Thursday, December 22, 2011

Flashback: Dreadwind's Xmas!

Another blast from the past, this time a reminder of a particularly madcap issue of one of my childhood comics, the British version of Transformers which combined reprints of stories from its American counterpart with newly originated tales of the toys. Issue #302 came out just before Christmas 1990 and contained the year's seasonal tale, Dreadwind's Xmas. (Thanks to Blimey! It's another blog about comics! for recently publishing scans of the story at Christmas Comics: TRANSFORMERS (1990).)

Christmas stories are something of a tradition in British comics, even action adventure ones such as Transformers. They would tell a (usually) one-off tale with some festive whimsy as an interlude from the ongoing saga.

The problem is that this was often heavily at odds with the genre and tone of particular titles, and as a result many of these were at best forgettable, at worst they were so dire they lingered in the memory rather longer than they should have.

Transformers was a tale about two warring factions of an alien robotic race, with some humans caught up in their war as well. Such a scenario does not easily lend itself to the Christmas spirit and the results were messy. There was one where a super powered human was about to destroy an Autobot (one if the good guys) when suddenly midnight struck and she had an immediate change of heart. Or another when one of the meanest Decepticons (the bad guys) was depressed and homesick, so a kid decided to try and explain the meaning of Christmas to him, without much success until suddenly a wave of enlightenment came out of the blue. Then there was the Autobots' leader Optimus Prime trying to decide how to use a small piece of life bringing energy until he discovered environmentalism (well it was 1989).

But perhaps the weirdest was 1990's offering, the short text story Dreadwind's Xmas! The story was related to the-then change of letterspage answerer.

For most of the run the comic's letterspage was supposedly answered by one of the Transformers themselves. It made for a more interesting experience as the character gave more personalised responses, including their own opinion about events and characters and the failings of the humans working on the comic (called "stubbies"). It was fun, but every few years there was a change of character to a newer toy. One such change came in issue #300 when the Decepticon Dreadwind was replaced by the Autobot Blaster. However the introductory page told us Dreadwind was resisting and had barricaded himself in his office. And so we came to Dreadwind's Xmas!

The story tells of how on Christmas night "Ebeneezer Dreadwind" is visited by three spirits who confront him about his bitterness and occupation. Eventually Dreadwind cries and gives in, leaving Earth... to plan his revenge on the spirits.

A neighbouring column put it best: "What the Dickens?"

Even by the standards of comic Christmas issues this one was especially bizarre. It's unsurprising that the tradition was abandoned after this even though the comic lasted just over another year.

By issue #302 it's hard to dispute that Transformers was rather past its prime (no pun intended), with the British originated strips having first lost colour then disappearing altogether in favour of reprints of old British stories. (Hence the Christmas story this year being a brief text affair rather than an actual strip as in previous years.) But in the wider world of comics a licensed title based on a toyline that lasts even four years is quite an achievement, let alone the seven plus that Transformers eventually clocked up. And even in its last years the comic was still a joy to read.

(This longevity brought its own problems. The conventional wisdom in British comics is that the readership almost completely turns over every few years. Hence many long running titles resort to repetitive plots and reprints. But when a title has a cult following - and even during Transformers's run this following was already manifesting itself - the proportion of readers who've already seen the material is very high and can be easily alienated and so attempts to economise had a steady corrosive effect. But even this didn't end things - rather it was the American title going under and cutting off the supply of new-to-the-UK material that killed Transformers altogether.)

The toyline is still going all these years later and still has a lot of tie-in fiction, from blockbuster movies to fan convention comics. Amazingly the British comic's legacy is strong with many characterisations and themes (including its version of the origin of the Transformers) still follow its lead. Not a bad legacy for a weekly comic that wasn't even published in the toyline's countries of origin.

Transformers has also left a surprising legacy in the wider world, one that not many people will realise it started. For in issue #160 (information at Transformers Wiki: Salvage!) saw a guest appearance by a prominent British businessman who would go on to make many other guest appearances in all manner of fiction. Yes Transformers is responsible for starting Richard Branson's quest to get a cameo in just about everything!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Images from the Past: Thirty years ago...

Exactly thirty years ago today Blake's 7 ended.

And I don't mean the last episode went out and it didn't come back, like many a show. No it truly ended.

I've shown this clip once before, but it's so striking here again is what went out just after 8pm on that day in 1981:

Can you imagine the BBC today showing something so bloody and bleak not just at any 8pm but just four days before Christmas?

Saturday, December 03, 2011

The Last Dictator Standing

There's a brilliant advert put out by Nando's, starring a man who has lost another friend this year and reflecting. Here's the full version:
Sadly threats of violence against Nando's's Zimbabwean staff have resulted in the advert being withdrawn. But time is running out for Mugabe.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Be careful what you promise!

Remember those fun adverts for Scotch videotapes with the living skeleton? Thanks to YouTube we can see them again. Here's the one I remember the most:
And here's another one predicting the flatscreen TV quite well, although making a rather rash promise...
"Every recording as good as the first or we'll give you a new tape."

Does anyone want to put that to the test and invoke the lifetime guarantee? After all the advert is pretty explicit that Scotch tapes should still be working as good as new after all this time... And there are still people who use their VCRs for recording because it's "good enough" for the task at hand.

Scotch was a trading name used by 3M Select. Their UK website no longer sells videotapes but they did promise to guarantee the tapes for life... Or will they give you your money back?

Alternatively if you used your Scotch tapes to preserve video recordings for posterity and still have some (I think I still have a 1993 recording of a Doctor Who story on a Scotch tape somewhere) then they made promises about those too:
And for some bonus points I noticed that one of the tapes advertised is Betamax (and the second advert has a third cassette but I don't recognise it at all). Does anyone still have both tape and player to test the limits of the guarantee?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Additional Member System - New Zealand's experience

Yesterday New Zealand had an election. In itself it wasn't too dramatic - the main governing party slightly advanced, the opposition fell back rather more and there was some shuffling round amongst the smaller parties. The most prominent story is the return to parliament of the populist New Zealand First. But of other interest is that New Zealand also held a referendum on its voting system and opted to retain its current Additional Member System (known as Mixed Member Proportional over there, but I'll translate the terminology for a British audience).

Now here in the UK changing the voting system was dealt a huge blow at the AV referendum in May and many, myself included, are willing to take the losing campaign's cries of "this is the only chance to change the system" at face value. However in politics few proposals ever truly die and circumstances can change, bringing once seemingly dead issues back to the table. (The New Zealand referendum came 18 years after two previous ones that adopted the system, and six elections in the meantime. Historically this is slow for New Zealand which until 1989 had referendums on prohibition alongside every election.) And despite the referendum we still have other voting systems in use - the Additional Member System is used for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and London Assembly; the Single Transferable Vote is used for the Northern Ireland Assembly and local government in Northern Ireland and Scotland; party lists are used for elections to the European Parliament (apart from Northern Ireland which still uses STV); and the Supplementary Vote is used for directly elected Mayors and will also be used for Police Commissioners. So one way or another the voting system question hasn't gone away completely.

