Wednesday, December 30, 2015

How do you pronounce "LGBTory"?

A trip into the world of acronyms, logo designs and wordplay.

So how do you pronounce "LGBTory"? Is it "Ell Gee Bee Tory", "Ell Gee Bee Tea Tory" or "Ell Gee Bee Tea Ory"?

Over the years the language, names and acronyms of much to do with lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (and more) matters have frequently changed. The acronyms seem to grow every few years - there's one monster of "LGBTTQQIAAP" that is impossible to remember or say correctly.

But problems also affect LGBT (let's stick to that for here for now) groups. Frequently they find changing acronyms and emphases can cause their own names to come under scrutiny. Initialisms can make it worse as they often lend themselves to pronounceable acronyms and/or fancy logo designs that get mucked up by extra letters.

One of the better known cases was the Liberal Democrats' LGBT group using the short name Delga for many years long after the long name had stopped being "Democrats for Lesbian and Gay Action", a hangover from the days when the newly merged party got in a mess with its name but also because "Liberal Democrats for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Action" is hard to turn into a pronounceable acronym. Eventually in 2011 they became "LGBT+ Lib Dems".

I seem to recall, but can't find a quick chronology to hand to be sure, that the "Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights" was using that title for a number of years after it had formally adopted LGBT as its full scope. It is now "LGBT Labour".

Conservative LGBT groups have been particularly prone to names that make for good acronyms and/or logos. The original "Conservative Campaign for Homosexual Equality" later renamed itself the "Tory Campaign for Homosexual Equality" because someone forgot the party hasn't been "Tories" since the 1830s and thought "Torche" made for a fancy acronym. It kept that name until ending in the mid 2000s, long after the rest of terminology had moved on. I forget if the name outlasted the party's old torch logo.

The current Conservative LGBT group also annoyingly uses "Tory" but it's also gone for a portmanteau effect by combining LGBT & Tory to become "LGBTory".  Unfortunately it's got the needs of the logo and the text muddled.

"LGBTory" is frequently written and often spoken as that. And many people don't see a clever portmanteau but rather the omission of Trans. Language matters - if a whole group is left out of the name they naturally wonder if they're also left out of concern.

Now portmanteaus are not uncommon - here's one from the 1990s Doctor Who spin-off video Downtime:

But the name of the institution in the dialogue, in the contemporary novelisation by the original author (one of the Missing Adventures if you're looking) and on the DVD sleeve (sorry I haven't seen the VHS sleeve in many years) is "New World University", written clearly as two separate words. Logos often omit characters that are often present in text - commas are especially likely to be left out.

LGBTory's logo doesn't use multiple coloured letters or an "L" shape to emphasise the joint use of the "T". And what's good for a logo design isn't necessarily good for running text or especially Twitter which frequently destroys the subtlety of capitalisation. It's unsurprising that many ask about Trans or protest about its exclusion.

Currently LGBTory is consulting on a proposed change of name. It's time to correct this unfortunate situation and also take the opportunity to move away from the outdated word "Tory".

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

New Zealand's flag

Dear New Zealand,

You're about to embark upon a referendum to decide if you're going to change your flag or not. It's totally your decision but what it says to the outside world has come up and some Kiwis have asked what we think about it. So here's a Brit on two key issues.

Firstly, yes we do get confused. That said we're more likely to think this:

is the flag of Australia than this:

is the flag of New Zealand. We're sorry about this. In our defence you're not alone. Flags on the European continent are very confusing as well because so many use the same basic design and many of the same colours. There was only a token effort in my school days and since then a good number of countries have changed their flags or even separated out, rendering those lessons even less effective. And we're far from the only ones to make the mistake - even Australian monarchists have used your flag by mistake.

So yes, I can see why you might want to change it to look less like Australia. But didn't your flag come first? Isn't Australia the thief?

But secondly we're told that the currently apparently means New Zealand is controlled by the UK. This is news to us. We don't really control our own country let alone anyone else's. You're a free and independent country and have been for some considerable time. Nobody here looks at your flag and thinks the presence of the Union Jack means you're a colony or overseas territory (or that Australia is!).

However don't worry that we'll feel offended if you change it. We'll still like you, just as we still like Canada. It's entirely your decision.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Is Trick or Treat really that widespread?

