe shop near me - and this is a trend that keeps on growing. Specialist material - e.g. academic books - is similarly not available in high streets and that's before we come to many people, especially in metropolitan areas, not owning cars.)

Expectations have been largely set by the Royal Mail experience - and most recipients have probably never sent anything with anyone but Royal Mail and/or Parcelforce so haven't experienced returns or complaints - and to be frank there are a lot of firms who do not meet up to those expectations. But of course these are not the expectations and experiences of those choosing the delivery firm so it doesn't have the kind of impact the market is supposed to normally provide. Just look at the failure of the various online petitions calling on firms to stop using particular couriers (and some of the staff in those couriers would privately like to see the end of the contracts that generate the most hassle and complaints). It's only large institutions with enough buying power to be able to dictate to suppliers terms such as not using a particularly problematic delivery firm who can achieve anything in this area.

For the rest of us the result of competition is a very hit and miss situation that often doesn't give improved service but instead endless hassle and corner cutting as firms treat basic essentials for operating, training and equipping as optional extras. I worry that privatising the mail is going to have similar results, especially in areas where the costs are high such as rural communities.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Full confidence in politics achieved!

Douglas Carswell puts it best:

Holding a referendum on changing the voting system is set to restore public faith in everything, official data shows. News comes the day after the House of Commons voted to allow a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system for Parliamentary elections.

“Until folk knew that they’d be able to vote on electoral reform next May, they sometimes doubted the integrity and judgement of politicians. But all those decades of incompetent public policy-making have been put to one side according to our data survey” revealed Whitehall sources.

Tinkering with the ballot system means that decades of growing contempt for the political system has been replaced by a glowing sense of admiration for our law-makers. “Those MPs might still ignore the things that really matter to us – but at least they’ll be doing it with AV!” gushed one citizen.

Officials at the Department of Progress are keen to emphasise that a referendum on AV is not the only reform ministers are planning. “Obviously AV was a top priority on the doorstep during the election. Especially in the posh parts of Islington. So we had to deliver that with breakneck speed. But change doesn’t stop there.”

“Not holding a referendum on the EU, like we promised, is just as important, too, so that we can build trust in the new politics”.

Officials are also drawing up plans to modernise democracy by replacing traditional elections with a citizen’s jury. “Having a citizen’s jury making decisions will cut the cost of politics. We can all just sit down together on a few sofas in Downing Street and decide things”.
AV vote restores faith in everything

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Tony Blair - Less popular than...

My thanks to donpaskini: People and things that are more popular than Tony Blair for highlighting post-election analysis (PDF) done by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research:

...more people who voted in the 2010 election had negative views of Tony Blair than of Gordon Brown, either Miliband brother, Ed Balls, the European Union, the Labour Party, immigration, Israel or Palestine.
How the once all conquering popular do fall.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Australian AV deadlock

Australia has one of the strongest two party systems in the world. So it's amazing that yesterday's election has produced a hung parliament and potential deadlock that makes our election outcome look simple by comparison.

Hung parliaments are historically rare in Australia. I can think of only six previous ones - the 1901, 1903 & 1906 elections when the party system was still in flux with three sizeable groups (Free Traders, Protectionists and Labor), the 1922 and 1934 elections when the Coalition between the Nationalists/United Australia Party and Country Party (now the Nationals) wasn't operating but it was soon assembled afterwards, and 1940 when the Coalition and Labor were neck & neck, with two independents holding the balance of power. The two independents supported the Coalition for a year, but then when Robert Menzies was deposed as Prime Minister the independents deserted and Labor took office without an election. The 1901-1910 period also saw a lot of parliamentary musical chairs as three parties vie for an outcome.

This time round the situation could be very messy. Firstly a note on the results figures floating around - these are provisional. Australia counts by the polling station and the formal declaration usually doesn't come for a couple of weeks. In the meantime most results are clear enough but a few knife-edge seats could tip either way, not least because postal votes can still arrive for the next two weeks. (The Australian: Count continuing and state swings notes how in 2007 the initial projection and final outcome varied.)

