A long, rambling post about the Alternative Vote system…

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?”

On May 5th the UK goes to the polls again. There are elections for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Island regional governments, and to many (but not all) of the local councils. And there is a nation-wide referendum on the voting system used for national parliament elections. This post is going to be all about that, so non-UK readers may want to look away now…

Despite being one of the oldest established functional democracies in the world (the “mother of all parliaments”), the British are very rarely asked their opinion on the mechanisms of our democracy. The last referenda were for the establishment of the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly, over a decade ago. We have never voted on our voting system before. Where other systems are used (as in elections to the other regional parliaments/assemblies) they were imposed with the new body – there was never a separate question as to by which means said body should be elected. So now, for the first time, we are being asked the question above: should we choose ‘yes’ or ‘no’?

I’m always a little loth to tell people how to vote, but I’m not going to pretend I don’t have a strong opinion here. I do. So I might as well spit it out.

I intend to vote ‘yes’. I think everyone should vote ‘yes’. People should only vote ‘no’ if they honestly believe ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) is the preferred electoral system.

Yes, I know that there are a lot of questions not being asked here. We are not being asked if we would like an alternative voting system – we are being given a specific choice between two systems. We aren’t being asked if we think the current system is unfair, or if we would prefer a more proportional system. AV, for all its benefits and faults, is not Proportional Representation. We are not being asked if we would like more coalitions, more consensus politics, reform of the House or reform of the Lords.

Just if we prefer AV to FPTP.

Lets be honest, very few people think AV is the best electoral system. It is Labour’s preferred system, and the only reason Miliband is campaigning against it is because he thinks it will give him advantage in the council elections. A move to AV has been Labour policy for years, mainly because it increases the possibility of them winning Tory marginals in London and the South East. AV means that those who naturally vote for smaller parties might benefit the larger party with 2nd preference votes. It reduces (but does not eliminate) the need for tactical voting among 3rd and 4th party supporters.

Here’s a video explaining the two systems in question (in case you’re confused).

The Problem

In this country, we have an effective two-party system. Although there are many, many political parties governments, regionally and nationally, tend to swing between the Big Two. The current coalition government is the first such government in my lifetime. It is only the second such government in my parents’ lifetime. They don’t happen very often. Why? Because FPTP benefits the two party system.

Under FPTP the candidate with the majority of votes wins. Seems fair, right? Well, it is. Except that, in a multi-party system, the majority of votes might not be a majority.

If you have only two parties, A and B, then FPTP makes perfect sense, as whoever has the most votes wins. It even works reasonably well when you have three parties. But in most UK constituencies at a national election you have 4, 5 or more parties standing, often with independents as well. Suddenly it is conceivable, even likely, that more people will vote for all the other parties than for the guy wins. And this is even more likely to be true at the national level, on average votes across the country.

In all the UK national elections from 1950-2010, no single party has everwon a majority of votes. The highest proportion of votes was 49.7%, by the Conservative party in 1955. Yet, thanks to FPTP, majority governments have been formed in all but two of the elections in that 60-year period.
[sources from here and here]

That’s good, right?

Well, one of the best arguments for FPTP is that it tends to return ‘strong governments’ ie, majorities in parliament. The whole British political system is built on an adversarial, two party system, where the government is formed by the party of the majority, and the minority votes against majority (in almost all cases). Except that it isn’t. Not any more.

While the UK national parliament is still shaped like this, none of the regional bodies are. All of the others use either AV or PR to elect their representatives, and as a result have coalition- or minority- governments as the norm. So it’s not as if the Brits are unused to more representative forms of government…

And that’s the problem with FPTP; it’s not representative. In 1997, when Labour was elected with a majority of 179 MPs (a massive landslide), only 43.2% of voters actually voted for them. In 2005 they still had a majority of 66, despite their vote-share sinking to 35.2%. This is because FPTP means voters of smaller parties (or even the opposition, in safer seats) are essentially disenfranchised. Only the guy with the most votes wins, so everybody else’s vote doesn’t really count.

My vote has never counted. I’ve never voted for the ‘big two’ in a national election, but no-one other than the big two has ever stood a chance of winning in any of the constituencies I have voted in. So my vote has, essentially, never counted. The reality may even have been worse, as my voting for C may have enabled A to win, even though I would never, ever want them to be in power (because voting for C took possible votes away from B).

So does AV solve the problem?

Yes and no. AV gives voters the opportunity to rank our preferences, meaning that people can put smaller parties as their 1st choice without fear of being disenfranchised. I could vote for C (or even D) and, by putting B as my second choice, know that my vote could still prevent A from winning. Hopefully.

It’s really not perfect. In many constituencies, the traditional ‘safe seat’, the incumbent MP wins with more than 50% of votes anyway, so AV is unlikely to have an effect. And you could argue the AV actually increases the likelihood of ‘least worst’ candidates getting elected. We’d end up with a parliament full of unobjectionable mediocre-ness. A whole parliament of Milibands. Scary.