I'm posting this deliberately late to make it hard for anyone to break the cycle by knocking on my door today with horrific stuff. (Oh hello West Ham Labour!)

Is it me or is trick or treating much rarer in this country than many seem to think? Oh we get the endless round of people bemoaning that Halloween is now a much bigger thing than in their childhood and how it's all an American import and so forth.

But here's the thing - it's been nearly thirty years since anyone knocked on my frontdoor in the hope of treats. And even then it was only the one time.

Now it's possible that sometimes I've been living behind a door that isn't the easiest to access or perhaps I've been out that evening but many a Halloween has been spent at home in blissful evasion. And still they haven't come.

Is this just an experience peculiar to me or is perhaps trick or treating much rarer than we think?

Or have I just subconsciously scared off all the kids before they knock on my door?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Al Murray on democracy

Here's a less well known moment from the South Thanet declaration - Al Murray's speech.

It's good to see a comedian with a lot more sense than the breach of the Trade Descriptions Act that is Russell Brand. Nice pwning him!

The Farage moment

Here is a reminder of one of the best moments from the general election results.

Al Murray's reaction is priceless.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

When the Liberal Democrats had a strong leader

Apparently the Lib Dems had a party conference this week. Not that it got much notice. The Lib Dems remain in a rut.

But there was a time when they made an impact under a tough leader and were actually very good at coming third. Here's a classic Rory Bremner sketch from those days:

Saturday, September 12, 2015

When did Labour last depose a leader?

Today the Labour leadership result will be announced. And it's already clear a lot of people won't be happy with the outcome, whichever way it goes. But what can they do about it?

I'm not overly familiar with the current Labour Party Rule Book so I don't know the formal procedure for challenging a sitting leader. But I suspect many in the Labour Party don't know it off by heart either and some may be rapidly researching it.

But the problem is not how easy it is constitutionally to depose a leader but rather whether Labour has the culture and the will to do it. And past form suggests not.

When I've asked fellow politicos the question "Who was the last Labour leader to be formally deposed?" there have been three answers:
  • Ramsay MacDonald
  • George Lansbury
  • Pass
Neither of these men is the correct answer. Ramsay MacDonald abdicated rather than was deposed. When in August 1931 his second government was facing collapse over budget cuts he concluded that he could not credibly oppose the expected Conservative or Conservative-Liberal replacement government in implementing a policy he had pursued and so decided to relinquish the leadership. As it happened, he wound up as the head of a National Government that drew members from all three parties and implemented the policy himself but broke with Labour in the process. But that was walking away, not a deposal.

George Lansbury is the other popular answer but he also wasn't deposed. In 1935 Labour was torn over the issue of how to respond to European militarism in the wake of Italy's invasion of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) with Lansbury opposing even sanctions. Other frontbenchers who held this position resigned, including both Sir Stafford Cripps, widely seen as Lansbury's political heir, and Lord Ponsonby, Labour's leader in the Lords, leaving Lansbury increasingly isolated. The party conference of that year was a turbulent affair with Lansbury opposing a pro sanctions resolution on pacifist grounds and then being shredded in a speech by the Transport & General Workers' Union leader Ernest Bevin.

But neither Bevin nor the conference toppled Lansbury. At the time, the power to elect and remove the Labour leader lay in the hands of the Parliamentary Labour Party alone. Lansbury tended his resignation but it refused by 38 votes to 7. This was no Nigel Farage style evasion of a promise but a genuine offer rejected, partially out of continued affection for Lansbury but also a fear that the next leader would be Arthur Greenwood, widely seen as Bevin's puppet. (Nowadays a trade union leader's mouthpiece is the heavy favourite for the deputy leadership.) However, Lansbury felt his position was untenable and insisted on stepping down. The MPs turned to the deputy leader Clement Attlee, expecting him to be a stop gap until the looming general election returned a wider choice but instead he proved to be the party's longest serving leader.

So just who is the last leader to have been deposed? It was the now little remember John Robert Clynes in 1922.

It may surprise people today but the concept of a "leader of a political party" didn't really emerge until many years after parties were established. There had long been leaders of parties in one of the Houses of Parliament but even then their authority didn't stretch over members in the other House unless they happened to be the current or ex Prime Minister. They had no position over the party in the country. Only slowly did parties come to create formal posts of a leader. (In other countries the "leader" is often still divided - e.g. in Germany three different people may be the chair of a party, the leader in the Bundestag and the candidate for Chancellor. And don't even try working out who is the "leader" of the US Republicans.) In the early years what we would now identify as the Labour leader was split across the chair of the parliamentary party, the chair of the party on the National Executive Committee and the party Secretary. The post of leader was created in 1922.