The second key point is that contrary to the way a lot of the national figures have been presented, one of the Nationals MPs is not going to be part of the conservative Coalition. The Nationals in Western Australia take a different approach from their eastern counterparts and operate as an independent third force focused on the needs of regional Australia. They are willing to work with Labor if it will help their constituents (and their counterparts in South Australia have already done so) and want the federal party to do the same. And if Tony Crook (who ironically defeated the only sitting MP with a criminal conviction) can't get that then he will probably be another independent force.

So the current provisional seat count is as follows:

Labor 72
Liberal/National Coalition 72
Independents 4
Greens 1
WA Nationals 1

Three of the Independents are ex Nationals & sitting MPs re-elected - see Third parties & independents under AV - the Australian experience for more details. The fourth independent is an ex Green candidate and anti-war protester who has won the urban seat of Denison.

So the balance of power rests with a disparate "Gang of Six" on the crossbenches and these six will not all work together as one block. There's also no real clarity over which of the two main parties have at least a plurality - they're equal in seats and the "Two-Party-Preferred" vote is very close and will take to finalise. So there isn't even anything to guide the six towards which party has a stronger democratic basis to form the next government. And whilst the three ex National Independents have publicly announced they will have discussions amongst themselves about what to do, they're giving slightly different signals about their intentions. And of course even if they do work as a block of three they can't deliver a majority in & of themselves. If the WA National joins them then they could at least offer a two vote majority but of the other two floaters the Green says he will support Labor and the the ex-Green independent would probably do the same, though he also wants a redress of the way federal funding goes in his state.

Advocates of hung parliaments and coalitions are fond of claiming that hung parliaments are good for countries because they produce compromises. But I don't think Australia is going to have that in pursuit of a majority. Instead it's likely that whichever party forms a government will do so by pumping extra federal spending into the various crossbenchers' constituencies. It's a great advert for hung parliaments isn't it?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Third parties & independents under AV - the Australian experience

Tomorrow the Australians will be electing a new parliament, doing so with the Alternative Vote that we will soon be considering here in the UK. Many of the individual election results will provide examples and points of argument, but one contest in particular is attracting attention, that for the Division of Melbourne, focused on the city's central business district. This is because there is a prospect of a third party making a breakthrough into the House of Representatives, traditionally a very two party place (the Liberal-National Coalition is basically one party in this line of argument). Now people like Antony Green are asking Can the Greens Win Melbourne? Tomorrow evening we will find out. (Unless of course it's really close and we have to wait longer for postal votes and recounts.)

With a coalition in the UK and so many smaller parties in the Commons people are naturally wondering if the introduction of AV will continue the trend or instead reverse it - indeed some Labour members have declared they will vote for AV precisely because of the limited success of third parties and independents in Australia. I am doubtful whether direct comparisons are meaningful in this regard, not least because Australia's elected Senate has given third parties an alternative target, but it seem a good time to look at the success rate of third force elements in Australia.

1949 is the best watershed to pick in Australian electoral history as it saw a change of government (with the victorious Coalition holding power for no less than 23 years) and a significant increase in the House of Representatives, whilst the party system has predominantly stayed the same since then. So what has been the record of the Alternative Vote in electing third parties and independents since then?

Very few is the answer. Only one federal general election since then has seen any MPs from a "third force" party elected at all, and that was in the circumstances of the 1987 election when the Liberal-National Coalition split and the Nationals fought as an independent force. I don't think this one really counts at all.

Only one other third party MP has been elected in the last sixty-one years, and that was Michael Organ who won the Cunningham by-election for the Greens in 2002, taking the seat from Labor. But this was a by-election in which the governing Liberal-Nationals did not stand a candidate whilst there were many minor and independent parties who directed preferences (via "How To Vote" cards) to Organ. He won despite having polled barely 23% of the first preferences. In 2004 it was a return to normal with the Liberals running a candidate who pushed Organ into third place whilst Labor regained the seat.

And that's it for third parties, although we wait to see if that changes at the weekend.

What about independents? Well in 1949 Lewis Nott (who had served as a Nationalist MP in the 1920s) won the Australian Capital Territory division with the help of Liberal transfers, but MPs for the territories did not have full voting rights at the time and this was not as significant a victory as a full voting seat. Nott was defeated in 1951.

The next successful independent was Sam Benson in 1966. He was a sitting Labor MP until expelled from the party for his support for the Defend Australia Committee, a predominantly right-wing body. He polled third but was elected thanks to Democratic Labor Party transfers getting him over the Liberals, in turn getting him over Labor. On both occasions the transfers were over 90% in his favour - a tribute to the effectiveness of How To Vote cards. Benson served one further term before retiring.

