600 & Fifty Shades of Grey

Grey map

In a world with a seemingly infinite choice of websites, apps, and TV channels, and where a tall non-fat hazelnut latte with whipped cream and a cherry on top is freely available, binary decisions are no longer on trend. The last five words of Henry Ford’s “any colour as long as it’s black” were shed by a consumerist society some time ago. Yet when we took to the polling stations in May, our choice of Prime Minister was limited to two. Perhaps as a result of growing accustomed to this literal world of choice, for the first time in our history, more than half of the eligible voting public effectively opted-out. A third didn’t vote at all (15M), and a third of those that did vote (10M), selected ‘neither of the above’. Unsurprisingly then, the first past the post (FPTP) voting system is under scrutiny once again.

Sadly the case for electoral reform has been undermined by the sour-grape infused protests of the idealistic “it’s not fair” fanatics. Where were they when the last Labour government was elected with a lower proportion of public support and two million fewer votes, I wonder? The notion that 37% of the vote isn’t enough for a government to assume a mandate from the electorate is incredibly weak considering the twenty seven party vote spread. No finer example of how multi-candidate elections can lead to minority winners was in South Belfast, where the returning MP received less than a quarter of his constituency’s support. The point being that no post-war party has achieved over 50% of the overall vote, which is what the critics seem to be suggesting would be enough to legitimise the result. Assuming a pre-war genuine two-party system, the Conservatives received 55% of the Con/Lab vote, and 59% of the seats – a clear majority! That line of enquiry catches nothing but red herring.

The spotlight should instead be turned to the significant disparity between votes per elected MP of the different parties. None more so than UKIP and their 4m votes per seat and the mere 25,000 required for the SNP. How can a system that gives 150 times more weight to one vote over another, ever be considered equitable? UKIP supporters may take some solace from the fact that their Scottish counterparts will at least replace the anti-establishment element of their message; but I’m sure they’ll not miss the irony that we have inadvertently awarded a louder voice in Westminster to a party that doesn’t want one at all, and actually seeks to reduce the legislative powers of the UK Government, than to one that campaigns for the exact opposite.

The social effect of such an archaic and divisive system is damaging to say the least. Regional differences have long been a symptom, with clusters of traditional ‘safe seats’ and resulting ‘electoral deserts’ creating a familiar pattern across the UK. What is new, perhaps, is how far this system is pushing us towards the break-up of the Union. Divisions are artificially inflated by engendering an almost cult-like entrenchment, whereby a vote for any alternative to the incumbent party is tantamount to a localised treason, and by presenting the illusion of unanimous support: Conservatives in most of England, the SNP in Scotland, the DUP in Northern Ireland, and Labour in much of Wales and in pockets of England. The distorted SNP performance presents the best example of how deceptive this assumed consensus can be, with less than 50% of Scottish votes but 95% of the seats going their way. This phenomenon serves to exacerbate the tribal upsurge in both regionalism and nationalism.

There could be a case for banning parties that don’t have full national representation, on the grounds that they both contribute to these divisions and create a distortion by varying the options available to voters according to their respective postcodes. We are already past the point of no return though. Many are convinced that our government is excessively London-centric and the impetus is irreversibly towards the parochialism of devolution. The anti-Westminster momentum is gathering pace and any such proposal would be almost universally rejected as an unconstitutional attempt to bolster the centralised status quo.

The statistical case against FPTP is perhaps even more compelling. According to the Electoral Reform Society, over 50% of votes (22m) went to losing candidates, and were therefore effectively ‘wasted’. That extends to 74% when we consider votes for candidates that exceeded the requisite number to assure victory. When non-voters are included, less than 20% of the UK electorate was involved in the outcome. More than half of the MPs elected received less than half of the support of their constituents, and 191 have less than 30% support. The current system just doesn’t add up!

It is patently clear then, that reform should at least be debated. The saccharine substitute of AV was unsurprisingly rejected in 2011. So we’ll park that for now. The most widely discussed alternative is Proportional Representation (PR), which effectively does what it says on the tin. The inclusion of minority views allows for greater diversity, and the reduction in wasted votes encourages political engagement across more of the population.