Clynes had been Minister of Food Control in the Lloyd George Coalition before Labour pulled out and then served as chair of the parliamentary party since 1921 in a Parliament where Labour was lacking many of its biggest names after the 1918 election. He led the party through the 1922 election at which it became undisputedly the leading Opposition party for the first time but then faced a challenge for the leadership from former parliamentary leader Ramsay MacDonald, who had returned to the Commons after a four year absence. In a close vote MacDonald defeated Clynes by 61 to 56. Clynes became MacDonald's deputy and served as Lord Privy Seal and Deputy Leader of the House of Commons in the first Labour government (as was then standard the Prime Minister was the Leader of the House but in practice MacDonald was busy, serving as his own Foreign Secretary) and then as Home Secretary in the second Labour government.

This was not the last time a big name was absent from Parliament when a leader was initially chosen. After the 1935 general election Herbert Morrison was one of the challengers to Clement Attlee but unsuccessful. (Attlee's 20 year long leadership was in part prolonged by a desire to age Morrison out of hope.) Tony Benn lost his seat in the 1983 general election and so missed the chance to stand to succeed Michael Foot; he returned in a 1984 by-election and eventually challenged Neil Kinnock in 1988 but was unsuccessful. David Miliband is currently out of Parliament but that hasn't stopped speculation about his returning to replace Jeremy Corbyn if the latter is elected. We can expect some similar speculation about an Ed Balls return at some stage in the next five years, no matter how silly it may seem or how much he denies it.

But for now Clynes remains the last Labour leader to have been deposed and that was 97 years ago. Labour do not have a culture of toppling leaders and that will make it hard to muster the effort to topple this one.

Monday, August 31, 2015

A vote for X, Y *or* Z is a vote for Z? or Why Corbynistas don't care about "electibility"

It's one of the oldest cries in electoral history. Politicians will declare that a vote for one of their rivals is a vote for another. But they don't always mean it the same way.

Consider a case from fifteen years ago in the US when Al Gore and his supporters declared "A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush!" Ralph Nader responded with "A vote for Gore is a vote for Bush!" Presumably George W. Bush declared "A vote for Bush is a vote for Bush!" just in case anyone misunderelucidated.

Gore was making the classic attack on smaller parties and independents, arguing they would split the vote and let the rival in. But Nader clearly wasn't - nobody seriously believed Nader could win. Instead Nader argued that Gore was so similar to Bush that the country would get much the same, whichever one was elected. Now hindsight may suggest something differently and at the time supporters of Gore (and for that matter Bush) could doubtlessly rattle off a huge list of differences between the two candidates & their manifestos but it had no effect. Because Nader's voters either doubted the sincerity of the differences or felt that on the fundamentals both candidates were as bad as each other. A Nader vote at least allowed them to side step actually having to chose between the two and being somehow responsible.

And this isn't confined to the US. Over here in the old days the Liberal Democrats often portrayed both major parties as much the same. However at the same time at the local level the party would position itself as the only credible opposition to one of the big two in the hope of getting tactical votes from supporters of the other. Come 2015 it found this contradiction tearing its vote to shred as Labour & other left-minded voters decided that "yellow Tory" was no different from "blue Tory" and they weren't going to compromise vote for one over the other.

This is part of the reason why the Jeremy Corbyn bandwagon has proven immune to every single appeal to consider what will make the Labour Party an election winner again. The hard left of the Labour Party was never enamoured with Blair and New Labour but largely kept their heads down at the time. But looking back many despise those years and feel all they got was a conservative government in a red rosette. They don't want to make those compromises again. If the country is to have a conservative government it won't be by their votes or through their party.

This attitude exists on the right as well - there's a lot of voters who do believe the "LibLabCon" [sic] is all the same and aren't going to rush to vote one over the other and instead stick with Ukip.

What's the solution? It's old fashioned positive differentiation to show how a party is offering something different and better.

