unfairFrom the newly elected Canadian Liberal election platform:

We will make every vote count.

We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.

We will convene an all-party Parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting.

This committee will deliver its recommendations to Parliament. Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform.

Let the wrangling over the ideal replacement system begin!

Obviously, it’ll be sad to lose a good example of strategic and tactical voting in operation, but that’ll be more than outweighed by the benefits of having an electoral system that actually represents the diversity and multi-party nature of Canadian politics.


Yesterday saw an expected yet still disappointing response from the Government to the various post-election electoral reform petitions. Expected, because we all know that there’s no way this Government is going to concede electoral reform, yet disappointing because it reveals that the minister for constitutional reform may have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.

In response to petitions demanding a properly proportional electoral system, his response was that ‘we had a referendum on it in 2011’. The 2011 referendum was lost, and lost badly, but it was definitely not a referendum on adopting a proportional system. The question was, if you forget:

At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?

You’ll notice, of course, that there’s no mention there of any proportional electoral system, merely a question about whether one majoritarian system should be used in place of another. Also note that it doesn’t ask for any affirmation of the current system above all others: the question was not ‘do you agree that “first past the post” is great and should never ever be changed?’

There were other referendums during the last Parliament, of course, with several cities being told that they had to have votes on whether they wanted an elected Mayor to run their Council. Bristol and Salford voted yes but a whole host of England’s largest cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle and others – voted No.

Despite this, the Government is pushing forward with plans to give these cities – and ‘city regions’ – their own mayors whether they want them or not. Manchester’s ‘interim Mayor’ has already been agreed and selected by ten people without any consultation with the electorate, and other areas are going to find that George Osborne will be imposing one upon them if they want to have any new powers, with ‘devolution’ being used as an excuse for even more centralisation. In this case, despite the people voting against it more recently than 2011, the Government’s going to go ahead and do what it wants.

‘But Nick!’ you cry, desperate to defend George Osborne. ‘These are different to the Mayors they rejected. These are Metro Mayors and regional Mayors, covering wider areas than those that voted in the referendums, so it’s a completely different thing!’ And you may well be right, but if you’re going to make that argument, you can’t also claim that any electoral reform is off the agenda because of the AV referendum as that was merely vote on a tweak to the current majoritarian system, not a change to a proportional one. I’m happy to concede that the referendum rejected AV, but had nothing to say about other electoral systems and if a future Parliament chooses to change the system it can do so – as long as it’s not to AV.

Unfortunately, we have a government where the minister for constitutional reform doesn’t seem to understand even the basics of what’s happened before, so we can expect lots more confusion over the Parliament. If that wasn’t a five year period in which some important constitutional questions are going to be discussed heavily, it’d almost be funny.

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Officials count ballot papers in WitneyHaving a small masochistic streak in me, I watched some of Andrew Marr’s show this morning, so got to see Yvette Cooper saying that maybe adopting the Tory manifesto for their next set of policies wasn’t the best approach for the Labour Party. It’s the sort of thing that should be obvious, but in the rather bizarre world of the mainstream political commentariat it’s almost heresy. After all, Labour was comprehensively defeated in the election while the Tories stormed to a resounding victory, which proves that the country has swung decisively to the right in its attitudes and everyone should just agree with them.

It’s an interesting argument, except for the fact that it rests on a foundation of utter bollocks. Labour’s share of the vote went up by more than the Tories did, David Cameron got fewer votes than Neil Kinnock did in 1992 and all the evidence suggests that the public mood is actually moving leftwards and will continue to do so during the Parliament. Five years ago, Labour let the consensus mediamacro opinion that they were somehow solely responsible for the global financial crisis form while they were busy with their leadership contest, but this time they actually appear to be using their contest to support the formation of a new consensus that the 2015 election was some epochal rejection of the Labour Party, not just a defeat.

