Canada: why electoral reform will be hard to win

Coming soon to a Canadian billboard
Coming soon to a Canadian billboard
In one of last year’s few political highlights, Justin Trudeau led the Liberal Party to victory in Canada’s general election, and one of their manifesto pledges was to change Canada’s electoral system from first past the post.

The Liberals won a majority of the seats in Canada’s Parliament, and reforming the electoral system is also backed by the New Democratic and Green parties, meaning that a substantial majority of the electorate backed parties that want change. So, that’s an electoral majority, a Parliamentary majority and a clear manifesto pledge all backing change.

As you might expect, that’s not enough for the Conservatives, who are now insisting that there needs to be a referendum as well, or they’ll use their strength in the (unelected) Senate to block any change. This fits in with how the Conservatives ran the country in the Harper era, when all controversial decisions went to national referendums… oh no, they didn’t do that, did they?

Just as happened here in Britain a few years ago, the vested interests whose chance of power would be most threatened by electoral reform are getting ready to do whatever it takes to stop it from happening. Those of you who miss reading ill-informed columnists spouting badly-argued talking points about why a country doesn’t need electoral reform will enjoy the Canadian press right now. This article manages to hit almost all the bases of objection from ‘there are more important things to worry about’ through a reference to a misunderstood Arrow’s Theorem and right to ‘it’s all too complicated for people to understand’. (Anyone Danish reading this might be somewhat surprised to learn that they don’t know how their electoral system works) It does a great job of undermining its own arguments with this line:

As flawed as our system is, it has its virtues. The greatest one is clarity. Any party that wins a majority has the chance to fully implement its agenda, for better or for worse.

Which is exactly what the Canadian Liberals are doing. It is a strange situation when a government comes to power with a commitment to change the system that delivered it a majority, but that (amongst other things, which they’re also doing because Governments can multi-task) is what they were elected to do. The Canadian campaign against electoral reform is only just beginning to pick itself up and organise its arguments, so it’s not quite at the ridiculous hyperbole of ‘electoral reform kills babies and soldiers’ yet, but it’s going to come. Even when a Government is elected with an overwhelming argument for change, those that fear it will do all they can to stop it, and I hope Trudeau and his government have the strength to see them off.

Lost referendums don’t lead to a return to the political status quo

And she still hasn't got her new maternity unit, either.
And she still hasn’t got her new maternity unit, either.
The two major referendums we’ve had during this Parliament – 2011’s on AV and 2014’s on Scottish independence – were both very different, but I think the after effect of both of them has been quite similar. In both cases, it was expected by many that the rejection of change would be the end of the issue for a long time, and things would go back the way they’d use to been. The issues that had led to the referendum being called would slowly fade away, and there’d be no need to consider any further change.

The result of the AV referendum was not just presented as a disaster for the Lib Dems, but also an indication that we would return to an age of two-party politics. After all, at that time Labour and the Tories were both up around 40% in the polls, and the growth in support for other parties hadn’t begun. The people had spoken, it was thought, and would now get over the idea that we could have multi-party politics in this country.

Unfortunately for that view, things haven’t proceeded in that way. The factors that led to the breakdown of old party loyalties which led to the 2010 election result that gave us the circumstances behind the AV referendum were all still in place, and a single referendum was never going to end that. The social factors that supported the old two-party system – the class-based cleavages – have been losing their power for years and that wasn’t changed by the AV campaign. Instead, what we’ve seen is a continued unravelling of party loyalties and the situation we’ve got now where reaching 35% in the polls regularly would seem like a commanding lead.

In retrospect, the most important electoral event of May 2011 is clearly the Scottish Parliament election where we had the supreme irony of a proportional electoral system delivering the single-party majority that our existing national system now seems unable to. That of course laid the ground for last year’s Scottish referendum which again was meant to settle a question for a generation or more.

Yet again, in the aftermath of the vote, the assumption was made that the issue was over and that the SNP would fade away again. That’s most clear in David Cameron’s speech the morning after, where he clearly thought the Unionist position was a lot stronger than it turned out to be. Again, the assumption was that after a referendum, the people would have spoken and the issue would be somehow resolved by this, yet the underlying issues that had led to the referendum happening hadn’t been resolved by it. If anything, the referendum result clarified them even more, and that’s led to the SNP’s rise in the national polls.

This is why referendums aren’t good ways of making decisions because they imagine that a result will ‘resolve the issue’ regardless of which way it goes. What referendum proponents neglect to understand is that they an only tackle surface factors, and because they’re concentrated on just one piece of an issue, they can never address the wider factors. Those advocating that we should have a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU ‘because we’d win it, and that’d end the argument’ should be aware that recent evidence suggests it would do anything but, and could well create even more issues in its wake.

A thought on referendums

A couple of tweets I’ve seen recently on my Twitter timeline:

That’s just the most recent two, but ‘the rest of the UK should have a say about Scottish independence’ is something I’ve seen in many forms over the past few years, and will probably get said a lot more times over the next eleven days.

So, let’s pose a couple of thought experiments. In 1991, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia held referendums on whether they should declare independence and leave the USSR. All delivered clear majorities for independence, yet I suspect if the rest of the USSR had been able to vote (especially the Russian Federation) they would have said ‘let’s stay together’. Who was in the right there?

Alternatively, let’s imagine that there is a referendum in 2017 on British membership of the EU. Should that be just Britain’s decision or should the rest of the EU get to decide on if they want their Union to be broken up?

There’s plenty of discussion to be had about the role of the British government in the referendum, especially the way ‘Devo Max’ was kept off the ballot, but to start insisting that others have the power to veto someone else’s vote if they don’t like the way it’s going is to stroll down a dangerous path, and perhaps to help others prove their arguments.

The comic genius of ‘Eric Pickles’

There surely must come a point when everyone realises that Eric Pickles is a master satirist. He’s pulled off the routine for far longer than anyone else might have managed – Morris, Baron-Cohen, even Sellers, they could keep up a character for ages, but none ever managed anything close to the length that the ‘Pickles’ hoax has run for.

As we all know, one of his most popular routines of the last couple of years has been localism, where he delivers a speech out of two sides of his mouth at once. On one side, he talks about the joys of local decision making, how planning should be about neighbourhoods and not central targets and how central government should leave local government alone, while on the other side he’s imposing decisions on local government, bringing in planning rules that weaken local power and telling councils exactly how they should spend their budgets. The sheer joy of the comedy comes in him saying these things at the same time while apparently being unaware that he’s contradicting himself.

He’s updated the routine today, with this fantastic claim that councils who’ve played by the rules he set down are ‘dodging democracy’. When told that if they raised council tax by 2% or more they’d have to have a referendum – which Pickles would order but they’d have to pay for – councils who’ve needed to raise council tax levels have chosen to do so by just under 2%. That’s their local decision made by local councillors, and so the champion of localism has had to wade in and tell them that they’re wrong.

According to Pickles, council tax – for which all councils must send a detailed bill, including details of where it goes and how it’s spent, then collect separately – is a ‘stealth tax’ and that councils, elected by the people, just like the Parliament that Pickles sits in, have to ‘win over the public’ before raising any taxes. Councils should ‘stop treating residents with contempt’, because that’s clearly the role of Pickles and the DCLG, not councils.

You have to laugh, because otherwise you have to believe he actually means what he says, and that would be far too ridiculous.