PR is by no means flawless though. Critics argue that the resulting coalitions of convenience can be weak, sluggish, unstable, fragmented, and often with insufficient common ground to carry a cohesive mandate. MP’s have no constituency links and are therefore accountable to party leadership rather than the voters. Smaller parties can be gifted a disproportionate level of control by enabling them to hold larger parties to ransom in both coalition negotiations and in vetoing proposals, leading to legislative gridlock. Perhaps most concerning though, is that it offers a platform for extremist parties to prosper, which is certainly not reflective of a majority. Even the growth of centrist parties can be problematic, as they assume the role of ever-present ‘kingmakers’ almost regardless of fluctuating electoral performance. This does nothing for the accountability of those governments, as it becomes difficult to over throw them. The Free Democratic Party (FDP) in Germany, is an oft-quoted example, after staying in power as a member of the governing coalition for 42 out of 50 years despite never gaining more than 12% of the vote – less than UKIP have just received, to put that into perspective!

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As a counter to the potential disarray of PR, and contrary to the common accusation that FPTP ignores minority views, it is evident in the recent winning manifesto that offering a broad range of policies is the key to success. The promise of an EU Referendum will have persuaded many to climb down from the UKIP ledge. Both major party manifestos included tighter immigration controls for the same placating reason, despite members of both having acknowledged that immigration actually provides a net contribution to our economy. What this tells us, is that even with FPTP, the more support that minority parties receive, the more their policies are worth emulating in an effort to turn voters’ heads.

The fact remains though, that minority supporters either have to defect when casting their vote, or remain steadfast and opt out of choosing a government. The latter requires ambivalence towards the Con-Lab choice, compounded by the blurred lines of their diverging policies over the last couple of decades. As Duverger’s Law dictates though, the existing two-party system is likely to prevail under FPTP. In all probability, any ardent anti-Tories that assumed they could get away with ‘opting out’ this time around, won’t make the same mistake again – and given the almost religious tribalism involved, the respective policies will be a secondary consideration at best!

It is likely that the promise of an Electoral Reform Referendum will feature in more than one manifesto in 2020. UKIP, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens will certainly be campaigning for it, and if there are any signs of traction amongst the electorate, I wouldn’t be surprised if either Labour or the Conservatives attempt to bolster their popularity by offering it too. Unfortunately, the Hobson’s choice that we’re likely to be presented with is PR. So we can either stick with the unfair but moderate and stable FPTP or twist for the potentially chaotic, arguably even less democratic and certainly less accountable, PR. Surely we are ready for a more sophisticated solution?!

In order to achieve a meaningful improvement to our democratic process, the most fundamental issue needs to be addressed: A general election creates a discursive dilemma by asking two questions but allowing for just one answer. Firstly, which of the two major parties would you prefer to run the country? And secondly, which of the candidates in your local constituency would best represent your views when voting on your behalf in parliament? Only the select few that happen to reside in a marginal Con-Lab constituency, and agree entirely with the manifesto of one of the two, can answer both of those questions simultaneously. For everyone else, the opportunity to respond with two separate answers would be a significant improvement.

That could be afforded by the introduction of a hybrid voting system, which not only allow us to pose the two questions independently, but would also mitigate the relative deficiencies of both pluralist and proportional systems. In order to achieve this, a two-tier parliamentary structure could be created by divorcing the front and back benchers. The higher tier would be composed of cabinet ministers with no direct constituency links and therefore the freedom to focus exclusively on governing the country. Local representation would then be provided by a assembly of Constituency MP’s (CMP’s), with the primary purpose of offering a broader ranger of options to the electorate, and in doing so, more effectively reflect the views of their constituents. This also solves the existing inconsistency of having some constituencies represented by powerful-but-busy cabinet ministers, others by backbenchers in government, some by those in opposition, and one by the speaker that ironically isn’t allowed to speak on behalf of his constituents at all.