No more independents were elected until 1990, when Ted Mack was elected for North Sydney. Mack was the first of several independents who had built up a political profile at other levels of government, first serving as an independent member and then Mayor of North Sydney council. On the back of his profile he then won a seat in the state parliament as an independent. In 1990 he ran for the federal parliament and topped the first preferences, then took Democrats and Labor transfers to defeat the sitting Liberal. Mack was re-elected in 1993 and served until 1996.

Another independent was elected in the same parliament. Phil Clearly was the first independent in the period who did not have a previous political record. He was a former Australian rules football player and coach. In 1992 Bob Hawke resigned from parliament and the resulting Wills by-election attracted 22 candidates, mostly independents. In a crowded field and a high profile election Clearly took a third of the vote and benefitted from most other candidates' transfers. Clearly was subsequently disqualified for being a Crown employee when elected but won the seat again in the 1993 election. He lost in 1996 when boundary changes weakened his position and Labor retook the seat.

The 1996 election saw no less than five independents elected, all of whom can be easily categorised:

Ex Liberals:

* Pauline Hanson was selected as a Liberal candidate in a safe Labor seat but expelled from the party after she gained national fame from calling for the abolition of government assistance for indigenous Australians. She was expelled from the Liberals, but too late for the ballot papers to be changed; however her national fame saw her take nearly half the first preferences and achieve a two-candidate preferred result of 54.7%. She subsequently formed One Nation but was defeated in 1998 due to a combination of boundary changes and the mainstream parties directly tackling both One Nation and the roots of its support.

* Allan Rocher, a sitting Liberal MP who was defeated for renomination (in Australian parties sitting MPs can be directly challenged for nominations) but stood as an independent and held the seat, largely by outpolling Labor and then taking the latter's transfers to defeat the Liberals. He was defeated in 1998.

* Paul Filing, another deselected Liberal MP who held his seat as an independent, though this time using Liberal transfers to beat Labor, before being defeated in 1998.

Ex Labor:

* Graeme Campbell, a sitting Labor MP expelled for support for various far right causes and organisations. He absorbed Liberal transfers to defeat Labor, subsequently forming the "Australia First", a fringe nationalist party. In 1998 he was defeated.

Independent "celebrity"

* Peter Andren, a broadcaster who won Calare from the Nationals after a tight three-way contest in which Andren ultimately benefited from Labor transfers. Andren was the only one of the five independents to retain his seat in 1998 and served until 2007 when the regular scourge of independents, boundary changes, put his parliamentary future in doubt. He announced he would stand down from the House of Representatives at the 2007 election and instead stand for the Senate; however he abandoned his plans when diagnosed with cancer later that year and died just after the dissolution of the parliament.

In 2001 Andren was joined by two more independents, and since his retirement a third was elected in a 2008 by-election. All three have served up to now and are restanding, and all are ex National Party politicians:

* Bob Katter, a sitting National MP (and former state MP and minister) who left the National Party as he disagreed with it on economic and social issues. In 2001 he polled nearly half the first preferences, easily dwarfing his old party whose transfers joined with One Nation's to helped Katter defeat Labor. Katter's primary vote has since stood at about 40% in both subsequent elections but the bulk of transfers have helped him reach the final two and easily defeat Labor each time.

* Tony Windsor was originally picked as a National candidate for the New South Wales state parliament in 1991, but deselected over accusations about drink driving. Standing as an independent he won and held the seat for ten years, before standing for the federal parliament in 2001 in a normally National held seat. He took nearly half the primary vote and absorbed transfers from One Nation and Labor to defeat the Nationals. At the two subsequent elections Windsor has polled a primary vote of around 60% each time.

* Rob Oakeshott was a sitting National state MP in New South Wales when he left the party in 2002 after a period of disillusionment and disputes about influences in his constituency. He held his state seat as an independent until 2008 when a federal by-election occurred in the wider Lynne seat. Oakshott stood and took the seat from the Nationals with 64% of the primary vote (with Labor not standing a candidate) and most small party transfers.

