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.


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