New Zealand's implementation of the AMS system is relatively straight forward. There are seventy constituencies ("electorates") which each elect a single member of parliament by First Past The Post. Then there is a top-up list vote, operating on a New Zealand-wide basis, which elects a further 50 members. Crucially the 70 constituency members are factored into the overall proportionality. There are, however, some additional key details:
  • There are separate constituencies for Māori voters. When registering voters can choose to go either on the main ("general") electoral register or on the separate Māori register (but cannot appear on both). The seven Māori constituencies are organised on a geographic basis, overlapping the sixty three general constituencies. All voters vote for the same list.
  • In order to qualify for list seats, a party has to get either at least 5% of the list vote or win at least one constituency. (The German implementation includes a further qualification that parties that represent specific minorities - e.g. the South Schleswig Voter Federation representing ethnic Danes in Schleswig-Holstein - are exempt from the threshold requirements. Such a rule was considered for New Zealand but the final implementation opted instead for keeping the separate Māori constituencies.)
  • Proportionality is calculated only amongst list votes for parties that qualify for list seats. Thus if 10% of the vote goes to parties that don't qualify, the 120 seats are apportioned on the basis of 90% of the votes.
  • If a party wins more constituency seats than its list vote entitles it to then there is an "overhang". This is partially corrected by automatically creating additional list seats equal to the number of overhang constituencies. For example in 2008 the Māori Party won five constituencies but a list entitlement of only three, so two extra list seats were created.
(The British uses of AMS have all voters on a single "general" register and maintains the 5% rule, which in London has caught out variously the Christian People's Alliance, RESPECT and the BNP in some elections. In Scotland and Wales the use of separate AMS regions means there are fewer seats available overall. Also AMS here uses a different mechanism for allocating the list seats though in practice to much the same effect. There is no mechanism to counter an overhang.)

AMS can throw up a number of anomalies and confusions because of this - for those interested in the more technical details have a read of Antony Green's Election Blog: The MMP Sealed Section: How the Intricacies of MMP Could Prevent a National Majority which is written for an audience with no direct experience of the system. By far the most interesting, and potentially controversial for any British consideration, are the rules on qualifying for list seats and the potential for gaming the system.

Preliminary results for 2011 suggest that this isn't an issue - every party that has won list seats is over the 5% threshold and every party below it with seats has only constituency seats. But in 2008 New Zealand First won 95,356 list votes and no seats whilst ACT New Zealand (a free market, free people, small government party) won 85,496 and was entitled to five seats overall. Were the UK to have a referendum on AMS I wouldn't be surprised if this occurrence got fished out at some stage. The difference was that ACT had successfully targeted the Epsom constituency, albeit with help from the Nationals, whereas New Zealand First won no constituencies at all. These things are swings and roundabouts - New Zealand First had itself relied on constituency success in 1999 when leader Winston Peters narrowly retained Tauranga by just 63 votes but by 2005 they lost there and were at the mercy of the list.

(Other parties who've qualified for list seats this way include: the Progressive Party in 2002, United Future in 2005 and ACT also in 2005. However it was rare in any of these elections for such parties to be outpolled by others who ended up with no seats.)

And the result partially reflected a gaming of the system by the larger National Party - they gave a discrete message to their list voters in Epsom to give their constituency vote to ACT so that the latter would qualify for list seats and boost the chances of a National government with ACT support. The constituency and list votes are cast on the same ballot paper and the detailed count includes the precise combinations - in 2008 nationally 86.3% of National Party list voters also voted National for the constituency vote, but in Epsom this figure was just 26.2%, with 69.9% of National list voters voting ACT in the constituency. (Antony Green's Election Blog: 2011 New Zealand Election: How MMP Works) Other stats from that breakdown show a lot of Green list voters vote for other parties for constituencies and indeed there are some signs of Labour and Green list voters in Epsom trying to counteract the National/ACT effect by voting for the National constituency candidate. It is a bizarre situation when a party's opponents are keener for it to win a particular contest than the party is itself!

In the past I've blogged about possible ways to game AMS - How the London Assembly could have been so different details how "decoy lists" would have worked in London in 2008. New Zealand's overhang correction mechanism could throw up interesting effects - either many more list seats would be created to counter the effect of lots of constituencies being won by parties with next to no list votes (something similar happens in some German lander parliaments, resulting in wild fluctuations of the number of politicians) or the seats might be completely disregarded in the list calculations. But a system where small parties can survive or die depending not directly on the votes but on whether they can get tactical help from big parties will not be to everyone's taste, especially if the small parties are felt to wield disproportionate influence in government.

Is AMS a "simple" system for the lay voter to understand? Well that's very hard to measure as one person's simplicity is another's convolution. But some factors are there - on the one hand AMS lacks the surpluses and fractions of STV and it never sees the most popular constituency candidates (as measured by who gets the most votes) denied victory. However details like overhangs and multiple thresholds can be complicated to explain and would expand an official summary beyond conciseness. Furthermore the prospect of a party winning more than 50% of seats with less than 50% of votes is a real one under AMS - it happened in Scotland this year due to factors such as the use of multiple regions but also because of "wasted votes" for parties that secured no seats - and again this sort of detail that works counter to expectations can confuse. Now all systems have their anomalies but given the tendency of PR campaigners to make so much of victories on less than 50% of the vote, if the alternative is shown to not live up to their own standards then it's natural to be sceptical.

Could AMS win a future referendum on voting systems? That's very hard to say as much of it would come down to a variety of factors including events in advance, how well campaigners prepared the ground before the announcement of a vote, the effectiveness of the campaigns themselves and so forth. I do hope that in any such referendum better arguments would be put forward than "vote yes for utopian politics" or "vote no 'cos the Germans use it".

However for the moment such a referendum seems a long way off. But time will tell...

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Bye bye Doctor Who Confidential

The recent news that Doctor Who Confidential is being dropped at the end of the current series has provoke tow quite contradictory reactions in me.

On the one hand the recent series of Confidential have been, to put it mildly, rather rubbish. It's been full of inconsequential fluff rather than a good behind the scenes look at the series. Extending the length to forty-five minutes didn't help.

On the other hand Confidential was the very show which convinced me to make the plunge and get digital television. (Yes there was once a time when digital television wasn't everywhere. In fact here in London we've barely started the digital switch-over.) I'd been thinking about it on and off for a while, but it was the prospect of bonus Doctor Who material that was the eventual tipping point in my decision to get my first digibox/decoder or whatever they're actually called. So it's a pity to see it go.

But then nothing lasts forever.

This does highlight one worrying thought. The number of Doctor Who spin-offs have been steadily diminishing - Totally Doctor Who, the Sarah-Jane Adventures and now Doctor Who Confidential all gone for one reason or another, whilst Torchwood's fate seems uncertain. This leaves just the series itself. The rationale for the various spin-offs was to build a "firewall" around the series, giving it greater support and protection. Now the series will be left to fend for itself.

