Archive for April, 2011

The agony of choice

26 April 2011

The bunting is up, the country is buoyed with excitement… yes, it’s nearly referendum time!  After the crass, misleading and anti-politician campaigns is there clear blue (or purple?) water between the two?

The Alternative vote…

…gives a fairer result: everyone will have to have the support of 50% of the voters. This is one of its best selling points, because it gives people the chance to say who they’d prefer if their top choice doesn’t win – as this advert demonstrates, the idea of settling for a compromise if not everyone agrees on the first choice is a fairly natural human activity.  (Of course it is not quite that simple and actually it is only 50% of the votes still left in the ballot after a few rounds, which might not actually be 50% of the voters because people are less likely to state a 2nd preference, and then less likely to put a 3rd, etc. As Aveek points out, when AV is used in Scotland 12 of 31 winners have got there with a minority of votes.)

…will stop politicians from being corrupt and devious: AV will ‘make safe seats less safe’, by… erm… making marginal seats more marginal.  Apparently this would have stopped the expenses scandal – a scandal that was not related to safeness of seats and did not undermine the incumbent advantage in the 2010 election. The Yes2AV campaign clearly hate MPs, if their video with hectoring Yes2AV campaigners shouting at them is anything to go by and want to punish them all for the excesses of some by changing the voting system (See Ian Murray MP’s excellent response to that video, here).

…will stop the BNP: The BNP don’t like it, so it must be bad for them! More seriousnly, though, it won’t help them into power because the winner needs the support of 50% of voters (NB, see above) and since the BNP do not generally get that level of support even where they win in council elections they would not win seats under AV.

…means you can vote positively: since you get a second choice, you can vote for a candidate you really like as your first preference and then a potential winner thereafter. This is supposed to get rid of tactical voting, but in fact would probably just mean people stating preferences for the candidates they don’t hate, which is not very positive.

…is very British: Nick Clegg has told us that the change to AV would be ‘a very British reform’. Must be true then.

Whereas First Past the Post…

…gives a fairer result: it is clear who has won, because they have the most votes.  It doesn’t matter if this is as little as 30% of the votes so they clearly aren’t who most people want. This is a simple and effective argument that doesn’t need to be sullied by ludicrous exaggerations and lies equating AV with the loser winning in horse races (see 1.30 in this video), school sports days or two-fighter boxing matches.

…will stop politicians from being corrupt and devious: because FPTP gives strong majority governments (apart from when it doesn’t), politicians will be more honourable and stick to their promises and pledges (unlike Alan B’stard in this advert).  Remember how much everyone loved and respected politicians before May 2010? – glory days!

…will stop the BNP: FPTP means that parties can happily ignore people who vote for fringe parties… which is the only way to defeat ‘fascism’ apparently.

…means you can vote positively, or rather AV does not stop negative voting. FPTP is more likely to give tactical voting, AV does not stop it (there will be different kinds of tactics) and probably would increase negative voting.

…is very British: the Lord formerly known as John Reid has said that AV ‘un-British’. Must be true then.

I hope that clears everything up.  It’s not the whole story, of course, there are differences between the systems and there are other meaningless or misleading angles being pursued in the campaigns (AV kills babies, FPTP gives politicians who hide behind lamp-posts); it is remarkable and depressing how similar and rubbish both campaigns are.

Fundamentally it comes down to which system one thinks is the better (fairer, most effective, etc) way to pick MPs.  Should it be the one with the most votes in FPTP, or should it be the one with the broadest support amongst the electorate even when many of them would place a different candidate first.


End of the peer show?

20 April 2011

The Sunday Telegraph reported on Sunday that the Coalition Government are looking at the House of Lords being elected for 15-year terms on the basis of proportional representation.  This of course stands in complete contrast to the Coalition Agreement statement that:

“We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. … It is likely that this bill will advocate single long terms of office.”

Er, hang on.  That doesn’t sound much like news, does it?  Apart from the 15-year term thing anyway.  The story seems mainly to be playing to the ‘Tories are giving up treasured ideals to suit the fidgety Lib Dems’ narrative of the right-of-centre press. Today, though, there has been a call by peers to stop increasing their number.

These bring up the interesting question of the Lords and its (or their) future.

At the moment, the vast majority of peers have been given membership of the House of Lords for life by a prime minister, with the House of Lords Appointments Commission advising on the selection of Cross-bench (i.e. non-party) peers. There are also up to 26 Bishops in there, as well as around 90 hereditary peers elected from the 600 or so who used to be entitled to sit in the house.

Personally, I think that the Lords do a pretty good job.  It can vary, of course, with their often harsh and outdated opinions on homosexuality certainly do not help their image (or quality of work), while at the same it is worth noting that the decision to allow palmtop and tablet mobile devices in the Chamber was made in the Lords before the Commons.  Many of the peers are online, notably on Lords of the Blog.

The ‘expertise’ of the House is often exaggerated as a defining characteristic, but it is true that many of the people there are members precisely because they have been high achievers in previous (or parallel) careers – although with politicians it contains both high achievers and failed ministers.

The problem

The main flaw with the House, as I see it and as the Constitution Unit and some peers have stated (pdf), is that the model is sustainable – especially if the aim of appointments is to match the party proportions in the last election, .  After each election where the government changes hands (i.e. 1997 and 2010), a vast number of new peers are appointed. Cameron has appointed 117, Blair appointed around 90 in his first 12 months (70 in 1997, the rest in early 1998). At the moment, with 792 peers 44% are Labour, 40% Conservative and 17% Lib Dem (compared to a 2011 vote ratio of 33:41:26) – in addition to which there are Cross-benchers as well as Bishops and some others. With an average of 36 appointed each year and no real way to leave the House other than through death, the number is likely to keep on growing.  The CU paper suggests that over a thousand would be needed to make the ratios correct.