As Andrew Rawnsley points out in the Observer today, the only reason we have this narrative is because of our thoroughly broken electoral system that allows a party with 37% of the vote to pretend it has a huge mandate, while one with 31% has been thumpingly rejected. Instead of talking about how one party is mildly more popular than the other, we instead have to act out a bizarre farce where the ‘winners’ of the election are treated as though they have the majority of the population enthusiastically backing them, not just the largest plurality.

The problem for Labour is that their commitment to the current electoral system – in the hope that it will deliver them a similar majority from a plurality if the pendulum swings back to them – means they have to act like the Tories are an actual majority, not just the representatives of 37% of the voters. That’s why they end up pushed into a narrative of having to show their agreement with the Tory manifesto because it’s assumed that they have to take votes from them to win next time, ignoring the large chunk of voters that didn’t vote for either of them, and the even larger chunk of the electorate that didn’t vote at all. Cooper’s right to point out that the way forward for Labour isn’t swallowing the Tory manifesto, but to make that argument stick she’ll have to point out that one big reason the Tories are in a majority is because of the effect of the electoral system. While she’s stuck in pretending that a Parliamentary majority means something more than just a quirk of electoral mathematics, she can’t respond by pointing out that there are other paths Labour can take.

(Incidentally, it’s why I think Mark Thompson’s belief that Liz Kendall could call for electoral reform is wrong. Her pitch for the leadership is bound up tightly in pretending that the Tories are a real majority, so Labour must be more like them, and the arguments she’d need to make for electoral reform would severely weaken her pitch.)

Labour has been in this position before, and there were tentative moves towards adopting electoral reform before 1997, that ended up being quietly shelved once they realised that they could get the electoral system to make them look absurdly dominant. However, now they face a situation where the electoral system is looking very skewed against them, and they’ve got an uphill battle to get a plurality of Commons seats, let alone a majority. By admitting the reality of the electoral situation, Labour can give themselves a strong argument to both challenge the Tories and build co-operation between the opposition parties, all of whom except Labour are committed to some version of electoral reform. Sure, it won’t be popular with every part of the Labour Party, but I’m not detecting a huge wave of enthusiasm within the party for becoming the Tory Reserves either. If any of the leadership candidates want to push Labour away from capitulation to the Tory agenda, they have to challenge the narrative that’s presenting them as hegemonic, and challenging the electoral system is an important part of that. Do any of their candidates have the desire to make that challenge, or will they just be crossing their fingers and hoping for the best in 2020?

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Labour’s political reform proposals: some good ideas, but where’s the detail?

labourreformLabour have launched their plans for political reform (there’s a PDF with more detail here) and at a first look, they’re not that bad. Not perfect, but definitely steps in the right direction and with a bit more coherence to them than the rather random nature of the combined authorities/city regions plans currently being scattered across the country.

The good news is that Labour remain committed to having a Constitutional Convention and are looking at how devolution within England works as a whole, not on a piecemeal basis. There’s no detail on how the convention will be made up, though, and I’d be concerned that it could turn into another top-down attempt at reform where a convention of the great and the good tour the country for some set piece events rather than a proper convention where a wider range of people get to take part.

They also commit to replacing the House of Lords with a Senate, and I’m not going to rehash old arguments about that, but would point out that they only mention removing hereditary peers from the Lords, which makes me wonder if the current appointees will be allowed to remain in place. Like with the constitutional convention, the commitment is good, but the devil is in the detail.

The promise to change the way the Commons work is interesting, especially wanting to “discourage off putting and aggressive behaviour in the Chamber”. However, that is something they’ve got the power to at least partly deliver now. Indeed, if Ed Miliband really wanted to do something dramatic at Prime Minister’s Questions, he would instruct his MPs to sit quietly throughout it, and perhaps do something really transgressive himself like asking David Cameron a question that’s a test of his knowledge, rather than his spinning skills.

Introducing a ‘public evidence stage’ for bills going through the Commons is an interesting idea, but like any public consultation it risks becoming a gimmick and a box-ticking exercise rather than a meaningful input into the process. What measures will be put in place to ensure that the public’s input gets properly considered rather than included in a report that no one pays any real attention to? Also, will the public evidence stage be limited to those who can get to Westminster, or something encouraging wider participation?