Ever since the news in 2003 that Doctor Who was being revived, fans have wondered for a long time how long it will last. I'll be honest - I don't expect the current incarnation of the show to last twenty-six years. Everything comes to an end at some stage or another. But I don't know if the end of Confidential brings that end forward or not. The main series hasn't relied on it for some time now.

Of course as previous cancellations have shown, just because the series may come to an end doesn't mean that's it for ever. The show's format is such that given the right circumstances it can be revived many times and it has become a modern day icon of almost mythological proportions. I have no doubt we will see many future incarnations of the show itself.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Leading from outside the chamber

The announcement that Tom Harris is to seek the Scottish Labour leadership has led to calls for other Labour MPs to throw their hat into the ring. But it's also exposing a growing fact in our post devolution arrangements - there is more than one place to find political leadership.

Traditionally there has been a single source for a leader - the parliamentary chamber in question. It has been taken for granted that only a sitting MP/MSP/AM can contest the leadership and the loss of one's seat can be a near fatal setback for ambitions. But it's also led to the assumption that if someone leaves the chamber or politics altogether then they can't return and resume their ambitions.

That may have been a truism in times past, but we now live in an age where there are multiple parliaments and other positions. Is it really so wise to limit the choice of leader in a particular parliament merely to those who are currently members, and never consider talent that happens to be elsewhere?

And this goes beyond Westminster and the devolved parliaments. Why can't elected Mayors and council leaders be candidates for leadership? For that matter why not private citizens? Too often people complain about an insular political class - well here's a way that would allow people to dip in and out:

Allow anybody to contest the leadership of a party. If they're not an MP/MSP/AM etc... then they can either seek to enter the parliament in a by-election or await the next general election. A deputy can handle the parliamentary duties in the meantime and leave the leader with more time to tour the country. After all there's so much more to leading a political party than taking part in parliamentary questions.

This is not a novel idea by any means. Alex Salmond wasn't an MSP when he won the SNP leadership for the second time, and he didn't return to Holyrood for another three years. And outside the United Kingdom it's surprisingly common.

If Boris Johnson really has ambitions to be Prime Minister, he could do no worse than to watch the Liberal National Party in the Australian state of Queensland. Earlier this year the LNP picked as its new leader Campbell Newman, who is not an MP but rather the just stepped down elected Mayor of Brisbane, Australia's largest local authority. Newman is leading the LNP into the next election from outside the state parliament. If successful then Boris may want to pick up some tips.

Canada's tradition in this regard is far more advanced with both federal and provincial parties regularly picking leaders who are not sitting MPs, and it's common to find provincial leaders standing in federal leadership elections. Leaders who have not been sitting MPs when elected include Stephen Harper, Jean Chrétien and John Turner (all of whom were former MPs who had left parliament for industry but who then won their party leaderships), Jack Layton (who was a Toronto city councillor when elected to the NDP leadership), Brian Mulroney (a private businessman who had never held elected office before winning the Progressive Conservative leadership) and Robert Stanfield (who was Premier of Nova Scotia when elected to the federal Progressive Conservative leadership). There have even been Prime Ministers and state Premiers who have been appointed before being elected to the chamber - current Yukon premier Darrell Pasloski is not (yet) a member of the territorial assembly whilst British Colombia premier Christy Clark was sworn in in March despite not winning a seat in the legislature until May.

To the public at large it probably won't matter if a party's selected leader is an MP/MSP/AM or not. It certainly won't matter what precise title they hold. But it will be more problematic if a party is unclear about who their leader/"candidate for Prime/First Minister" is, leaving the media confused. Plaid Cymru found itself in this mess a few years ago before it changed its structures and what hasn't received much attention so far is that the post Tom Harris is standing for is technically only the leader of the Labour Party in the Scottish Parliament, a point that will be far more than pedantic in rows with MPs and councillors.

The other issue is getting the political and media culture to accept leaders who are not on the parliamentary benches, but time and precedent will accomplish that. Rival parties may mock a leader's "absence" but once they have done it themselves that line of attack will diminish.

Of course despite all of the above, Tom Harris is wrong to seek the Scottish Labour leadership for one very good reason. He is clearly in the wrong party!

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Online primaries - how not to do them

The primary election is a rare beast is this country. Even most of the selections the Conservatives brand as "open primaries" are actually closer to US style caucuses with a greater level of involvement required and thus smaller turnouts. The reason for this is obvious - it's near impossible to devise a mechanism whereby all eligible voters are able to choose a candidate for a party without incurring huge costs (the Conservatives did hold some postal ballots and send papers to all voters in a few constituencies but at great cost) or having no security controls to prevent the process from being fraudulently hijacked by the ineligible and/or other parties. Realistically a primary would require state support to work. But every so often a party throws such common sense to the wind.

UKIP are currently engaged in the process of selecting who should be their candidate for Mayor of London. I'll admit upfront that I don't find the actual contest itself to be the most exciting thing going. But one of the ways they're allocating votes is so ridiculously fraud prone that I'm amazed that it wasn't laughed out at first suggestion.

For UKIP have set up a website, UKIP's Mayor for London: Have Your Say, whereby anyone can vote on the six applicants for the candidacy. There are next to no controls on voting whatsoever - you simply select a candidate's box and click "Vote". There is no requirement or provision to:
  • Give your name
  • Give your address
  • Confirm you are a voter in London
  • Confirm you are not a partisan for another side/a mischief maker intent on ensuring UKIP is saddled with the most absurd candidate available.
Absolutely anybody anywhere on the planet can vote in this. And what's to stop multiple voting? The site seems to detect second vote attempts, but there's no shortage of technical people who know how to disguise a computer and/or IP address so that they could repeatedly vote to their heart's content.

At stake in all this are large blocks of "bonus votes" that will be counted at the UKIP conference when they make their final choice. So there is a serious potential for mischief making to distort the outcome.

Increasing public involvement in politics is a desirable and necessary aim. But to do so in such a way that the outcome is invariably tainted and discredited is not the way to go about it. Let's hope no serious party follows UKIP's disastrous decision.

By the way wouldn't it be hilarious if Winston "Six Parties" McKenzie won the nomination?

City of Fear

Last night was terrifying. We didn't have riots in the immediate vicinity, perhaps because a lot of local shopkeepers took precautions including having men standing outside with baseball bats, but when the news keeps reporting new areas of violence you just keep wondering when it's your turn.

What do we need now? We can have all the waffle about causes and protests from the usual apologists, many of whom don't live the areas at risk, but that doesn't make people safer in the meantime. Is "understanding" going to make the streets safe tonight? We need a much firmer approach, and the announced large increase in police on the streets is a welcome first step. It's also encouraging that support for a firm approach is coming from surprising sources.