Working on the assumption that the stability of majority-rule is preferable to the alternative, the most direct and proportional method of achieving that would be to establish a clean two-party format. On one hand the incumbent government as the ‘Continuation’ option, and on the other a ‘Change’ option provided by a proportionally representative coalition of the opposing parties. This would encourage political engagement through the simplicity of a straight referendum-style choice, and avoids the distortions of the vote-splitting spoiler effect and negative lesser-evil tactical voting that prevail in plurality systems.

If we stopped there, two issues remain: a binary choice fails to reflect the complexities of today’s multi-faceted political landscape, and the lack of constituency level connection undermines accountability. Fortunately, both of those issues can be solved through the lower tier, with CMP candidates elected from a wide range of parties, factions, movements and independents. This also addresses the issue of party members being “encouraged” by whips to follow voting instructions that may be inconsistent with both their own views and those of the constituents they are supposed to represent.

I’d expect this to be welcomed by a growing public appetite for the ability to vote on the basis of policies rather than archaic prejudices. The website voteforpolicies.org.uk is among a number of online questionnaires that offer the opportunity to assess political leanings. The vast majority of visitors to those sites find that their answers produce mixed results, with total support for one party being extremely rare. Thus highlighting an issue that no single voting system can solve – that voters don’t fit neatly into clearly defined partisan boxes.

Rather than attempting the impossible then, a more appropriate objective would be to return the candidate that the majority of voters prefer. As such, a preferential system should be considered. There could even be merit in a full constituency review to establish whether a geographically tailored approach would be desirable. On face value, inconsistency is a negative trait. On the other hand, it would ensure proportional results by allowing large cities to discard arbitrary dividing lines and assume a multiple member mechanism, such as Single Transferable Vote, while smaller towns could retain a single member representative rather than being forced into superficially created voting districts.

At this point the suggested two-tiered structure would appear to be composed of a minority cabinet that is entirely dependent upon the support of a diverse range of CMP’s. While that may actually engender positive collaboration, it could be just as fragmented and unstable as any other proportional system. Fortunately that too can be addressed…

To ensure that voters are both well-informed and well-represented, independently controlled constituency-specific postal booklets, and a corresponding website, could be introduced. The first few pages outline the manifestos of the two national parties, with the remaining pages available to the relevant constituency candidates. Each candidate should declare their position relating to the national party manifestos. First with a sub-header stating where they stand on the spectrum of pro-continuation (of the incumbent party), continuation-leaning, support both, oppose both, opposition-leaning and directly opposing. Their own individual manifestos would then add detail, with specific reference to their stance on the pledges within the national party pages along with any additional points from their own primary agenda.

As the manifesto of the newly elected cabinet would have the support of more than 50% of the electorate, this would be backed up by the elected CMP’s supporting the bulk of that same manifesto. It is, of course, possible that a few voters could make the contrary decision to opt for a directly opposing cabinet and local representative; but the effects of that minor distortion would surely balance out across the population. It is also possible that specific pledges within a given manifesto would not have the full support of the house; but the ability for elected CMP’s to veto unpopular policies is certainly not a fault.

In future elections, I would expect the existing partisan sects to fade and 650 shades of almost-independent grey to emerge. This doesn’t mean that parties would disappear altogether, but perhaps be accompanied by a more fluid campaign-based network of working groups. Not unlike the Eurosceptic faction that is emerging within the Conservative party today, or even the recent upsurge in fringe parties with narrow agendas. From a democratic perspective, this freedom combined with the speed and openness of the digital age, could lead to unprecedented levels of accountability. Actively providing a voice for constituents would become a prerequisite for re-election, rather than simply wearing the right colour of rosette on Election Day. Similarly, the cabinet would have to maintain a broad appeal to ensure both their own re-election and that legislation makes it past the CMP gatekeepers.