And, of course, there is the fact that, under AV, hung parliaments and coalition governments are more likely to occur. And people aren’t very happy with the current lot…

Why you should vote ‘yes’

So, there are lots of imperfections about this referendum. It’s not the question we’d like to be asked, and the Alternative Vote is not the alternative system we would like to be given. But, it is the question we have before us, and it is an opportunity to change our democracy, if only a little bit. I think you should vote ‘yes’ on May 5th, because:

  • The current system isn’t representative – around 30% of voters don’t vote for the ‘big two’ parties. Their votes and opinions are largely unrepresented at a national level
  • It’s better than a poke in the eye… – AV may not be our preferred alternative voting system, but it is an alternative. It is a change to something that is slightly fairer, and that change is better than no change at all
  • We might not get a second chance – the only reason we have this vote, is because the last election did not return a majority. Electoral reform has been ‘on the agenda’ for a generation (or more), but this is the first time we’ve had a vote. That’s because it’s not in the interest of incumbents to change the system which brought them into power. There is a real danger that a ‘no’ vote will take electoral reform off the table until there is another uncertain election result which, on past performance, might not be for another 20, 30, or 40 years.
  • This might lead to further reform – yes, it’s a bit of a reach, but for those that desire a form of proportional representation, voting ‘yes’ is your best chance. AV increases the likelihood of smaller parties having a voice in parliament (or at least at election time), making it more likely that the question of electoral reform could return in the near future. Also, a successful implementation of AV would make it harder for naysayers to argue that the public can’t handle further change.

But isn’t Coalition politics a bad thing?

A lot of people seem to dislike the current coalition government. They are especially pissed off at a certain Mr Clegg for going into government with the Big Blue Toff Mr David Cameron. They think that was a bad idea, and are feeling a little hurt and disenchanted.

Fair enough. If you vote oranges and get apples, you have a right to feel a little peeved, especially if the leader of oranges has helped the apples form a government. But voting against AV in the referendum because you’re feeling narked? Grow up!

Voting against all coalitions because you dislike this one is a little daft, don’t you think? Especially as, if this coalition hadn’t happened, all you would have had was a minority apple government, which isn’t much better (and could have been worse).

Coalition government actually works very well all over the world. It works in Scotland, and Wales and incredibly, unprecedentedly successfully in Northern Ireland, where it is ensuring peace and stability after generations of conflict. It is the norm in most European nations. Coalitions mean that the full desires of any one party are unlikely to occur, but a moderate mix of policies from all coalition parties are likely instead. Which doesn’t seem so bad, does it? We’re just not that used to it, yet.

As peeved as you are with Mr Clegg, remember that next time it could be Lib-Lab, or Lab-Green (or even Lab-Tory). And that at the next general election, it is very likely that the Very Annoyed Students of Sheffield will see him lose his seat anyway. Be careful, when choosing how to vote, that you don’t end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

But won’t AV be very expensive?

No. No-one who knows about these things expects AV to cost any appreciable amount more than FPTP. Only idiots and scaremongers think otherwise.

Isn’t AV more confusing?

Really? You really think that putting a 1, 2 or 3 beside a candidates name is more confusing than putting an X? You already do it in regional elections, European elections, mayoral elections… All the confusion is with the counters, and I think they are paid well enough to know what they are doing.

Isn’t AV a championing of mediocrity?

So one friend has argued. Um, maybe. But I for one don’t think that’s a bad thing. I would rather have a moderate, cautious middle in power than a pendulum swinging between radical reformers. I think a lot of damage has been done to our health and education systems, in particular, by that pendulum’s swing.

Couldn’t you have said all of this in a shorter, punchier fashion?

Um, yes. Sorry. But I’m on holiday…

Here’s a summary:

  • AV or FPTP is the vote on the table. Of the two, I think most of us would say AV, and should.
  • It isn’t more expensive, it isn’t confusing
  • AV is fairer and more representative than FPTP
  • A ‘yes’ vote opens the door for further electoral reform in the future
  • A ‘no’ vote will likely close it for a generation
  • If you want to ‘punish’ Nick Clegg, wait for the general election or, if you must, use the council elections. This vote isn’t about him.
  • Coalition politics actually works really well around the world. We should have more of it, not less.

The Nick and Dave Show…

spot the differenceSo, we have a coalition. A left-right coalition. An unholy union. A new dawn in British political theatre.

And theatre it has been. Very entertaining. I have never known friends so exercised on Westminster gossip and minutiae. Fascinating.