The paper does not deal with changes to an elected or part-elected house, but their suggestions (capping the number of peers, having a set ratio for selecting new peers to move towards proportionality and having an independent system to oversee it) could usefully feed into a larger-scale reform, with in-direct election.

A solution?

It seems that, rightly in my view, any largely-elected House (the general consensus seems to be to kep 20% appointed, presumably mainly Cross-benchers) will represent broad regions rather than small constituencies. This avoids duplicating the more directly-representative function of the Commons, but raises the question of who these new Lords will be.

Broadly speaking, I think that the current selection of peers works reasonably well. The house is fairly effective in amending legislation passed to it from the Commons – which is essentially its job, but which is undermined by its growing size, and this job should remain the focus of any reforms.

If the new fifteen-year-peers can be picked on a similar but more rationalised basis – e.g. an independent appointment system and not simply peerages for ex-cabinet ministers – then the House could (and I mean could, the House evolves constantly) retain its current useful role.  The risk will be that it might become a dumping ground for failed MPs (or, rather, unsuccessful candidates at Commons elections).

Perhaps a workable model would be to have 20% of Peers selected by the Appointments Commission to sit as Cross-benchers, say 80 of a 400-strong house (this is roughly the number who sit regularly now). One could add representatives of the major religions (and maybe ethics specialists?) numbering another 10 or 15, although this might be controversial and maybe simply 95 Cross-benchers would be better. Another five would be office-holders (Lord Speaker, etc), that would make 100, allowing 100 to be ‘elected’ every 5 years for three terms.

Each time there is an election, the new cohort could be appointed from party lists either directly in regions like the Euro-election, which would involve a specific Lords ballot, or indirectly through an independent appointment process, which could be based on votes for Commons or directly for the Lords. They could be selected in proportion to either a) the proportion of votes cast in that year’s vote or b) in proportion to the difference between the existing proportions of peers and the proportions of votes cast, depending on how direct the election should be.

That system, with parties centrally (or regionally, or a mixture) selecting peers appointed in proportion to votes cast in a ballot seems to me to approximate the current system in a reasonable and rational way. It could mean that the features of the House in terms of composition and role are retained, but that selection is given added legitimacy (albeit not with enough direct involvement to worry the Commons) and without the ever-increasing House that we have today.

This seems to me a good half-way point between direct election (as per Commons) and 100% appointment (as in the modern Lords, if we ignore the semi-elected hereditaries).

P.S. There are other ideas around out there: perhaps a public ballot like jury duty, with 100 or so  members of the public randomly selected each year and paid to work in the revising chamber for three years. This has some immediate appeal – it would certainly broaden the expertise and experience of the House – but is unlikely to get anywhere politically.

P.P.S. The subject-line for this post comes from an alternative title for Emma Crewe’s Lords of Parliament, which I’m reading and enjoying at the moment. I wish I had made it up, but I didn’t.

AV ‘will bring in fascism’

1 April 2011

After reading the Sun piece by Baroness Warsi that I mentioned in my last post, I found the article accompanying it – which has the delightfully subtle headline of “AV ‘will bring in fascism’.” Not, could or might… nope… will.

This is rubbish.  Not just because the BNP don’t support AV. Their non-support is not mutually exclusive from any possible gain. Firstly, it is rubbish because AV does not give a vast increase in representation to minor parties (in the way that PR would). Second, a possible increase in BNP votes is not the same as ‘bringing in fascism’.  Many britons are already represented by fascist BNP members of councils and the European Parliament – so there is fascist representation.. this is not the same as ‘bringing in fascism’.  That headline is idiot to say the very least.

Just as peculiar and also quite pernicious is the idea that avoiding greater representation in our parliament is the way to stop people supporting the BNP.  It is not.  The votes are a representation of increased levels of intolerance and (just as important, and linked) a profound sense of disillusionment and injustice.

The scare tactic of saying that this will lead to dog-whistle politics as candidates seek extremists’ support (i.e. second votes) is misleading and annoying. Guido Fawkes has joined in the game (with accompanying tedious quotation from Churchill), repeating the No 2 AV assertion that 35 seats would be swayed by BNP second preferences.

The implication of this assertion is that the views of those who might consider voting BNP are inherently illegitimate, so we must do our best to exclude them.  Whether you think a preferential voting system is, er, preferable, is up to you; but this kind of suggestion misses the point of the need to re-engage with disillusioned voters.

If candidates need the second-preferences of potential BNP voters, they should be out on the streets explaining why their policies are the best way to deal with the problems or perceived injustices that lead people to consider such a hideous way of using their vote.  This is exactly the same as when people fight a FPTP race against a strong BNP candidate – as in Barking and Dagenham, where the Labour party fought and won a big electoral fight with them. There will be candidates who seek to use scare tactics to win votes – they should be outed and hounded as scaremongerers (as Phil Woolas was). The risks of scaremongering are not unique to AV, and they should not mean that serious politicians should shirk their duty to try to convince BNP voters – along with all other citizens – that their mainstream party has the answer, not the fascists.

AV is not perfect, no electoral system is.  It will not vastly increase the power of extremist parties. Attacking AV as a system should not blind people to the need to engage with disillusioned citizens.