Now does the Corbynistas' attitude seem so strange?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Ten reasons why Jeremy Corbyn should be the next Labour leader

It may shock some but I think there are some good reasons why I think Jeremy Corbyn should be elected Labour leader:
  1. Age. If elected Corbyn will become leader at the age of 66, the oldest person to become a leader of a major UK wide party since Michael Foot at 67 for Labour and Neville Chamberlain at 68 for the Conservatives & Unionists (and he was almost the last senior figure for whom the full name was critical). A Corbyn leadership would be a marvellous antidote to the obsession with youth in certain quarters of politics and broaden the field for consideration in other parties.
  2. The beard. Beards have been out of fashion in politics in recent decades with New Labour especially practising a virulent degree of pogonophobia. To find a significant leader with a beard (well on their face) you have to go back to the Edwardian era when Lord Salisbury and Keir Hardie were the last leaders of their respective parties to sport them. By making Corbyn their leader, Labour would help bring beards back into the mainstream.
  3. The cap. Headgear is often absent in politics with only George Galloway's distinctive fedora (which now seems to have been surgically attached) and Paddy Ashdown's meals getting much comment lately. But Corbyn has a wonderfully distinct cap - I believe it's called a Breton Cap - that's a gift for the cartoonists. It's time to expand the range of caps and hats in politics.
  4. Clothes. Corbyn is a functional practical dresser. A tale is told of how burglars broke into his house and actually turned down his red blazer. Not for him the ridiculously expensive tailored suits worn by some Labour politicians. If he were leader the image consultants would have a nightmare - and that's no bad thing.
  5. Cycling. Boris Johnson's term as Mayor is coming to an end in less than a year and he'll either drop into a lower profile or end up in a more security conscious ministerial post of the kind that discourages such open access. There'll be an opening for the position of most prominent cyclist in politics. As Leader of the Opposition Corbyn would be perfectly placed to fill it.
  6. The polls. It can't be much fun being an opinion pollster at the moment. Everyone keeps bringing up the general election and won't listen to explanations about the difference between opinion polls and exit polls. Even away from politics "What would you know?" is a constant response and there's not much opportunity to rebuild reputations before the elections next year. A Corbyn victory would allow opinion polls a chance to get something right this year.
  7. Bookies. It's a sign of just how much the Corbyn bid has surged that initially he odds as low as 100 to 1 or even 200 to 1. If he becomes leader a lot of bookmakers are going to have to pay out rather more on this contest than they were expecting.
  8. Parliament. There is a long history of hardline socialist MPs having a greater impact outside Parliament rather than within it. They tend to go round the country making the most memorable speeches at rallies and protests instead of within the Commons. It's high time to change that and have the case for socialism made in the Commons, and from the despatch box to boot, where the immediate audience will be more diverse and where the arguments can be responded to directly.
  9. Islington. This borough has a reputation for metropolitan liberal chattering class politics practised by those sitting around at trendy dinner parties and looking down with undisguised contempt on the hard working classes. This reputation has not been helped by a number of political developments, including the borough's other MP being Emily Thornberry, and has even led to Newsnight investigations as to why the country is so out of touch with Islington (erm shouldn't that be the other way round?). But whatever else you can say about Corbyn his brand of socialism is not the chattering class dinner party champagne socialist style and his leadership would allow the borough to show it's more diverse than that.
  10. Taking leadership elections seriously. Corbyn was nominated because a bunch of Labour MPs felt it was important to have a debate with the hard left of the party and give it a ritualistic slaughter. They expect Corbyn to do about as well as Diane Abbott in 2010. (They also forgot that Abbott's candidacy attracted members to vote who would otherwise have not bothered and it was their transfers that ultimately gave Ed Miliband the edge.) They never expected a great surge to the point there are now groups organising around a simple Anyone-But-Corbyn line. Nobody expected the supporter option to attract all those #ToriesForCorbyn or #TrotsForCorbyn (and there are even Conservatives trying to sign up Trots for Corbyn). To a Conservative this looks bizarre - when we have our next leadership election nobody is going to think the process is somehow incomplete without the presence of an Edward Leigh, Philip Davies or Nadine Dories on the ballot paper. A Corbyn victory will be a wake-up call to take things seriously and only nominate candidates you actually want to see as leader.
So go on Labour, make him your next leader!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Lib Dems - Lambs to the slaughter or just Pointless?