I’m not going to say much, other than that this is obviously not the outcome that anybody wanted. So everyone is somewhat peeved. Well, in the words of Harry Enfield: “Calm down! Calm down!” You never know people, this might actually work…

I never wanted the wax-faced toff in power and neither did (nearly) anyone I know. But it was always the most likely outcome. And to be honest, I’d rather have my Blue diluted with a bit of yellow. A big, heavy dose of yellow. And this means we might actually have a chance of getting that…

The losers in all of this are undoubtedly Labour. The LibDems spoke to both sides and seemed to have done so in a relatively open way, taking similar-if-not-identical attitudes of give/take and redlines. For reasons that utterly escape me, the Conservatives treated the ‘Dems as potential honest partners, and gave way too. Labour didn’t.

Why that is, we will probably never know for sure. But it smacks of the arrogance and infighting that have characterised much of Labour’s last few years, and proved them unworthy of consensus, or even old-style-adversarial politics. It was unbelievable behaviour, considering they had no hope of governing without a Liberal partnership, and, to be honest, it leaves me hating them more. They aren’t just tired, they’re broken. I hope they take their bitterness and crawl into a dark corner of the House of Commons and die a festering death. We can do without them.

That leaves the coalition. What will happen? Will it work? Will anyone like the outcome? Probably not. But it’s a damn sight better than all the other possibilities we’ve been offered recently.

And it makes for good TV…

Vote!

It’s coming right down to the wire. According to some polls, a full 40% of people haven’t made up their minds yet. How exciting is that?!

Well, I just want to say, whoever you vote for, please go and vote. This time, it really, really does matter. This election result isn’t predicted long in advance. It hasn’t all be sown up by the newspapers and politicos. No one, not even the bookies, know how this one is going to play out.

Don’t vote tactically. Vote for who you believe in (or whoever come closest). The share of the vote  will be hugely important this time round, as well as the number of seats. If whoever has most seats has less than 30% of the vote (easily conceivable at this point), that will put a huge impetus behind the drive for electoral reform. And surely we all want that…

A couple of things to cheer you in your decision making. First, this excellent Spotify election playlist sent to me (but not created) by my friend Liz. And second, a subtle hint on who I would prefer you not to vote for…

Electioneering pt II

OK, all this rubbish about a “hung parliament” is beginning to piss me off.

Conservative Grandee Ken Clarke is claiming today that a hung parliament would be a disaster for the markets (and hence the country) and that the IMF would have to intervene! I have never heard anything so ridiculous.

The UK has had hung parliaments before. At their worse, it results in another election within 6 months. But that is really, really not a likely outcome. Because all the main parties now have a lot of experience in operating in parliaments with “no overall control”, something that was less true in ’74. Why? Well, both Scotland and Wales have had hung parliaments, consensus politics and minority governments. And got a lot done. Sure, a lot of horse-trading gets done, but that’s no bad thing. Keeping parliamentarians fighting among themselves in Westminster for a while prevents them from doing any damage to the country…

The very idea that our elected representatives would be incapable of sitting down and negotiating a settlement of some description is absurd. They even have a coalition government in Northern Island! The idea that Labour and the Conservatives are somehow more ideologically disparate and irreconcilable than Sinn Fein and the DUP is utterly, utterly mind-bogging.

So don’t worry about a hung parliament. Yes, it will slow down legislation. Yes, there will be lots of horse-trading. But that’s about all – somehow an administration will be formed, either with a coalition or a minority government. And as a result, the pace of legislation will slow (no bad thing: 12 Education White Papers in 12 years can’t be good – and that’s just under Labour), and it is far more likely that what legislation is passed actually matches the “will of the people”, because it will have to incorporate the views of more parties.

Surely, all that’s good?

***

The other horses**t going around at the moment is people saying “a vote for LibDems is a vote for Labour” (or a vote for the conservatives), or saying that change isn’t possible because of “safe seats”. Rubbish. Complete and utter b****cks.

Lets be clear. You vote for who you want to. If you think your MP is a corrupt idiot who’s diddled their expenses (all too likely given events in recent years), then DON’T VOTE FOR THEM! No MP’s seat is “safe” because they are totally at the mercy of the will of the people. That’s you. And me.

Vote for who you want not who you tactically think you “should” vote for. This election is up in the air enough that anything is possible. Really. Anything. Even a LibDem victory. You just have to get out there and vote for them.

Go on then!

Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi

Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi is free. Causing a bit of a controversy, that. The one man convicted of Britain’s worse terrorist incident, the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, has been freed on compassionate grounds by the Scottish authorities. And pretty much everybody is complaining about it.

I’ve taken a bit of a break from blogging on political issues in the last year or so. There have been many significant political events and controversies over the last twelve months, but I’ve bit my tongue and held my silence. Perhaps I should do that in this case too, or perhaps I’m ready to reengage with my former, ranting, self. Who knows; but I’m diving in here…

As far as I can work it out, the political decision was based on a recommendation by the judicial authorities, by the court and the parole board. There were also some representations from the police about the cost of necessary policing, were Megrahi released into Scotland instead of to Libya. The controversy? The controversy seems to be that the Scottish Justice secretary followed the advice given, and went with the recommendations of the parole board, and granted a compassionate release, because Megrahi is dying of cancer.