But we also need to unfetter the police's hands to deal with riots. We need to allow them to use the tactics and equipment - including water canons - necessary. But we also need to rebalance the rights of both the police and law-abiding citizens with the "rights" of criminals so that the former don't feel unable to deal with the latter due to fear of legal repercussions whilst the latter feel they can act unrestrained.

We must end the fear.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Öpik History Wars

For many one of the biggest shock results in last year's general election was Conservative Glyn Davies's gain of Montgomeryshire from Lembit Öpik. But for some it wasn't a surprise at all and had been predicted for years.

Now that is standing to be his party's candidate for Mayor of London, there has been a lot of talk about why he lost so dramatically - the biggest anti-Lib Dem swing in a held seat, the most distant Conservative gain and the Lib Dems losing a seat that was supposedly "Liberal forever (so long as they remember to campaign)". And there's some fierce fighting over recent political history.

Suddenly even more appropriate...It's become such an issue that even Öpik's nomination manifesto (warning that's a very BIG file) feels the need to address it, saying the following:

Lembit lost his seat in 2010
The failure of the party to retain both the parliamentary and Welsh Assembly seat in 2010 and 2011 in Montgomeryshire is linked to the drunken altercation between Assembly Member Mick Bates and a paramedic which led to his prosecution and to him leaving the party. Many were aware of Lembit's celebrity profile and assumed that this was the cause of the loss. Regrettably the party did worse in 2011 even indicating a common factor for both poor results.

This just does not convince. And it's unsurprising that it's provoked blog post responses from both the Lib Dem Welsh Assembly Member Peter Black (Lembit Öpik and the rewriting of history) and Conservative MP Glyn Davies (Lembit - take it on the chin like a man.).

I've commented myself on the matter - see for instance my comments at Dave Hill's London Blog: London Lib Dems will choose their mayoral candidate from field of four for my trading the statistics - and so for now I'll just confine myself to showing that the defeat was being predicted long before Mick Bates hit the paramedic, even if not everyone picked up on it.

First from a Usenet post I wrote two years ago:

Montgomeryshire isn't quite the "Liberal forever (except when they're too busy planning centenary celebrations to actually campaign to retain it)" bastion of legend but in several ways is very much a personalist constituency. Now sure I have my personal biases but much of what I've heard from there (including from my sister, who until recently lived and worked in Machynlleth at the very west of the seat and is somewhat to the left of me), Lembit Opik's popularity is shrinking faster than an asteroid burning up in the atmosphere because of his clowning around, high profile personal life and lack of any serious political track record.

By contrast the Conservative candidate is Glyn Davies is widely respected across the political spectrum - I've heard many Plaid members openly say a lot of good things about him (and even that they'd vote for him) - and if anything has increased his appeal by losing his list seat in the last Assembly elections only because the Conservatives gained two constituencies. Whilst the Assembly list results aren't a 100% guide to what will happen in a Westminster election, it's notable the Conservatives topped the poll there.

Furthermore with the Liberal Democrats under pressure in the neighbouring seats of Brecon & Radnorshire and Ceredigion they simply can't target all their energy in Mid & West Wales on Montgomeryshire even if they wanted to - and from comments by Lib Dem activists I get the feeling that many would not want to anyway and are certainly not going to haul themselves great distances to allow Lembit to carry on as Mr Celebrity.
(Message from discussion Opinion poll in Wales on uk.politics.electoral at Jun 16 2009, 11:08 am

Next there's UK Polling Report's specific discussion on Montgomeryshire. Many amateur (and not so amateur) psephologists comment there and unrealistic predictions are easily shot down. People were predicting the Lib Dems were in Öpik-specific difficulties as early as February 2007, with the earliest outright prediction of a loss in July 2008.

Finally there's the Vote UK discussion thread on Montgomeryshire. The earliest outright defeat prediction was in September 2007.

One other point has emerged - Öpik neither wrote his own manifesto nor checked it before it was submitted - see his comments in WalesOnline: Peter Black launches furious attack on 'self-obsessive' Lib Dem colleague Lembit Opik. If he's not even in control of his own campaign, how could he ever hope to be in control of London?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Know thine enemy "partners" - the Liberal Democrat MPs

I've recently been doing some statistics compilation about the electoral record of the Liberal Democrat MPs to help some others answer various questions about how much the traditional image of the party is still true. The findings are surprising and I thought I'd share them here.

Of the current 57 Lib Dem MPs, only one has had a break in their Commons service. Mike Hancock was first elected in a 1984 by-election, lost in 1987 & again in 1992, but returned in 1997. (For all these statistics bar continuous ones I use Hancock's 1984 election.)

Just five first entered Parliament at a by-election - and only two since the merger, one in a Lib Dem held seat.

The traditional image of Lib Dem MPs gaining their seat after multiple attempts now covers only the minority of the parliamentary party. No less than thirty-two of the fifty-seven MPs won their seat on their first attempt there. Eighteen had not stood for Parliament at all before, eleven had stood once before in other seats and just three had had two previous unsuccessful candidacies.

Out of the twenty-five who first won their seat after multiple attempts, fifteen had only stood in that seat. Eighteen won their seat on the second attempt, four on the third attempt, two on the fourth attempt and one on the fifth attempt.

On average then a Lib Dem MP has won their seat after 1.63 attempts in that seat and 2.19 attempts overall.

Only fifteen MPs were first elected in an already Lib Dem held seat; the other forty-two gained theirs from other parties. The Lib Dem Cabinet Ministers disproportionately represent the "inheritees", with Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and Michael Moore all having inherited their seats. (So too did David Laws, whom Moore net replaced.)

The inheritees are very much at the newer end of the parliamentary party. The longest serving was first elected in 1997, the rest were all in the last decade - 6 in 2001, 5 in 2005 (including one in a by-election), 3 in 2010.

Lib Dem MPs have on average been in Parliament for nearly eleven years. The mid point for election falls at the end of the 2001 intake.

The intakes by general election break down as follows: 1983 - 2, 1987 - 1, 1992 - 2, 1997 - 13, 2001 - 8, 2005 - 17, 2010 - 10. The five by-election entrances were in 1973, 1983, 1984, 2003 & 2005. Only one MP remains from the pre-Alliance era, and only five more from the Alliance days (with two having come from the SDP).

A slightly different picture emerges when looking at how long the party has held each seat since. Lib Dems seats have on average been held continuously for fourteen and a half years. The mid point is within the cluster gained in 1997. The longest continuously held seat is Orkney & Shetland (since 1950).

The breakdowns by general election are as follows: 1950 - 1, 1955-1979 - none, 1983 - 4 (2 Lib, 2 SDP, only one of whom was the sitting MP), 1987 - 2 (both Lib), 1992 - 4, 1997 - 18, 2001 - 3, 2005 - 13, 2010 - 7. Five seats were gained in by-elections in 1965, 1973, 1983, 1994 & 2003.

