What You Can Get Away With » electoral reform

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 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 What if the system that was broadly capable of representing political opinion in the past has become completely outdated?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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Do we want fewer councillors, or should we make better use of those we have? – Andrew Coulson of the Institute for Local Government Studies asks a few questions about just what local government in the UK is for.
Argonauts of the incredibly specific: anthropological field notes on the Liberal Democrat animal – Some interestingly accurate assessments of the party from a departing member.
UKIP: The victory of the ruling class – A typically incisive post from Chris Dillow, pointing out that UKIP are anything but anti-establishment. “The discontent that people might reasonably feel against bankers, capitalists and managerialists has been diverted into a hostility towards immigrants and the three main parties, and to the benefit of yet another party with a managerialist and pro-capitalist ideology.”
This Other England: The Inevitable UKIP Post – “A significant minority of voters who hate everything about this country except the past. It’s a depressing vision – but one that we now have to confront.”
How can we reform local elections? – A proposal from Unlock Democracy to allow councils to determine their own electoral system locally.

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How Liberal Democrat MPs voted against making it far harder to misuse libel – Depressing.
A Senate in the Gun Lobby’s Grip – Gabrielle Giffords in the New York Times
Dead children and monied politicians – and David Simon on how American democracy is failing under the unrestrained influence of lobbyists and money.
Do you live in a Rotten Borough? – New figures from the Electoral Reform Society on how first past the post distorts results in council elections. (And I don’t live in a rotten borough, but it’s within a rotten county)
My So-Called ‘Post-Feminist’ Life in Arts and Letters – Another chronicle of the everyday sexism some of us like to pretend doesn’t exist.

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The website for the yes campaign in the AV referendum is finally up and running, so you can now get along there and sign up to support and help out in whatever way you wish. There’s also the Take Back Parliament campaign – at the moment, I’m not sure how much overlap there is between the two – and there’ll be another meeting of the Essex TBP group at the beginning of October. More details of that soon.

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I’m wondering how much it would cost to organise a speaking tour of Australian republicans who voted ‘no’ in their 1999 referendum on establishing a republic, on the grounds that it wasn’t quite the sort of republic they wanted? (The possible audience being those who are preparing to vote against AV in a referendum on the grounds it’s not the exact reform they wanted, so if it’s rejected they’ll get a pony a referendum on the exact reforms they want, in exactly the same way as the Australians didn’t.)

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So if Bernard Jenkin does propose an amendment in the Commons to require a 40% threshold in an electoral reform referendum, can it be completely ignored on the grounds that he doesn’t have the support of 40% of his own electorate?

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Some disorganised thoughts from me, that may or may not add up to a coherent whole. For those looking for a more thought-through opinion on all this, I suggest visiting the Lib Dem Blogs aggregator and working through the entries there. Or take a look at this Dutch perspective on the situation.

I can remember approaching the 2008 elections here in Colchester and we were looking at the prospects of what might happen afterwards. Out of all the possible results, it seemed that the one with the four groups at 27-23-7-3 would be the hardest to find a solution from. So obviously, that was the result we got. This seems like a similar position – the Conservatives where they can’t comfortably form a minority Government, and the combined Liberal Democrat-Labour position doesn’t result in a majority. While we did find a solution in Colchester, this does seem like a much more difficult position to resolve.

Mathematically, a Labour-Liberal Democrat combination, while it doesn’t lead to a majority, isn’t as weak as it might seem. Given that they could rely on the SDLP and Alliance MPs, they’d have 319 to the 307 Tories (assuming they hold Thirsk and Malton in three weeks) and it’s likely that they could get the support of enough from the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Green and independent Unionist MPs to counter the likely Tory-DUP alliance. However, while that might seem possible from a blank slate, given the history and politics involved, it’d be an incredibly difficult solution to sell to the people, especially if it involved Gordon Brown remaining in office, even before you get to the whole issue of Labour’s authoritarian tendencies on civil liberties.

Some have suggested Gordon Brown, or perhaps some other figure, as effectively a caretaker PM for twelve months while this rainbow coalition pushes through a wide-ranging political reform package before a new election. However, to get this through, the wafer-thin majority in the Commons would require Brown to deliver the entire Labour Party through the Aye lobby, and there’s enough of a draconian tendency there to scupper any part of the reform package in favour of keeping their safe seats. There’s also the question of whether a Government made up of so many parties and with a small majority could push through any tough economic decisions that were required.

The problem with a Liberal-Conservative coalition is… well, you can finish that sentence in a number of ways, from a number of different perspectives and almost all of them would be correct. While it seems that Cameron and Clegg might get on personally, the rest of their parties don’t and trying to get through those decades of distrust, contempt and outright hatred at times is not going to be easy, if it’s even possible at all. However, to even get to that point, there has to be a resolution on the issue of electoral reform first.