What does this rundown show? Well of the twelve independents elected in the period most were the products of splits within their party (even if the split was localised to themselves). Only three had no background in a major party and only two had no prior political experience at all. None lacked any public profile at all. Furthermore no less than seven were elected in a single decade (even if one was to be re-elected in the following). By UK terms this is predominantly a collection of independents like Sylvia Hermon and the late Peter Law rather than Martin Bell and Richard Taylor.

And the UK practice and culture will likely be different. Some of the Australian independents were able to get a strong enough personal vote to be elected in their own right, but others only won their elections because they were able to outpoll one of the two big parties and then take that party's transfers to defeat the other. A system of optional preferencing where How To Vote cards are (at least initially) likely to be rare (and the British election law about what can be given to voters going into a polling station differs from Australia's) would have made it much harder for some of these independents to be elected. The Greens would also likely have lost in Cunningham had the Liberals stood a candidate in that by-elections - in the UK there is no real tradition of major parties not contesting by-elections, at least outside of Northern Ireland (and that's a repeat of the general election pattern). So in many regards third parties face an even tougher struggle.

On the other hand as I previously explained one doesn't always need 50% of people voting to win under AV, and there are several already established smaller parties along with a greater floating vote that is willing to go outside the big two, so the third parties and independents would have greater scope for election. It is all swings and roundabouts.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Labour and One Person One Vote

"One Person One Vote" is a slogan that has had multiple uses over the years. It has been used to call for universal suffrage, for the abolition of plural voting and for equal sized constituencies (also called "One Vote One Value" in places). But the basic principle is the same throughout.

So it's interesting to note that at the same time that the Labour Party is running around screaming fake moral outrage about steps to reduce malapportionment in this country, they are also conducting a leadership election where One Member One Vote is noticeably absent. Instead some members will be getting significantly more votes than others. In theory a member could get no less than 32 different ballot papers and cast every single one of them without breaking the rules.

So much for Labour's claims for equality and democracy!

Hattip to Cllr Iain Lindley's Diary: Unequal Votes and Tory Radio: Do Labour MPs advocate stuffing the ballot box?.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Unusual versions of the Alternative Vote

As a slight epilogue to my previous post Alterative Vote: What does 50% mean? I've remembered at least one unusual version of AV from my days of counting students' union elections which had its own definition of 50%.

Back in my days at the University of Kent the students' union (known as "Kent Union") used a version of the Alternative Vote with some quite unusual features. I got the impression that the rules used had been written by someone who either didn't really understand the system or else was trying to impose their own philosophy onto the voters.

By far the most inexplicable rule related to the "Re-Open Nominations" (or "RON") option. In almost all other versions of AV I've seen, RON is treated like any other candidate. But in the old Kent rules someone decided that it was wrong to transfer votes to and from RON - you could either select the RON option or express preferences for candidates but not both. RON's fate was decided in the first round of the count and it merely had to outpoll the candidate with the highest number of first preferences, regardless on the numbers involved. Otherwise all RON votes were set aside and the rest of the election proceeded without it. This nonsense has long since been abolished.

In the rest of the count it was not unusual for a lot of votes for excluded candidates to fail to transfer (or "exhaust") and so the winning candidate could get elected with less than 50% of valid post-RON exclusion votes. And there were even times when a candidate had an unassailable lead before the final two - they might have 45% of all the votes, one opponent 20%, another 15% and 20% exhausted. Under any other AV system they would be declared elected there and then, but for some never explained reason the Kent rules (or the person interpreting them) required the count to continue until the candidate had achieved 50% (even with two or more opponents) or all other candidates were excluded. This could result in pointless additional rounds in a count that added nothing to the outcome.

The idea seems to have been to ensure the eventual winner had the support of at least 50% of those voting (excluding the RON voters) but it made no difference to the outcome and in any case very few people paid attention to the actual voting figures. It also didn't really address what would happen if the winner didn't have the backing of 50% of those voting, and a new election would have made little sense when that very option was on the ballot paper and rejected. In practice in a close final two on transfers the winner indeed lacked 50% but this made no difference anyway.

Fortunately in a subsequent constitutional rewrite attempts to re-invent the wheel were abandoned and standard rules imported.