Three MPs have had parliamentary careers elsewhere - John Thurso was in the Lords for four years before the hereditaries were expelled and both Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne served in the European Parliament for 5 & 6 years respectively.

What all this shows is that overall the Lib Dems are slowly moving out of their traditional niche of local campaigners wining after repeat attempts or at by-elections, and towards a more standard party model and breed of politicians; with in particular MPs who make their name in the party nationally before selection and who can get picked in seats different to their locality on merits other than their local record. But it is a slow process, with many of the older style of Lib Dems still in the parliamentary party, and one that may be reversed if the Lib Dems' see a major collapse at the next general election. Nevertheless the party is changing and the old ways of reacting to it are becoming obsolete.

It's also striking how Nick Clegg is very much at the extreme in this shift. He is the first Liberal or Liberal Democrat leader to have entered the Commons in an inherited seat since Clement Davies (leader 1945-1956). He is also one of very few of his party's MPs to have arrived in the Commons with a established parliamentary record. Clegg's election to the European Parliament was entirely due to the party list system whilst he inherited a strong majority and he has not contested any other constituency meaning that at no stage in his career to date has he really had a tough electoral fight amongst the voters at large. This lack of a background in the traditional Lib Dem frontline of street level politics may also explain the growing sense of detachment between the Lib Dem leader and his party; a detachment that could grow to be the Coalition's biggest vulnerability.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The end of the News of the World and the beginning of...?

You turn away from the news for a while and the big one comes. The News of the World is to close, with this Sunday's edition as the last ever. Given all the ghastly revelations this week and the backlash, especially from advertisers, this move was probably inevitable.

I don't actually buy the News of the World (or indeed any Sunday paper) so I couldn't exactly boycott it myself. I won't miss it much. However I do feel sorry for innocent staff on the paper who have lost their jobs. Many journalists on other sections knew little to nothing about the phone hacking, to say nothing of other staff working on or for the paper - cleaners, layout arrangers, photographers, website managers and so forth. I hope that they will not suffer too greatly for others' sins.

But what does this all mean for the newspaper market? British newspapers are traditionally quite stable and the News of the World had been running since 1843, notably pre-dating the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1855 and the paper duty in 1861 which led to a boom in cheap papers aimed at the working classes. Of the other national Sunday papers only The Observer (est. 1791) and the Sunday Times (est. 1822) are older, but few are that young - the youngest of the major Sunday papers is the Independent on Sunday and that's twenty-one this year. It's a market where a large portion of the readership is hereditary and the sudden disappearance of a paper with such a huge circulation could shake things up seriously.

Of course a new Sunday newspaper could be launched - a lot of people are predicting "The Sun on Sunday" - but just how much of the readership would successfully transfer to a new title? An alternative possibility could be if The Sun is bold enough to challenge the traditional split in newspapers and become a seven day paper. After all the Saturday editions of papers have grown into distinct entities without becoming separate titles, so why should the Sunday papers be different? But I suspect the market isn't yet ready for that even though this is the best opportunity in years.

And what will be the political impact? The News of the World, like the other News International titles, endorsed Labour in the Blair years but switched to the Conservatives in 2009. I've long felt the formal endorsements by newspapers in the last couple of weeks of the election don't actually swing many votes but rather the line their coverage takes in the preceding months and years is the key factor.

If the simple consequence of all this is that the News of the World is merely replaced by another such Sunday paper that picks up virtually all of its readership and maintains the same position on the political spectrum then very little will have changed. But if things are more shaken up then there could be some surprising consequences to come.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The longest pretender

Yesterday Otto von Habsburg died. He was the son and heir of the last Emperor of Austria and had been the pretender to the thrones of Austria and Hungary (and Croatia and Bohemia) since 1922. Previously he had been the heir since 1916,

It seems incredible that until yesterday a First World War heir was still alive. A reminder both that people are living longer and longer and that the war was more recently than many think.

His long tenure as pretender to the throne is, I think, the record. Pretenders "reigning" longer than actual monarchs is not so unusual - the Jacobite Old Pretender had a reign in pretence for over sixty-four years, even longer then Queen Victoria's reign.

Of course actually being on the throne for a long time is a very different thing from being the person who "should" be on the throne, if that throne is even still around.

Friday, June 24, 2011

No more bendy 25

A year ago I posted Bye bye bendy 25 noting the announcement about the contract change that would bring with it the end of bendy buses on my local route, the Number 25.
Today is the final day that bendies run that route and I caught one this evening. As ever it was the same awful experience that make people hate them so much and I'm not sorry to see them go. It's good to see Boris delivering on his pledges!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Political defections

David Campbell Bannerman MEP today defected from UKIP to the Conservatives. And cue the standard script whenever someone changes party:

The Losing Party: "The people didn't vote for this; there should be a by-election. This defection is just a spot of personal pique! Good riddance to good rubbish!"

The Gaining Party: "Our new recruit is a formidable politician who shows our party is a broad church able to reach out to all. And only a few partisan politicians want a by-election."

Etc etc...

Has anyone ever known a serious political party tell a would be recruit that they cannot join until they first have a by-election?

Monday, May 09, 2011

A Conservative majority? Yes They Can(ada)!

Belated congratulations to Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada who last week won a majority in the general election.

Yes after years of hung parliaments they now have a majority Conservative government. Additionally the Liberals crashed and burned badly, losing over half their seats including the leader's, and the separatist party was nearly wiped out.

I feel very envious of our Canadian friends.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Referendum lessons

The Alternative Vote referendum ended this week in spectacular style. After a lengthy campaign, and no end of debate in certain circles (especially Twitter!), the result is through and the message is clear - voting system change (let's stop pretending it's "electoral reform") is dead for a generation.

But there are other clear lessons from this exercise and some of them aren't so comforting.

Much of the country's recent experiences of referendums has, up to now, been limited. Some of the votes have been near invisible local ones. Others have had weakened or non-existent opposition. There are some exceptions, but by and large this vote has been the first time many have experienced a strongly contested vote, with all the campaign tactics and mud slinging that goes with it.

Many can be disappointed by the way both campaigns went about things, but at the end of the day this wasn't a politics lecture. It was a vote to decide an aspect of how the country is run. The tasks for both campaigns were to win the vote, nothing else. They set about that task using methods they believe work. But one campaign made some serious miscalculations about the public attitude.

The Yes campaign by and large pitched itself at something it believes exists called the "progressive majority" - the idea that Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green and Nationalist voters all belong to some grand tribe and that only splits between them have kept the Conservatives in power. But the harsh reality is that few voters identify with this concept - maybe a handful of the Guardian reading metropolitan liberals & intelligentsia (just look at the handful of areas that did return a Yes vote) but that's about it. It was also a dangerous strategy because it ignored the right and gave them no reason to vote for AV - simply having Nigel Farage on the list of AV supporters wasn't enough.