Whatever happens, I think the media will get their ‘angry Lib Dems quit party’ story – not just people disgruntled at teaming up with one party or another, but even if he finds a way to not choose either, someone will doubtless get themselves their fifteen minutes of fame by claiming we should have done a deal and walk off in a huff because we didn’t.

I know I couldn’t support any coalition deal with any party that doesn’t have a clear and timetabled commitment to a referendum on electoral reform. Not just a Blair-esque ‘we’ll have a referendum at some point in the future’ promise but a definite date by which said referendum will happen. Without that sort of commitment, I can’t see how Clegg and his negotiators could get the backing of the Parliamentary Party or the Federal Executive for a coalition, let alone survive a party conference. Electoral reform is a fundamental part of the Liberal Democrats’ raison d’etre and it’s not something we’d give up on for a few ministerial cars.

However, I do think there is a way for Cameron to get round it, if he can sell it to his party. Remember that our demand is not for the Government to force through electoral reform itself, just a referendum on it. If the Conservatives feel so strongly about it, and think they’re right, then why should they shy away from putting that argument to the people and asking them to decide? Sure, have a committee of inquiry to decide what should be put to the public, but that committee has to have a deadline by which it must report it’s recommendations to Parliament, which will then agree a referendum. I’ve already heard a comparison made to the 1975 referendum on the Common Market where members of the same party campaigned on different sides of the issue yet were able to come together again afterwards.

Of course, even if that can be agreed, then we’ll turn to the rest of the agreement and what sort of policy commitments it requires, but that won’t happen until after the electoral reform question is settled.

Finally, the other option that’s not been brought up much is the possibility of some form of grand coalition or government of national unity. If talks between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives do break down then that might become the only workable option remaining on the table, but that’s something I’ll write more about if we get to that position.

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Quick thought sparked up by this post by Paul Walter – it tends to be Tories who tell us how First Past The Post is the best system for electing MPs, so if it’s such a good system for choosing political representatives, why don’t they use it for their caucus meetings?

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The first major item on the Council agenda last night was the open debate on future Council elections. As it’s likely to get missed out by the press in favour of coverage of the other main item, I thought I’d discuss it in a bit more detail here.

Yet again, we’ve been asked to consider whether we want to continue the practice whereby Colchester Council is elected by thirds, or switch to a system of ‘all-up’ elections. In the current system, there are Borough Council elections in 3 out of every 4 years, with a County Council election in the 4th year. In each of those years, one-third (20 out of 60) of the Council seats are up for election and voters in a three-member ward such as Castle go to the polls every year – for instance, in the last cycle for this ward, Chris Hall was elected in 2006, I was elected in 2007 and Henry Spyvee in 2008. The next cycle starts next year, with Chris’s seat up in 2010, mine in 2011 and Henry’s in 2012.

In an ‘all-up’ system, all the Council seats would be up for election at once (most likely starting in 2011) with the elected Councillors all serving the same four-year term after that (so the next elections would be in 2015, then 2019 etc) but would be on the same ward boundaries as now, so voters would have multiple votes – e.g. in Castle, you’d vote for three candidates, and hopefully one of them would be me.

There are good arguments for and against both options – those in favour of election by thirds argue that it keeps the Council responsive, and ensures Councillors remain in touch with the electorate as well as ensuring that changes in local opinion are reflected promptly, while those in favour of all-up elections argue that having a Council in place for four years encourages long-term thinking and planning, and makes the Council more efficient when it’s not having to effectively shut down for elections every year.

I can see good points on both sides of the argument, but I’m still inclined to remain with the current system, if only because of the iniquities of our current electoral system. I don’t think first-past-the-post is a good system at the best of times, but combining it with simultaneously-elected multi-member wards only serves to exacerbate the problems with it. Whereas under thirds a ward might swing back and forth between different parties and wards will often be represented by councillors from different parties, an all-up election makes it much easier for a single party to take all the seats in a ward with just a small plurality of the vote. Under thirds, it is possible for a party with about 30-35% of the vote to get a majority on the Council, but they have to repeat that success over three years to do so – with all-ups, and it’s happened in many boroughs, a party can get a small share of the vote and have power for four years. When you take into account the proposed change to ‘strong leaders’ that will be coming in most Councils, that’s absolute power for just a small share of the vote.

In my mind, if we’re going to have all-up elections then they have to be on a fair voting system and STV – which is already used in local elections in Scotland and Northern Ireland – is the perfect system for that, especially as people are already used to multi-member wards in local democracy. That way, we can have a system that is properly representative of local opinion, but it’s not one of the options on the table, of course.

While the straw poll at the end of the debate last night was in favour of all-up elections, that’s not the end of the discussion on this. It was also generally agreed that the final decision on this matter should be up to the people of Colchester. How we’re going to achieve that is still up for debate (suggestions include a mass poll through the Courier or a referendum at the next local elections) but it is up to you now, so before that whole process starts, feel free to leave a comment with your opinion on what we should be doing.

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