One other bizarre case came in elections for the University of London Union. These saw frequent problems and frustrations despite (or more likely because of) a permanent returning officer and the rules followed could often change from year to year. In general the ULU rules treated the RON option like any other candidate but in one year someone decided that RON could not be excluded and thus the entire count was run with other candidates eliminated in succession until the last candidate standing, who had significantly more votes than RON. Maybe someone was trying a system to see if the winner was acceptable to all voters, but it's another recipe for a mess, and when it had been arbitarily imposed with no discussion whatsoever it added to the impression that the running of ULU elections was a complete farce. In subsequent elections this impression has not dispersed.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Alterative Vote: What does 50% mean?

I've recently written a few pieces answering various questions about the operation of the Alternative Vote, including ConservativeHome CentreRight: The Alternative Vote in Australia – what does it produce?. There's another question that's come up a bit, namely:

"Who are the '50%' needed to win election?"

This is actually more complex than it sounds because an awful lot of the comment on this is confusing several distinct definitions. For example Nick Clegg, in evidence to the Commons Select Committee, stated:

"...it also means that people elected to Westminster know that, through the redistribution of the votes, they have a mandate of 50% or more of people in their community..."
(Quoted in The Constitution Society: Briefing Paper: Alternative Voting, page 3)

Clegg's statement is as confused as much of it. By "community" does he mean:
  1. Every single person living in a constituency, including children, eligible but unregistered adults and ineligible adults (mainly non-citizens)?
  2. Every single adult living in a constituency...?
  3. The full registered electorate, including many "ghost voters" who are still on the register despite having moved?
  4. The "actual" registered electorate, excluding the "ghost voters"?
  5. Voters who turn out and cast ballot papers?
  6. Voters who turn out and cast valid votes?
  7. Voters whose ballot paper is still the count at the crucial stage electing an MP?
  8. Voters whose ballot paper is still in the count at the "Two Party/Candidate Preferred" stage?
(The "Two Party/Candidate Preferred" stage is little known in the UK and in the numerous AV elections I've counted over the years I've never seen it done when a winner is already clear. It involves taking the count all the way to either the last two surviving candidates or the candidates from the two main parties to see the full distribution of support, even when the election has been decided at an early stage.)

Sure some of these are relatively close definitions but there's a big gap between others. Non-voters are a part of the community, but they're not part of the election process and I've not noticed anything in the proposed referendum that's going to change that. Similarly "ghost voters" are effectively out of the process (though get counted in the official turnout statistics). And there's no clear evidence as to whether AV will actually lead to an increase in turnout or what the impact will be on the level of spoilt ballot papers. There will be all manner of claims made in all directions on those points, but the one thing that can be said for sure is that compulsory voting is not on the table.

The crucial "50%" actually refers to a stage in the count when one candidate gets more votes than all other candidates still in the count. If votes don't transfer then a candidate can get elected with less than 50% of all valid votes cast. This isn't just hypothetical. The Australian state of Queensland uses the "optional preferencing" system that the UK will be offered, and although turnout is compulsory you can still get members of the Legislative Assembly elected with less than 50% of the vote. In the last state election 16 of the 89 seats were won with this - and that's when the votes are transferred all the way to the Two Party/Candidate Preferred. (Psephos: Queensland election of 21 March 2009) There would probably have been many more cases if the Liberal and National parties had not merged and instead fielded separate candidates in many seats.

Closer to home over the years I've been involved with many many AV elections for a large variety of organisations. When there were quite a few candidates (usually four or more) it was quite common for large numbers of voters to fail to use their transfers, with the frequent result that the winner again had significantly less than 50%.

To explain how this works, a constituency might have the following first preferences:

Conservative 40
Labour 35
Liberal Democrat 15
UK Independence Party 6
Green 4

Nobody wins on the first round. Transfers might go as follows:

Exclude Greens

Conservative 40
Labour 36
Liberal Democrat 17
UK Independence Party 6
Non-Transfers 1

Exclude UK Independence Party

Conservative 43
Labour 37
Liberal Democrat 18
Non-Transfers 2

Exclude Liberal Democrat

Conservative 49 ELECTED
Labour 45
Non-Transfers 6

You'll see that the Conservative has won with less than 50% of the total votes cast but it's still more than 50% of the crucial stage. And if turnout is only 60% of registered voters then the winner has the support of only 29.4% of voters on the crucial round, 24% of first preferences and an even lower proportion of the entire population.