Furthermore a lot in the Yes campaign had for years believed the public wanted a change to the voting system and would flock to vote for one if only those wicked self-interested politicians would let them. Complacency ruled early on. They forget that whilst opinion polls had indicated there was a lot of support, most voters really don't have strong opinions on what voting system should be used and can be swayed by a campaign. Furthermore it really isn't a political priority for most voters beyond a certain set of chattering classes.

Now just for a moment change a few words in this. Imagine it wasn't an AV referendum but an EU one. Imagine the withdrawal campaign is pitching just for the right Conservative/UKIP voters. Imagine that many withdrawalists look to the opinion polls and take a vote for withdrawal as a foregone conclusion. And instead the stay in campaign mobilises well and secures a thumping victory.

It's not inconceivable. After all the right has its own kind of chattering class and obsessive, who don't always accept that their cause is not the public's priority, who don't realise more ground work is needed. To listen to some Eurosceptics you'd believe that all that's needed is to simply get a referendum called and everything else is a formality.

That kind of complacency is dangerous, but it's present behind most of the calls for an immediate referendum on withdrawal. More must be done before that happens.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Papua New Guinea doesn't use the Alternative Vote

We keep hearing the mantra repeated that only three countries in the world use the Alternative Vote - Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. Invariably the focus has been on the first of these three, where data, studies and commentary is most readily available. Of the other two, Fiji has its problems that are rather more deep seated than the voting system, and Papua New Guinea appears misreported.

Papua New Guinea adopted the Alternative Vote in the past but switched to First Past The Post in the mid 1970s. In 2003 they changed the system again, but contrary to much casual reporting they didn't adopt the Alternative Vote.

Instead they adopted the Limited Preferential Vote - see Papua New Guinea Electoral Commission - Limited Preferential Voting for the official description on it.

Now I'm sure many of you are wondering what the difference is. Well under LPV a voter can only indicate preferences for a limited number of candidates. Rounds of transfers follow. A version of this system is actually used in the UK for Mayoral elections, albeit with voters allowed only two choices and the second round involves only the candidates with the two highest first preference totals.

The Limited Preferential Vote displays many of the same issues as the Supplementary Vote and neither of them really qualify as the Alternative Vote. Hardly any AV campaigners in the UK hold up the Supplementary Vote as an example of AV, and the Limited Preferential Vote isn't one either.

So that's two countries that use AV then...

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Extremists and AV - Australia's One Nation

As the Alternative Vote referendum approaches the debate's heating up and the argument has turned on how extremists like the British National Party will do under the system. With so few countries using AV there aren't that many comparisons out there, but there's one Australian party with a record to look at - One Nation.

One Nation was founded in 1997 by Pauline Hanson, a sitting federal MP, David Oldfield and David Ettridge. Hanson was originally nominated as the Liberal candidate in Oxley in the 1996 federal election but between nominations and polling day she was expelled from the party after she gained national fame from calling for the abolition of government assistance for indigenous Australians. However it was too late to nominate an alternative candidate or even remove "Liberal" from her place from the ballot paper. She went on to win the hitherto safe Labor seat. The following year she joined with Oldfield and Ettridge to form One Nation and the party had some successes, particularly in Queensland at the 1998 state election.

However the major Australian parties responded to One Nation by both trying to undercut its vote base and encouraging tactical voting against it, with Hanson defeated at the 1998 federal election. One Nation was also riven by splits with most of its elected members leaving the party and the New South Wales branch went solo (with the farce of the "One Nation" name in NSW being used by one group for state elections and another for federal elections) and losing its sole elected member as well. Some members founded breakaway parties like the City Country Alliance or the New Country Party; these parties also went nowhere.

Psephos - Adam Carr's Election Archive has all the election results from this period and shows the outcome. So without further ado:

Federal 1996 - House of Representatives in Queensland

Federal elections are conducted under the compulsory preference version of AV in which a voter needs to indicate preferences for all candidates in order for their vote to count at all.

(For the pedants out there, there were two minor exceptions at the time, though one has since been eliminated. If a voter numbers all but one candidates in order the blank space is taken to be a last preference and their vote is counted. There was also a provision in the law that if a voter numbered candidates but either skipped or repeated a number then their vote would be counted up until the "error" and then no longer transfer or "exhaust". There was a campaign in the early to mid 1990s to get voters to take advantage of this error overcoming mechanism to get de facto optional preferencing - see Langer vote for more - and by the 1998 election the provisions in the Electoral Act were changed so such votes are now invalid.)

As mentioned above Hanson was nominated as the Liberal candidate in Oxley but between nominations and polling day she was expelled from the party but it was too late to nominate an alternative candidate or even remove "Liberal" from her place from the ballot paper. Compared to the Liberal performance in 1993 she nearly doubled the first preferences to take 48.6%. Following the elimination of three Independents and the Greens she took enough transfers to get over 50% (although the majority transferred against her). Though not necessary to determine the winner, the elimination of the Australian Democrats saw transfers in her favour, pushing her to 54.7%.

Queensland 1998

One Nation won eleven seats in this election, which used the optional preference version of AV in which a voter need only indicate a single preference to be valid and which the UK will be offered. In none of the seats did they get 50% of first preferences. The seats broke down as follows:

Most first preferences but under 50% and won
  • Barambah (43.5%)
  • Burdekin (33.1%)
  • Lockyer (39.8%)
  • Maryborough (42.6%)
  • Tablelands (42.0%)
Second on first preferences but won on transfers
  • Caboolture (29.9%)
  • Hervey Bay (33.8%)
  • Ipswich West (38.6%)
  • Mulgrave (31.0%)
  • Thuringowa (34.9%)
  • Whitsunday (30.7%)
Most first preferences and defeated on transfers
  • Burnett (36.4%)
  • Crows Nest (39.5%)
  • Gympie (29.2%)
(None of these seats had separate Coalition candidates from the Liberal and National parties)

Crudely translating first preferences only into First Past The Post results would have given One Nation 8 seats under FPTP. Instead they won 11 under AV.

The overall result was Labor 44, the Nationals 23 & the Liberals 9, One Nation 11 and Independents 2. In theory One Nation could have held the balance of power but one of the Independents agreed to support a Labor government. Subsequently a One Nation MP resigned from the parliament and Labor won the resulting by-election, gaining an outright majority. The remaining One Nation MPs split with half forming the City Country Alliance and the rest going independent.

Federal 1998 - House of Representatives in Queensland

One of the biggest problems for de facto independent one member parties is that boundary changes can often undermine their electoral base. Changes at the 1998 election nominally made Oxley an Labor seat and Hanson contested the new Blair constituency, taking in parts of Oxley.

With competing Liberal and National candidates in the field plus more independents, Hanson topped the poll on first preferences with 36.0%. However Labor and the Coalition recommended preferences to each other. The Liberal candidate started in third place but overtook Labor on National preferences, then took the bulk of the Labor preferences to defeat Hanson 53.4:46.6. Note that Hanson still picked up 10.6% or over 7000 votes in preferences.