The Liberal Democrat leadership election hasn't really taken the country by storm. There hasn't been a particularly bizarre candidate nominated solely in the hope that a thrashing by the members will shut them and their followers up. There hasn't been an unresignation by Nick Clegg. There doesn't seem to have been much debate about actual policy or attempting to determine what is the Liberal Democrat answer to the questions of the day.

In fact all I've really noticed are:
  • Norman Lamb has drifted into being the classic candidate for whom nearly every speech could be summed up as "Noun, verb, [Single subject]". Yes mental health is important and yes he was an outstanding minister at the Department of Health, but one almost wants to ask "So Norman, apart from mental health...". Is he just playing one bit of his record or something else? It reminds me a bit of Chris Huhne's leadership bid in 2006 when at times it seemed he was really seeking the Environment portolio (in the days before Climate Change was split off) at least until scandals and performance doubts engulfed all his rivals. But if Lamb wants to be the party's Health spokesperson then surely the post would be his for the asking?
  • Tim Farron seems to have spent the campaign alternating between an over-enthusiastic self-righteous type (well he is seeking a post first held by Paddy Ashdown) and going all defensive about his faith and voting record. There are people of faith in all parties but the Lib Dems have a particularly strong secularist tendency that is unforgiving of voting records on certain issues. But also Farron seems to be wriggling on technicalities when his voting record was being brought up as early as 2010 when he first stood for the deputy leadership and then the party presidency.
  • For the most part Lamb is backed by ex-ministers and party grandees whilst Farron is mainly backed by MPs who were on the backbenches in the Coalition (including all the ones still in the Commons) and various left-leaning liberals although there are some exceptions in both camps.
  • And there was an incident with some Lamb supporters employing "push polling" techniques to spread attacks on Farron to members. Lamb had no awareness of this but as a key criteria for a leader is the ability to keep control of one's supporters it doesn't reflect well on him.
And that's mainly it. But there are some potential jokes for whichever is elected leader. Lamb has already made one about his wife Mary and their children - "Mary had a little Lamb". If he's elected leader then we'll get lots of lamb jokes.

Tim Farron may be either praising or cursing an edition of Pointless from a couple of years ago. One of the rounds was on Lib Dem MPs elected in 2010 and 100 members of the public had one minute to name as many as possible. This unscientific process found that even Vince Cable was named by less than one in five. But many MPs fared worse (I don't know how Lamb did) with Tim Farron being named by nobody at all. Yes Tim Farron was Pointless.

(Being unknown during the Coalition may be an advantage or not. On the one hand they would be a fresh face. On the other hand having rebelled on something unpopular the party did is more useful when people noticed you doing it at the time.)

Soon we'll find out who the new leader is and where they'll try to go.

The problems of the Lib Dems

With the Liberal Democrats declaring their new leader today, it's time to take a look at the mess they're in.

Five years ago, I asked "Nick Clegg - Sir John Simon or Sir Herbert Samuel?" It is now possible to provide an answer. And it is neither, though more Samuel than Simon.

In one regard, Nick Clegg has succeeded incredibly by holding his party together. There were a total of 58 MPs in the last Parliament - 57 elected in 2010 and a replacement in a by-election. At this past general election just one of those MPs stood as a non-Lib Dem - Mike Hancock who was expelled in a scandal and whose re-election bid was unrelated to a coalition split. A scandal also accounted for the only Lib Dem MP to resign mid-Parliament, Chris Huhne. Ten MPs stood down at the election, mostly long standing and/or elderly members, though Sarah Teather's retirement on political grounds was a sign that all was not well.

This is an impressive achievement compared to previous coalitions that saw the Liberals shed MPs either through defections to non-government parties (this happened even during the Churchill coalition in the Second World War) or due the party's departure failing to take all its members with them. There was no grand split with MPs forming an anti-coalition faction around someone like Simon Hughes, Tim Farron or Charles Kennedy. In this regard, Nick Clegg succeeded better than all his predecessors.

However, in nearly every other regard Clegg has taken the Lib Dems to a catastrophic failure.

(In one though, that's not necessarily a bad thing for the Lib Dems. He had an ambition to make the Lib Dems like the German Free Democrats. The FDP have since been wiped out of the Bundestag.)

Many explanations have been put forward but the fundamental problem is simple - the Liberal Democrats do not have a clearly identified distinctive raison d'être and a core vote based on that. I know someone will start posting the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution, but such position statements are fairly generic and in any case the preamble is not exactly widely known.

