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.


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