Queensland 2001

Most first preferences but under 50% and won
  • Lockyer (28.3%)
  • Tablelands (36.0%)
Second on first preferences but won on transfers
  • Gympie (25.7%)
Most first preferences and defeated on transfers

There don't appear to have been any such cases.

Once again the crude comparison is FPTP 2, AV 3.

The overall result was Labor 66, the Nationals 12 & the Liberals 3, One Nation 3 and Independents 5. This time One Nation was a little more coherent and managed to lose only 1/3 MPs in the parliament.

Queensland 2004

Most first preferences but under 50% and won
  • Tablelands (47.0%)
...and none of the other cases so no crude comparisons are necessary.

One Nation was now in heavy decline and riven by splits. Its sole MP here basically functioned as an Independent.

The overall result was Labor 63, the Nationals 15 & the Liberals 5, One Nation 1 and Independents 5. For once One Nation ended the parliament with all the members it started with.

Queensland 2006

Over 50% of first preferences
  • Tablelands (50.4%)
One Nation only ran four candidates in this election; the other three secured tiny results of less than 5% each.

The overall result was Labor 59, the Nationals 17 & the Liberals 8, One Nation 1 and Independents 4. Once again One Nation managed to keep its only member for the full parliament.

Queensland 2009

The regular scourge of Independents and minor parties, boundary changes, abolished Tablelands. One Nation ran only two candidates including their sitting MP in the new Dalrymple constituency but she came second on both first preferences and final transfers. Their sole other candidate got just 2.9%.

The overal result was Labor 51, the now merged Liberal Nationals 34 and Independents 4.

Other victories

Between 1998 and 2001 One Nation also won seats in the federal Senate and the state upper houses in New South Wales and Western Australia (Queensland doesn't have an upper house); however these are all elected by Single Transferable Vote. For what it's worth all their NSW and WA elected members left the party as well, with the NSW branch going solo and losing its sole elected member as well. Yet another breakaway party was formed by two WA members, called the New Country Party.

So overall what do these results tell us about AV and extremists? Well Pauline Hanson's defeat in 1998 despite getting the most first preferences is easy to zoom in on as she was the party leader and in the federal parliament; however it's worth remembering that it was under compulsory preferencing and she would have had a stronger chance under the optional system the UK is being offered. On the other hand One Nation had 16 victories in Queensland under optional the very system the UK will vote on; the crude FPTP comparison would have given them 12. If anything that suggests optional AV was marginally in their favour.

It's also clear that other parties declaring One Nation to be pariahs did not mean every single other voter followed those parties. And whatever voting system is used this alone will not decide the fate of extremist parties; it's how the political mainstream responds to voters' concerns that has the greatest effect, along with the propensity of small parties to disintegrate into squabbling fractions.

The BNP may have decided to oppose AV but the above figures show that a far right party has done better under AV than it likely would have under FPTP. Nick Griffin may well have miscalculated.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

The real Citizen Smith

From a pale imitation to the real thing, here's the intro from Citizen Smith:

That's how to do it Lembit!

Citizen Smith itself was a fun series, though I'm not alone in feeling the fourth season was one too many.

Oops, does that mean that I'll be first up against the wall when the revolution comes?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The fall of Lembit Öpik

Iain Dale's Diary has this wonderful cartoon up of an AV ballot paper:

(Hattip to If Lembit were on fire...)

But when did Lembit have such a fall?

There was a time when Lembit was just a figure of fun, one of those wacky characters who enliven the fringes of politics more for their antics rather than their contribution to policy. Such figures have existed in all ages. Yet somewhere along the line Lembit has turned into an object of derison if not pure hate, even within his own party. (And this started before the Liberals had their first losing campaign in his seat since the days of Disraeli.)

Maybe it's because Lembit has stopped being funny and his efforts are now just irritating. Take for example this video for his campaign to be Mayor of London:

Citizen Lem from Mancha Productions on Vimeo.

Hideous isn't it?

Even Wolfie Smith's dreams of power were more credible than this!

AV in action or inaction? New South Wales

The Australian state of New South Wales voted at the weekend, in an election that saw the 16 year old Labor government swept out of power in an avalanche. Such has been Labor's dominance in New South Wales that there's been no end of the use of words like "historic", "seismic", "unprecedented" and other clichés.

The main feature of interest for the UK is that New South Wales is one of two Australian states (Queensland is the other) which use optional preferential voting, i.e. the precise form of the Alternative Vote that we will voting on in May. Whereas in elections for the federal parliament and in most other states a voter is required to number all the candidates on their ballot paper for their vote to count, in New South Wales & Queensland state elections a voter need only indicate a single preference to be valid and does not have to worry about which of two utterly obscure independents they prefer to the other.

At the time of writing the results for the lower house so far:

88.3% counted.
Last updated Thu Mar 31 9:59 PM

Liberal 38.4% 51 seats
Labor 25.7% 20
Nationals 12.7% 18
Greens 10.2% 1
Others 13.0% 3

(ABC News: New South Wales Election 2011)

I stress these are not yet final results. Australia has different rules of voting and counting, the key ones being in relation to postal and "pre-poll" voting, plus a much greater emphasis on precision over speed than the UK, and with results declared at the polling station ("booth") level there's a heck of a lot more to be precise about. Postal votes can arrive in a period of some days after polling day - in a large country with limited rural postal services it's rather unworkable to require all postal votes to be received by polling day.

(A lot in the UK seem to think Australian elections take a long time to finalise counting because they use the Alternative Vote. This isn't true - Canada also takes a similar time for much the same reason, despite using First Past The Post.)

Despite this about 92 of the 93 seat results seem certain. The one uncertain one is Balmain, currently listed as a Green seat. This is a three way fight between the Liberals, Greens and Labor with uncertainty over who will be in the last two - see Antony Green's Election Blog: The Tight Finish in Balmain. The one prediction that seems solid is that whoever wins the seat will not have at least 50% of the total valid votes cast.

Of the wider results it's notable that the Liberals have secured a majority in their own right on just 38.4% of first preferences. Some of this is because they didn't stand in 20 seats, instead giving the Nationals a free run (and indeed they will be governing as a Coalition), but there is no requirement for a party to contest every seat. Critics of First Past The Post like to jump on such results but as this election shows they can happen under AV as well.

92 seats seem to have been won by the party who topped the poll on first preferences - the exception being the aforementioned Balmain. In general the Liberals, Nationals, Labor and Greens declined to recommend preferences to each other on the "How To Vote" cards given out at polling stations. For those hoping to see AV producing radically different results it's not lived up to expectations. However Balmain may see a victory from third place.

Of potential more interest for the UK is the upper house election but that's for another post...

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Banks - why are they so much harder to use?

Many, many years ago I opened my first "instant access" bank account (the terminology for children's accounts is too confusing) at the age of twelve. There were various reasons for choosing the bank I did but a key one was out of hours access. Yes I could both withdraw and pay in money outside of those ultra-restrictive banking hours, even outside of branch opening hours.