Over the years the Lib Dems have been all over the place, ranging from asserting a centrist position on the political spectrum to being to the left of Labour to radical free marketers. At a local level the situation is even worse with the party's trumpeted "localism" manifesting as a "whatever gets your vote gov" approach that has meant the party has become even more incoherent, with Lib Dems varying wildly across the country and sometimes even in the same district. Tristram Hunt is clearly biased but his piece from six years ago The Lib Dem power failure reflects how many from other parties look on in utter bewilderment as to what the Liberal Democrat vision in local government is.

And then there are two tactics that yes they are used by all parties but which the Lib Dems have turned into a fine art form. There's the demonisation of rival candidates for being insufficiently local, even when the Lib Dem candidate's own local credentials are questionable (e.g. a councillor from the far end of the borough from the constituency claiming to be more local than the sitting London Assembly Member). And there's the resort to tactical pleas with the whole "can't win here" that have squeezed rival parties. Both may deliver in the short term but neither have really converted the voters into long term Lib Dem supporters.

If the Lib Dems are to survive in the long term (and many in other parties hope they don't) they need to articulate a clear vision of what their party stands for to the public at large and grow a core vote around this vision. Their new leader has to start somewhere...

Saturday, July 11, 2015

How many leadership elections?

I've recently been asked a few questions about leadership elections by people from other parties and none. They seemed to assume as a Conservative I would know a lot about them.

But let's remember the record on all this. The last Conservative leadership election was in 2005. In the time since the other parties in the Commons have had leadership elections as follows: [1]
  • Labour are now onto their third leadership election.
  • The Liberal Democrats are also on their third leadership election.
  • Ukip have had three leadership elections plus the unresignation of Nigel Farage.
  • The English & Welsh Greens didn't even have a post of leader in 2005 but have since created one and had two leadership elections.
  • The Ulster Unionist Party have had also had two leadership elections.
  • So too have the Social Democratic and Labour Party.
  • The Scottish National Party have had one leadership election.
  • As has the Democratic Unionist Party.
  • Plaid Cymru have had one leadership election plus a set of rule changes to work out who the leader is. [2]
  • Even the sole Independent MP, Sylvia Hermon, has sort of had one as she left the UUP to go independent in 2010.
  • Only Sinn Féin have had a longer period without a leadership contest and they don't even take their seats.
It's a remarkable change from the period 1995-2005.

[1] I've excluded formal re-elections of the incumbent unopposed as each party has different rules and this would skew things.
[2] Plaid Cymru didn't have a clear position of "leader" until 2006 and this became a problem when Ieuan Wyn Jones stood down as party President in 2003 with none of his colleagues in the Welsh parliament standing for the position, creating a separate election for group leader which he won. This led to a period of confusion about who was the "leader" of Plaid until 2006 when a constitutional change made the Sennedd group leader the overall party leader.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Greecehog Day

Am I the only one sick of hearing about crisis after crisis between Greece and the rest of the Eurozone? Of a desperate struggle to pay the debts and get support? Of fears Greece is going to crash out of the Euro?

The single currency was always a political project first and an economic one second. The convergence criteria were fudged to allow in as many countries as possible and the expectation was that the separate economies would quickly learn to converge. A period of economic growth also encouraged optimism and complacency - the UK may not have joined then or since but it was a period when our government smugly talked of having ended boom and bust.

And then came the not quite global crisis. Each country has different circumstances and needs to take different measures to get itself out of the mess. Democracy also demands the people decide just where the country will escape to. But the Eurozone doesn't allow for that. Instead it severely restricts the options available to the Greek government and demands cuts on a scale like nothing we've endured here.

And so we get this endless cycle as Greece and other European countries face off with seemingly no end in sight.

Somewhere I can hear my old Economics teacher saying "I told you so".

Maybe it's time to admit the inevitable. To say that Grexit is not a question of if but when. To stop pretending Greece can do enough to meet both its obligations and its voters' demands. To say that ever closer European integration is not an irreversible process. It will be an immense upheaval - but there's no shortage of those at the moment. It will bring immediate economic hardship - but that's already there. What it will do is allow Greece to find its own way forward and follow an economic policy that's the best for Greece rather than continuing the pretence that what's good for Germany is always good for Greece.