These figures are rather different from the image being thrown about by some AV supporters that the system is going to result in MPs suddenly having huge mandates and the support of the "majority of the community". The choice at the forthcoming referendum is not so clear cut as it may first seem.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Adolf Hitler in care

A lot of people have at some time or another come to dislike their name for whatever reason. But some have it even worse than others as they have been given really bizarre names. Who would want to be named "Number 16 Bus Shelter"? (I'm not making that up - it is the real registered name of a child in New Zealand. BBC News: NZ judge orders 'odd' name change)

Sure people can legally change their names, but by their time they are aware and able to do it themselves the damage has already been done. Such is the case for the very young "Adolf Hitler Campbell" and his siblings "JoyceLynn Aryan Nation" and "Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie". All three have been taken in care and their parents denied custody by a US court. (BBC News: US court denies parents custody of Hitler and his sisters) There appear to be additional reasons for the decision but it's clear their names are going to expose them to ridicule and bullying long before they can change them, if they so wish.

It may be unfashionable to say it, but there are times when parents don't know best and shouldn't be allowed free reign when their decisions can have serious detrimental effects for their children's lives. This is one of those times.

But as well as the parents there are others also complicit in this. Who allowed these names to be registered in the first place?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

More silence

Yes my blog posting rate has plummeted again. And yes it's for much the usual reason.

I hope to post more soon including a particular piece of news that many have been waiting quite some time for. So please watch this space...

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Early Day Motions

Graham Evans MP has tabled one of the best Early Day Motions ever. It reads as follows:
That this House regrets the continuing decline in importance of Early Day Motions which have become a campaign tool for external organisations; notes the role of public affairs professionals in drafting Early Day Motions and encouraging members of the organisations they represent to send pro forma emails and postcards to hon. Members; further notes the huge volume of correspondence that this generates and the consequent office and postage costs incurred; believes that the organisations involved derive little benefit from Early Day Motions, which very rarely have any influence on policy; further believes that public affairs professionals are aware of the ineffectiveness of Early Day Motions, but continue to use them to attempt to justify their services; questions the value for money to the taxpayer of Early Day Motions of whatever origin; and calls for the system of Early Day Motions to be reformed or abolished.
I wonder how many MPs are going to sign it? Details here.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Geographic political divides

One of the myths frequently bandied about the British voting system is the claim that it somehow creates an artificial North-South divide in politics. The argument runs that under a different voting system the country would be politically more mixed. It's an interesting argument, if based in some misassumptions (the divide is really metropolitan vs the rest - in the last election northern market towns and rural areas swung on a similar scale to their southern counterparts), and no doubt we'll be hearing people make it in the forthcoming AV referendum. But it ignores the fact that such divides are rooted in social & historical factors that are the backdrop to people's political outlooks, and can occur under all manner of voting systems.

Such divides exist in other countries, even when using proportional representation or holding a direct election. Yesterday was the second & final round of the Polish presidential election and the election map shows some interesting features. Here is the map of the first round results with Bronisław Komorowski of the Civic Platform in orange and Jarosław Kaczyński of Law and Justice in blue:

It's an interesting map of support and people may have recognised the historic boundaries it roughly follows. But the first round was not a isolated case - here's the second round:

Exactly the same pattern. It was also seen in the last parliamentary election as well:

The parliament is elected by party lists in multiple constituencies (the system most of the UK uses for the European Parliament).

For those still wondering, the map of party support almost exactly matches the pre First World War boundaries between Germany and Russia (when Poland was still partitioned between them). Regardless of whether the nature of the political divide can trace itself back to that time, despite several movements of boundaries and populations since, it is a stark divide. The use of either proportional representation or a single nation wide election hasn't shifted it, and I doubt any voting system change in the UK would have a effect on our geographic political divide.

See also Strange Maps: 348 – An Imperial Palimpsest on Poland’s Electoral Map which has independently noted this phenomenon.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Asteroids and Segways for London?

Lembit Öpik hasn't gone away you know. Now he thinks he's the man to be Mayor of London.

Just one moment while I finish my shock.

This one has been floated before - see Is London doomed? - but Öpik declared "The only issue is my constituency is 205 miles away", a potential killer. Now that the voters of Montgomeryshire have relieved themselves of Öpik he is of course free of that drawback.