(Well okay not completely. I could only withdraw at the counter during banking hours, i.e. weekdays until 15:30 when I could rarely access the bank. This made no sense when I could access the cash machines 24/7. More bizarrely, I could only get a statement machine printout during opening hours despite the machine being located in the 24-hour lobby section.)

As a child, one of the biggest benefits was that I could pay in cash - not just notes but also coins - whenever I needed to. The bank was one of the first to provide machines for paying in, and again these were available out of hours. If the machines broke down there was a back-up method of depositing via the branch letterbox.

I've been with that bank for nearly two decades now (although I do use others as well) and the situation at branches is definitely worse. The lobbies have generally been phased out without actually telling customers why. (The nearest lobby to where I now live is still there but always locked without any sign to say it's no longer in use.) The external machines don't handle deposits at all, unlike several rival banks that at least allow cheques and notes to be paid in. The letterboxes are mixed, with some sealed up. Even when one is accessible the bank takes a dim view of money being paid in - the last time I deposited that way I received an unhelpful phone call just saying that the box wasn't for that.

Depositing outside opening hours is pretty much impossible, short of using another bank altogether and transferring the funds electronically - not exactly banking made easy. But what about during opening hours? Well the branches now have machines for paying in cheques and "cash" (sic - actually just notes) which do work. However paying in coins is another matter altogether - there is a machine that takes coin deposits and even counts them but only a few, mainly large city centre branches have the machines. It is surprisingly easy to accumulate large amounts of coins when the opportunities for either using or depositing them are limited. And this in turn can lead to the machines that are around filling up and going out of service - very annoying when you've made a special trip just to use them.

The result is that it often feels like paying into the bank is increasingly a special mission, rather than the simple task it used to be. Banks are becoming ever more inaccessible for the ordinary customer. Could I just switch banks, some ask. Yeah but no but yeah but... It's a bit of a hassle to change the accounts many things are drawn on but the substantial problem is that other banks seem to be going the same way if they weren't worse to begin with. Many are stealthily restricting deposits at cashpoints by making it pot luck as to whether the deposit function works, and some never offered it at all. In the march towards an all electronic monetary system, many people are being abandoned en route.

So much for progress...

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Alternative Vote in action: New South Wales

In the run-up to the Alternative Vote referendum in May there will be a lot of talk about other countries that use the AV voting system. And there will also be an election using the precise variant of AV that the UK will be voting on.

The Alternative Vote has a number of versions around but the one we will be voting on is the "full optional preference" version, practised in the Australian states of New South Wales and Queensland for state elections, whereby voters can number as little as a single candidate for their vote to be valid. (Elections for the federal parliament and most of the other states use the "compulsory preference" version where voters have to number all candidates to count.) New South Wales will be going to the polls on March 26th and it will be possible to compare the claims made in our AV referendum.

(For those who want to see & find out more of the election in the wider context the best guide is the ABC 2011 New South Wales Election.)

At least two claims have been made that are already possible to check against existing experience in the state. Quickly running through them:

Claim 1. AV will mean parties can fight elections as a Coalition, offering voters candidates from both parties.

The full number of candidates in the last (2007) election is available at ABC News Election Preview. There were 93 seats and with the Liberals and Nationals fighting as a Coalition it was possible for voters to have a choice.

However the table shows that each seat had only one Coalition candidate. In fact it would have been playing with fire for the Coalition to offer competing candidates in all but a few seats. There would have been a real risk of votes for one Coalition party failing to transfer to the other, not least due to many voters "plumping" or just using a single preference. For parties aiming to win as many seats as possible this is not a desirable situation and so it's unsurprising that the Coalition stands a single candidate. (In Queensland it proved even harder for the Coalition parties to agree such an arrangement and eventually the two parties merged to eliminate the problem.)

Claim 2. AV will put an end to negative campaigning and parties will have to offer positive reasons to vote for them.

This is one of the wilder claims, and frankly feels like a typical case of seizing on any unpopular element in politics and pretending the proposed change will magic it away. In fact the types of campaigning used reflect the political culture, the effectiveness of methods and any laws governing it far far more than the voting system in use. New South Wales is certainly not free of negative campaigning as this Labor party advert from the last election shows:

If you can find one positive reason to vote for Labor in there (beyond their ability to make cartoons and catchy songs) I'll buy you a pint.

(By the way there is one myth about AV that stems from New South Wales that can be cleared up. There's a belief in some quarters that AV will lead to ballot papers that are the size of tablecloths - some of you may remember David Dimbleby producing one such monster on a few election nights. In fact those monster ballot papers are for the state upper house which is elected by Single Transferable Vote with an option to use a Group voting ticket. That's something different from AV and there are plenty of good reasons for voting against it without the need to resort to such scare myths.)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Lessons from Ireland

The news from Ireland over the last few days has been astounding to watch. Something tremendous is happening and the current chaos is a run up to it. But there are also some interesting comparisons that stand out.

For those unfamiliar with Irish politics, the main governing party is Fianna Fáil - The Republican Party, but don't ask me what it believes in or stands for. Or them for that matter. Despite this Fianna Fáil is one of the most successful parties in the democratic world, having topped the poll in every single Irish general election since 1927.

This once mighty successful party is now polling at 8%. (Irish Independent: Cowen bails out as FF hit 8pc low) The forthcoming general election could be one of those super crashes that permanently alters the landscape of a country's politics not just for the parliament ahead but for decades to come.

Until today Fianna Fáil had a coalition partner, the Green Party. It's the first time the Greens have been in government and they've not had the best of times, with the party suffering internal divides, miserable poll ratings and atrocious local election results. More than a few British Liberal Democrats will be looking at the Irish Greens and wondering if they will suffer the same fate.

In the run up to the election Ireland has, however, shown a few things that may in the UK will want to take on board:
  • It is possible for a failing government to get rid of the prime minister even when the election is very close. UK Labour please take note.
  • Governments can collapse before the full life of a parliament, so fixed term parliaments aren't such a great idea.
  • Parties of purist idealists like the Greens aren't always cut out for the necessary prioritising and compromising of government.
I several doubt the UK's Green parties will be rushing to use their Irish sister party's record in government as a selling point in the near future. But Fianna Fáil also has a sister party in the UK, albeit a sibling that would rather run away from comparisons.

This is because Fianna Fáil is a party without an overall ideology, which swings in the wind between the left, centre and right, which jumps onto whatever vote-winning bandwagon is going, which is full of "local campaigner" elected representatives and which when in government usually lets it coalition partners set the overall direction. Sound familiar?

And of course Fianna Fáil is affiliated to the European Liberal Democrats and in the European Parliament it sits in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe grouping.

Naturally many Liberal Democrats will be rushing to distance themselves from the comparisons, or inventing reasons why a member of the European liberal family doesn't qualify as a member of the European liberal family. But the key points of comparison are there regardless.


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