It's time to let Greece leave the Euro.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The electoral "reform" debate

Over the last month we've had a lot of noise about the voting system. And a lot of it's much of the same old automatic assumption as electoral "reform" [sic] advocates take a moral high ground, dismiss anyone who doesn't share their obsession as ignorant or self-interested and assume it's going to come automatically.

Well people have been predicting PR for a long time. The Electoral Reform Society was founded in 1884 (as the Proportional Representation Society - anyone know when they changed their name?) and has been waiting for a bit. Slightly more recently many general elections have brought demands for change and predictions it will happen soon. Watch many of the old Election Night reruns on the BBC Parliament channel (or there's a few on You Tube) and you'll see the calls for and confident predictions that it will soon arrive. But it hasn't yet and may never come.

The moral approach is messy and tends towards the assumption that some factors are more important than others. But much of the debate is about which factors should be prioritised and what sort of outcomes are preferred. That's a political discussion about the preferred rules not a moral discussion.

As for the ignorance charge, I think there's a lot of this on both sides (both when it comes to the mechanics of determining the outcome but also some of the wildly different outcomes different systems produce) but I hope I can claim some knowledge of voting systems. I've counted or observed the counting of many elections under many systems and have written a few explanation both of how systems work and how individuals and parties can game them for maximum effect. I would totally fail at a 3am bar discussion about some of the finer details of how to divide the surplus in Single Transferable Vote but if one has to know the differences between Meek and Weighted Inclusive Gregory in order to contribute then virtually the entire discussion would evaporate right now.

As for self-interest, well this is a matter of perspective. Yes I'm a Conservative activist and local office holder and yes my party is alleged to have benefited at times from the current system. But after the majority of general elections I've been involved with, the electoral reform movement has told us the reverse has been the case this time. Locally I am based in the London Borough of Newham. The last Conservative MP for my current home address was defeated in 1922 (Leonard Lyle, one of Abram Lyle & Sons famous for Lyle's Golden Syrup), the last elected anywhere in what is now Newham was defeated in 1945 and the only Conservative MP since was when the sitting MP for Newham North East switched from Labour to Conservative in 1977 but stood elsewhere in 1979. The area of the old Plaistow constituency is one of the few places that has had a Labour MP continuously since 1906. So locally another system might be more in my self-interest.

What makes much of the discussion difficult to engage with are the sweeping assertions and refusal to respect the contrary view. So here are ten suggestions to electoral reform advocates that could help move constructive discussion forward.

1). Appreciate that there are many people who support the First Past The Post system because they genuinely believe it delivers the best available political results. Yes there will be many who support Labour or Conservatives. But also there are many who do prefer single party governments and who feel the broad church big two parties are the best way to serve the country. And they believe that a system that's easy to understand and delivers clear cut outcomes is an important part of political engagement.

2). Decide if you want to change the system because you believe it will have a positive impact on the way politics is done in this country OR if you want to alter the balance of power in favour of certain parties. Yes many people have the former motivation but at times others seem more motivated by the latter - Vince Cable's comments in the AV referendum were telling.

3). Object when your side of politics wins power as much (if not more) as when the other side does. The present Conservative government was elected with more votes and a higher percentage than the Labour government in 2005. There were a few voices of objection then but nothing like the complaints and protests now. (And I certainly don't remember war memorials being vandalised two days after an election when Labour won. Full credit to all those on the left who condemned this.)

4). Embrace those on the other side of politics who are sympathetic as allies rather than recoiling. In the AV referendum the Yes campaign didn't want to deal with Conservatives, so Michael Gove did not launch a Conservative Yes campaign and the one that did happen was just a fringe Conservative Action for Electoral Reform piece with no real link to the main campaign. The Yes campaign also didn't want anything to do with Nigel Farage and instead went for just a trendy metropolitan liberal united front.

5). Defend the kind of governments likely to arise from the preferred systems. Coalitions are not automatic in hung parliaments and there's a case for minority governments being preferred - back in 2007 a prominent Liberal Democrat wrote a book on coalitions and to his own surprise he came out against them. But whether a smaller party leader is working from the Deputy Prime Minister's office or the opposition bench is less important than the outcome of two or more parties providing the majority for outcomes. The Coalition government just gone was not universally liked in many quarters and I suspect few will want to trumpet the overall jointness at future elections. But if you're advocating a voting system that makes hung parliaments more likely then you need to address head on the outcomes and particularly the disappointment many Liberal Democrat voters had either with going into government with the Conservatives at all or with the policies the Coalition pursued.