Opinion on Liberal Democrat Voice is heavily negative - see Should Lembit Opik be the Liberal Democrat candidate for London Mayor?, especially for comments like "He can stand for the Official Monster Raving Loony Party" - from a peer of the realm. But who knows if Liberal Democrat Voice commenters speak for the London membership?

So far the Liberal Democrats have run for Mayor the Invisible Woman, Simon "Straight Choice" Hughes and the Cannabis Commander. In that line-up is an Öpik candidature really that out of the ordinary?

His policies will no doubt be as follows:
  1. Install an anti-asteroid shield for London.
  2. Make conditions much better for Segway users.
  3. Erm...
  4. That's it.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Female Prime Ministers

Early today a sudden change occurred in Australia. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was facing a collapse in support within his own Labor Party so called a leadership election. But the power brokers within Labor turned against him and by the time it came for the vote his support was so weak he opted to not even stand. And so Australia now has a new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.
(Rudd will no doubt be upset at being dumped by his party so early. In fact only one previous Australian Prime Minister has suffered a comparable fate. But that was Robert Menzies who bounced back to retake the leadership of his party and went on to be Australia's longest ever Prime Minister. The second longest, John Howard, also had an earlier period of leadership, albeit in opposition. So will Rudd return?)

But for now the moment is with Gillard. Around the world many Australians are proudly pointing out that they now have their first female Prime Minister.

Around the world many New Zealanders are loudly pointing out that they had their first one thirteen years ago. (Remember Jenny Shipley?)

And here in the UK we had ours thirty-one years ago, but some left-wing feminists are keen to downplay that, as though they want airbrush Margaret Thatcher out of the history books. Perhaps it's because she doesn't conform to the socialist-feminist perspective on what a female leader should be like. Perhaps it's because she, like so many women, was not concerned with implementing the more radical feminist agenda and called the bluff of those who claim all women have the same outlook. Maybe some feminists just don't like women who conform to their viewpoint - frankly a highly sexist attitude.

(The UK was actually beaten by an interesting mix of countries including Sri Lanka with Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1960, India with Indira Gandhi in 1966, Israel with Golda Meir in 1969 and the Central African Republic with Elisabeth Domitien in 1975.)

But whilst the UK may have achieved this back in 1979 it's hard to pretend that since then women have been at the forefront of politics. Looking just at the leadership elections of the big three, since 1979 there have been sixteen different people on the ballot papers for the Conservative Party leadership, of whom Thatcher (in both 1989 & 1990) is the only woman. Labour have had nineteen different candidates, of whom Margaret Beckett (in 1994) and Diane Abbott (in 2010) are the only women. The Liberal Democrats (including predecessor parties) have had thirteen candidates including just one woman, Jackie Ballard (in 1999). There have been various other candidates who have launched bids for the leadership but abandoned them before appearing on the ballot paper - Stephen Dorrell, Don Foster, Alan Duncan, Malcolm Rifkind and John McDonell all spring to mind but no women.

I find it hard to believe that a male to female ratio of 11 to 1 remotely reflects the ratio of political talent in this country, no matter how many people may proclaim the absence of any formal barriers. There are a mixture of problems including time commitments, the fact that politics puts off disproportionately more women than men, and some attitudes. When women rise high in politics and fail they are often denounced as over promoted because of their gender. The same comments aren't made about failed men.

(Sure there are some women who have been over promoted because of this. I think it is perfectly valid to criticise Harriet Harman as over promoted because of her gender when even she made it her central pitch for the Labour deputy leadership, so it's hard to deny that she has got where she is because she is a woman. Theresa May has also danced around the edges of this - remember how when she was appointed Conservative Party chair her gender was stressed heavily? But the likes of Caroline Spelman and Yvette Cooper have not ridden the waves. If and when they fail big time it will be no different if they had been men.)

There isn't an obvious solution. Requiring X number of candidates/MPs/Cabinet members to be women risks over promoting mediocrities whose failure will merely set back the prospects of a level playing field. And the aim must be a level playing field not statistical exactitude. Helping talented women acquire the necessary skills and experience that they might not otherwise obtain so they can come forward and overcome the entry barriers is a much better way. Hopefully when David Cameron retires in a decade or so there will be women who come forward as candidates not as a mere token but as strong competitive contenders on equal terms.

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