In practice, there would have to be a transition from our current system, which would need careful handling before a new political culture could be properly established. If we were fortunate enough to see this implemented with immediate effect, the 2020 General Election could be fought between the Conservative Party, representing the ‘Continuation’ vote, and a new ‘Progressive Alliance’, perhaps based on an anti-austerity message, and formed by Labour, SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and possibly the Liberal Democrats. UKIP and DUP are unlikely to be included in that; but may be invited to join a Conservative-led coalition to bolster the chances of remaining in power. Wouldn’t it be enlightening for all of this to happen before an election, offering some clue as to what we’re actually voting for, rather than being continually lied to until an unelected coalition is formed by individual leader-negotiation after the event?

Unfortunately, FPTP drives an insular predisposition for partisan self-preservation, with the major parties scrambling to present themselves as all-parties-to-all-men. The post-election losers must evolve or face extinction. To that end, the Labour Party will simply deprive the voting public of a centre-left option, safe in the knowledge that their fanatic followers can be easily hoodwinked into accepting Conservative policies, as long as they are administered by a non-Tory government – does the Labour rose smell as sweet?! Their traditional message has been rendered irrelevant in the 21st Century by the inveterate neoliberal consensus. So before the Labour Party elect their new leader, they need to establish a purpose!

The Conservative party are no less malleable. David Cameron has been re-elected on the basis of his “Compassionate Conservative” mantra. He talks of social justice and being the party for working people. Both major parties adapt their manifestos to maximise electoral appeal, until there is no discernible difference, rendering the whole democratic process pointless. We might as well toss a coin!

Surely it would be more appropriate from a democratic perspective, for any losing party to broaden their appeal by showing a willingness to work in partnership with other minority parties, than to continue down this unscrupulous road of disingenuous deception? Perhaps a modicum of integrity and consistency would go some way towards dispelling the populous view that politicians simply cannot be trusted? If this pipedream is ever to become a reality, the catalyst will be Electoral Reform!

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Blurred Lines – they know we want it.

colour mixAfter presumably drawing their policies out of a giant hat for the last couple of decades, our “options” in the recent General Election effectively boiled down to whether we prefer a Bluey-Red or a Reddy-Blue. Perhaps that explains the growing popularity of the Purples?!

As the Queen delivered the maxim of her publically elected Head Boy yesterday, I couldn’t help wondering how we’d ended up with such blurred lines across our political landscape. Apparently the Conservatives are now the party of the working people, hell bent on championing social justice. The (very) odd elitist High Tory that remains will no doubt be disappointed that their leader is not grasping the opportunity to take a harder line after waiting for so long for a majority; the socialist media and red or dead urban tribes will dismiss the rhetoric as disingenuous drivel.

In full anticipation of those entirely predictable responses, Mr Cameron has shown his gratitude to the marginal swing voters that gave him his victory, by serving up the comfort food they had insouciantly ordered – the middle England Platter!

Meanwhile, over in the red corner, Mr Gromit-Bean has scuttled off to enter a Balearic Trance in an effort to erase the memories of his failure (I’d love to know how he slid an 8ft tablet past airport security!). His would-be replacements, gingerly sidestepping the media’s attempts to pigeon-hole them as either Trade Unionists or Blairites, are now clamouring over themselves to convince us all that they understand the meaning of “aspiration” – the collective buzz word that so eloquently demonstrates the lack of creativity of a now defunct party. Their efforts to disassociate themselves from an embarrassing public rejection are understandable but laughable considering their implicit personal involvement.

Ultimately the reason for the Conservative victory this time around was simply that David Cameron managed to portray himself as the Reddy-Blue option, while convincing us that both the requisite Blue in Red Ed’s campaign was a mere token gesture, and that the Yellow marauders from the North would exert excessive influence on a man that the duplicitous Nicola Sturgeon referred to as being “not Prime Minister material”. Now I’m no colour expert, but I think that makes a decidedly unelectable shade!

The truth is that both of the major parties have a wide range of views within their ranks. Crucially, many of those views overlap. As both sides attempt to pander to the vote winning centre ground, it is this area of agreement that holds sway in setting the party lines that stifle the extremes. Yet they instinctively oppose one another’s policies. Is the Compassionate Cameron really any different from Tory Blair? How many Conservatives openly praised Blue Labour when they were in opposition? How many Labour MP’s back Cameron now?