We also have a promise that “Labour will reform elections so everyone has their say”, which sounds promising, but is mostly tweaks in administration of elections (votes at 16, changes to registration and trials of online voting) and doesn’t include any commitment to electoral reform. If they truly want a system that gives everyone their say, then they can’t get that with the current electoral system. However, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, and the many Labour MPs in safe seats would be up in arms if the party started campaigning for them to have a harder time of it.

It’s good to see Labour putting forward proposals on political reform, but as we’ve seen before from Governments of all stripes, good intentions in this field don’t always lead to good outcomes. There’s more detail needed on all the proposals to make them more than just positive soundbites, and they need to be something that makes a real difference, not just a bit of PR that’ll make no real difference to the way things work. Are Labour serious about changing the way power works in this country? These proposals suggest they might be, but they need to demonstrate that commitment not just mouth a few platitudes.

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Cis People Know Best, They Tell Us – How the New Statesman used the death of Leelah Alcorn for a spot of anti-trans concern trolling.
Will the UK voting system survive 2015? – “It’s actually quite clear which way people are going to vote; what is unpredictable is a voting system that is so poorly suited to its purpose that the numbers that it chews out could go anywhere. That this doesn’t lead more people than it does to declare that it is time to pick another system is a sad testament of how badly let down our media and politicians are letting us down.”
Worse than a defeat – James Meek on the many errors that we’re made in Britain’s most recent foray into Afghanistan.
Who bears risk? – “The idea that capitalists are brave entrepreneurs who deserve big rewards for taking risk is just rubbish.”
Are You Really Talking About Rehabilitation For Ched Evans? – What rehabilitation of offenders actually involves, and why Ched Evans’ behaviour doesn’t show he’s rehabilitated at all. (Warning: post discusses rape and related issues)

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Miliband’s speech: does he want real change, or just change that works for Labour?

Labour annual conference 2014During his speech yesterday, Ed Miliband made lots of references to problems with our political system.

she thinks politics is rubbish. And let’s not pretend we don’t hear that a lot on the doorstep…
Our politics doesn’t listen…
And to cap it all, in our politics, it’s a few who have the access while everyone else is locked out…
People think politics is more and more a game and that all we’re in it for is ourselves…
You know people think Westminster politics is out of touch, irrelevant and often disconnected from their lives…
We don’t just need to restore people’s faith in the future with this economic and social plan we need to change the way politics works in this country.
In this day and age, when people are so cynical about politics.

So, Ed thinks there are problems with our politics, that people are cynical about it and it’s all a game. So how did he choose to start his speech?

Friends, it is great to be with you in Manchester. A fantastic city. A city with a great Labour council leading the way. And a city that after this year’s local elections, is not just a Tory-free zone but a Liberal Democrat free zone as well.

He could have used that to praise some of the achievements of Manchester council, to tell us what its done for its residents. In a speech that was going to talk about reform, he could have used it as an example of what councils could achieve now, even when they’re hamstrung by the current system, and imagine what they might do if they were set free. It could have been a great way to illustrate the potential power of devolution and regionalism.

Instead, he chose to appeal to Labour tribalism and make a virtue out of the fact that Manchester is now effectively a one-party state. There are 96 members of Manchester City Council, of which 95 are Labour councillors and the other one is an ex-Labour councillor who now sits as an independent. This is all, of course, thanks to the wonders of our electoral system which means Manchester isn’t a fluke, but a regular occurence. There are councils all over England and Wales where one party has an absurd level of dominance and huge swathes of voters aren’t represented.

Is he against politics as a game, or is he fine with that game as long as Labour are winning? Is he happy for whole swathes of people to be locked out of power and not listened to? Are the Labour Party in this for proper change, or just in it for themselves? In short, does Ed Miliband really want a different kind of politics, or just a slightly tweaked version of our current kind?