6). Remember there is more to the world than Europe. We're often told we need to change the system because no other country in Europe uses it. But so what? Plenty of other countries do. India alone has a larger population than Europe and uses First Past The Post. Now next to nobody would argue we should use a system just because it's the one that India uses so why should we use a system because it's the one Germany (Additional Member System) or Ireland (Single Transferable Vote) uses? Nor does it matter if people from other countries are surprised by how we do things - we're all diverse and different.

7). Be aware that tactical voting occurs under just about every voting system. Under AV some people try to tactically vote to get into the final two the candidate best placed to defeat a candidate they hate. Under STV some people will vote in line with parties' pleas for strategic support to best distribute the vote to maximise the number of candidates elected. Under the Additional Member System some people will tactically vote for or against a party in a constituency in order to determine whether or not it gets list seats, or even split their constituency and list votes to maximise the return or even go along with parties that run split tactics (known as decoy lists or the Berlusconi trick). Even under pure lists some people will tactically vote for parties likely to be big enough to get across the thresholds and to make one party the largest of all to give it the best chance of forming the core of government. Pretending that electoral reform will remove the need is false.

8). Also be aware that over 50% is NOT always necessary to get a majority under alternate voting system. The current SNP government in Scotland won a majority with 44% of the list vote (which is the better figure to look at with the AMS voting system). In New Zealand the current National-Maori-ACT-United Future coalition or confidence and supply government was re-elected with 49% of the vote. STV is harder to quantify because of transfers but in Ireland in 2002 the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat coalition was re-elected with 45.5% of the first preference vote. Much of this is because virtually all voting systems have thresholds and rounding effects that tend to round up so many of the larger parties.

9). Don't try to ignore either the actual voting figures here or the experience in similar countries that use other voting systems. Yes people might vote a bit differently under different systems and yes other countries are different but these are more solid cases than simply expecting us to all trust what PR advocates say. In particular be willing to address head on the prospect of a coalition government between the country's traditional main conservative party and a smaller anti-immigration populist party built around a highly egotistical blunt speaking leader and squabbling like ferrets in a sack with scandals to boot. That's the likely outcome if the 2015 election had been under proportional representation. It's also a description of the first government formed after New Zealand switched to proportional representation.

10). Advocate for a clear single system. There are some big variations between the systems, both in terms of the kind of local representation they deliver and also in the potential outcomes. In particular the number of seats some of the smaller parties would win can vary wildly - there are estimates flying around on the web that show the Greens (all three parties combined) winning 24 seats under pure list PR to just 2 under Single Transferable Vote. Some PR systems have a threshold of 5% that would deny them any seats at all. The Additional Member System usually carries a back-up option of winning so many constituency seats (1 in New Zealand, 3 in Germany) in order to qualify for list seats and this could make or break the party. Ukip's percentage is high enough to beat nearly all thresholds but again estimates vary from 82 to 38. These are not insignificant differences and it should be clear if the system really will do what it says on the tin.

The other major point of contention is the 2011 referendum that saw voters reject changing the system by more than two to one. Now yes this was on the Alternative Vote but pretty much the entire PR movement got behind a Yes vote and declared a No victory would keep First Past The Post for a generation. There was no big "AV isn't PR" campaign then. "No to AV, Yes to PR" was a tiny group with no significant backing - nobody serious believes it's David Owen wot won it (except maybe David Owen). The argument that the voters rejected AV because it was not PR does not convince. It would have needed a big and visible campaign attacking it for this reason to convince now.

It may be 2015 but we don't have time travel yet. So whilst waiting for someone to leave a suitable DeLorean around, the PR movement needs to shake off the legacy of the AV defeat, including the leaders of the campaign, in order to credibly move forward.

The voting system has been with us a long time, predating the parties which have developed and adapted to it. There is no guarantee it will be with us forever but equally there is no certainty that it will not.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Who can and can't vote for what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 09, 2015

The Balls moment

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

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

Some thoughts on the election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Spot the breaches... or just enjoy the song

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

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

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Clock changing

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

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

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

All points to ponder...

Saturday, January 31, 2015

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

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

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

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

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


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