Whether the issues raised in parliament are that of a by-gone simplistic left-right nature or the more complex realities of twenty first century world, those that agree with the opposite side of the house on any given subject are told to vote against their better judgement, and arguably that of the constituencies that elected them. Rather than providing a voice for the electorate, words are fed into their mouths by the spin doctors. Is this partisan politics really the best we can hope for in 2020 and beyond?

It could be argued that there is nothing wrong with a system that delivers a centre ground mentality, and in doing so reflects the median view of the British Public. On that basis, do we really need the distraction of the endless point scoring and bickering though? What value does that add? Some of the most productive work that our government produces is when politicians work together. Not that it’s newsworthy enough to be brought to anyone’s attention, of course.

The fate of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats is testament to that. We now have a parliamentary archway with no keystone. Could the whole system now collapse in on itself? The answer to that question could be set in motion on 12th September, when Labour decide whether to lurch to the left under the unelected McCluskey’s dictatorship, allowing the Conservatives to dominate the centre, or to attempt to occupy the same ground, and in doing so providing a pointless pseudo-opposition for the sole benefit of the media circus.

Either way, the days of partisan politics are surely numbered!

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Leadership Candidacy Matters

Absolutely right – it’s about time we had a genuine alternative!

Semi-Partisan Politics

Jeremy Corbyn - Labour Leadership - Dan Hodges - Tories4JeremyCorbyn - 1

It is a pity that the inclusion of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership race is now mostly being discussed in the context of the growing #Tories4Corbyn movement.

CapX explains:

Putting Corbyn on the ballot paper does have one unintended consequence, which is amusing the Conservatives greatly. Suddenly, there is great interest from senior Tories in helping Labour to elect Corbyn, because they think, rightly, that it would equal oblivion for Labour and a generation of Tory rule.

There is a practical way Tory voters can help, the Conservatives have realised. For just £3 anyone can sign up as a Labour supporter and a get a vote in the party’s leadership contest. On Twitter, Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, has already described getting the chance to help make the completely unelectable Jeremy Corbyn Labour leader as a notable bargain.

This Tories4JeremyCorbyn movement could take off. How long before someone establishes…

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Has traditional Government run its natural course?

The Jaded Jedi

Palace_of_Westminster,_London_-_Feb_2007

Much has changed in the 170 years since Charles Barry was successful with his competition entry to redesign the Houses of Parliament. The current buildings replaced the previous Parliamentary structures destroyed by fire in 1834.

The subsequent reconstruction of the embankments in the Victorian era may have done much to improve the tidal flow, flooding risk and sanitation of Westminster. However, it has done little to solidify the very ground on which the Palace of Westminster was built. Subsidence is already a known risk within parts of Parliament square, so much so that Big Ben is already leaning 18 inches from the perpendicular. The £1 billion pound bill likely to save the building could keep the Palace standing, however, it may be a metaphor for some of the deeper challenges facing the institution of Government itself.

Wolfie Wolfie Smith: Power to the people

For those who can remember uk tv comedies…

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The BBC, Impregnable Fortress of Conservative Bias?

Semi-Partisan Politics

owenjones

List your top three current threats to British national security and democracy.

What did you write down? Government electronic surveillance and public apathy toward the erosion of privacy? The government bullying a national newspaper into destroying its computers as a vengeful and intimidating act in response to the Edward Snowden leaks?

How about the government detaining relatives of journalists at the airport under risibly inappropriate anti-terrorism laws? Or maybe you cited Russia’s increasing assertiveness and Vladimir Putin’s apparent desire to reassemble the USSR? Islamic extremism and the threat of terrorism? Climate change? The Only Way Is Essex?

Not if you are Owen Jones, the ubiquitous, telegenic new face of left wing punditry and author of “Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class”. According to Jones, British democracy and journalism are most under threat from that evil right-wing juggernaut that extends into all of our homes – the BBC.

Jones has…

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