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vote for nobody 2Former MP Tony Wright has written an odd piece for the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog, that tries to disagree with arguments that politics in Britain is broken by seemingly accepting most of the arguments that it is, then claiming that the fact some reforms have happened over the past few years means that things will work out all right. To me, it feels like he’s arguing that it’s not broken because it’s been stuck roughly back together with a flour-and-water paste that he insists is actually superglue.

It’s prompted me to finally sit down and write down a few thoughts I’ve been having on what I think is a slow breakdown of the British political system. I think one mistake Wright makes – and he’s not alone in it, as I’ve written about before – is to confuse politics and the political system, assuming they’re one and the same. It’s a common and understandable solipsism amongst politicians to believe that what we do is the only thing that properly counts as politics, but I think that’s one of the sources of the problem. By believing that politics can only include that which is contained within the existing political system, we assume that the system is capable of containing everything that’s ‘political’. (That may be a tautology, but these are still very rough thoughts)

However, what if the system isn’t capable of doing what’s expected of it? What if the system that was broadly capable of representing political opinion in the past has become completely outdated? Sure, there have been patches and tweaks, such as the ones Wright points to, over the years but these have not addressed the fundamental problems within it. It’s like insisting everything’s fine with your car because you’ve replaced the carburettor, while ignoring that it can’t go faster than 10mph and needs ten litres of fuel to get to end of the road.

I think of this as a slow breakdown because I think it’s the culmination of a long process that began in the 70s (and possibly before) but the system has managed to conceal that – and will likely try to pretend that things can still be fixed with tweaks. The system worked on the principle of there being two main mass-membership parties that sat on either side of the class divide (in line with Pulzer’s 60s observation: “Class is the basis of British politics; all else is embellishment and detail.”) The problem stems from the fact that the pillars that system rested on have crumbled away. To look at some of those factors in brief (it might take a full series of posts to cover it in any reasonable amount of detail, though):

Class is no longer the main driver of British politics. That’s not to say that class isn’t important in Britain but that other forces and other cleavages in society are much more than ’embellishment and detail’. Old cleavages, such as the core-periphery divide, have re-arisen, class itself has evolved into a more complex issue, and new issues have arisen that may divide society but aren’t reflected in the parties.

Political parties have not changed. The usual claim here is that parties have changed, but I think the issue is that they’ve only tweaked and patched, not made a fundamental change. One of the drivers behind mass-membership parties was that they provided social opportunities in a time when there were a lot fewer ways to spend your free time. As those vast networks (that were apolitical a large amount of the time) have withered away, the nature of political parties has not changed in response with some imagining the days of mass membership and participation can be restored. Parties are still being run as though they are still mass parties, when they’ve become more like cadre parties (or to borrow Peter Mair’s term, ‘cartel parties’).

The electoral system doesn’t allow voters to be represented. One of the reasons I think of this as a slow breakdown is that you can see it emerging in the election results of the 70s, when the big parties started watching their share of the vote slip further and further away from 50%, yet not seeing this slippage represented in the share of seats and power won. Moving a bit closer to the present, one reason that the 1997 election is pivotal is that it’s the last time a single party won more votes than there were non-voters. Voters have consistently moved away from the two-party model, but the electoral system continues to prop it up.

There are other issues too – media that prefers personalities to policies, local government that’s trying to deliver for 21st century communities based on 19th century boundaries, the belief that anything that’s worth doing should only be done centrally – but my time today is limited.

What I do want to say in conclusion is that I see and hear people talking about political issues all the time, but because we restrict our definition of politics to ‘that which is represented within the political system’ we tend to not recognise it as such. However, this then turns into disengagement from the system when people don;t see the issues that are important to them being represented or discussed there. I think this tendency has been accelerated by the internet and social networking, but this is just the culmination of a process that started long before home broadband and smartphones. Just tweaking the existing system and claiming it’s completely fixed isn’t enough. We need a system that reaches out to everyone, not one that imagines those it can’t reach have nothing worthwhile to say. To paraphrase Adrian Mitchell, most people ignore most politics, because most politics ignores most people.

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