The Americans, especially, are rather pissed off. This tends to happen, in cases like this. As far as I can work out, America has a different understanding of “justice” than we do. In that they seem to replace the word with “vengeance” in most cases.

As I’ve said in the past, vengeance and justice are not the same things. It is not legitimate to kill terrorists, because they have killed people. It is not legitimate to deny compassion to a prisoner that we believe did not give compassion to others. The point of the law is to remove the natural desire for retribution, by providing a fair, impartial judgement and handing down a statutory sentence. It is fair because it is impartial and it is impersonal. The decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, and the feelings of the victims, or of the general public, are essentially irrelevant.

If a public minister, such as Kenny MacAskill, changes an impartial decision of justice because of the emotive feelings of the general public (or the equally emotive desires of a foreign government) it fundamentally changes the nature of the justice system. It can’t happen. If it did happen, it would be very, very wrong.

Of course we are appalled by the Lockerbie bombing. Of course we wish the perpetrator brought to justice. We may even feel, very naturally and understandably, a wish for some form of vengeance.

Questions over Megrahi’s guilt aside, there has been justice here: there has been a trial, a conviction and a sentence, a large part of which has been served. Perhaps Megrahi should have died in prison, but compassionate release, on medical grounds, is a right afforded to every prisoner under Scottish law, provided they meet the relevant conditions. Obviously, Megrahi did. To not grant him the release that is his by right, would be fundamentally unjust.

So, the American’s can go whine. I don’t care. Perhaps MacAskill can buy Clinton a dictionary, and helpfully flag the word Justice for her. It is the UK politicians I am appalled by, who seem to have decided, almost unanimously, that the opinions of the Sun and the Daily Mail are more important than actual justice. To them, I have two words:

Grow up.

Vote!

Its May Day, it’s Fiona Parker’s birthday, and its time for elections!
If you’re in London, you can exercise your democratic rights by voting for the Mayor, the Policeman, or the Blonde Imbecile (not that I’m trying to influence you or anything).

If you live in London and don’t vote today, then you have no right to complain about whatever bad decisions the man in City Hall makes over the next 4 years. Polling stations are open from 7am – 10pm, so you really have no excuse.

Get out there and vote!

Staring down a microscope too long gives you tunnel vision

So, much in the news this last weekend about Catholic bishops criticising the forthcoming embryology bill… The issue? Mainly that of making human-animal ‘hybrids’; scientists say its good progress, and will help develop useful new treatments; the bishops didn’t like it, one going so far as to call it ‘Frankensteinish’. 

Since then, there has been much too-ing and fro-ing between scientists, clergy and politicians on this issue. [Some key quotes can be found here.] This is a thorny issue and I don’t want to go in to it too much, because I have neither the time nor the ability to treat it with the care it deserves. What I do want to comment on is the fundamental difference in perspective between the bishops and the scientists, which was touched on by the Today programme this morning, and can’t be over-emphasised.

When a scientist in this field looks down their microscope at the small bundle of cells they are working on, they see a small bundle of cells. These are the Lego-bricks of life, but grouped together in too small a bunch to actually build anything. To the scientist these amazing micro machines are of great interest, even wonder, but the difference between a small bundle of cells (with no opportunity of implantation) and a human being is immense.

For many people of a religious persuasion (and in fact, for many non-religious people of non-scientific backgrounds), when they look down the microscope at the same bundle of cells they see something similar, and yet profoundly different. They look at the same cells with the same wonder and interest, but see something more: they see life, or at least the potential to become life. That potential is in itself something sacred, something of great mystery. Whether those few cells constitute life or not may be up for debate, but if those few cells were implanted in a womb they could continue to grow and divide and develop and become something wholly more wondrous.

For many people of a religious persuasion, the idea of experimenting on these cells is already a controversial, to some even immoral, one. This is especially true when the cells in question are of human origin; especially human embryonic origin. How can we treat as mere mechanisms the very cells from which we all began? Those that in a different context could well become another person like ourselves?

The suggestions in the bill coming before parliament take this already-thorny issue much further, by legislating the provision of creating chimera from the fusion of human adult cells and animal (probably bovine) eggs.

To the scientist, these chimera are merely useful alternative mechanisms on which to test their theories. An egg, stripped of its DNA is to them simply a vessel in which the mechanics of the human cell can function; the blank framework in which to mount the cogs. The resultant ‘cell’ is to them no different from the other cells on which they work, because all these cells they see down their microscopes are the same Lego bricks, the same clockwork contraptions.

I wonder if the scientists are actually able to understand the opposition from the Catholic bishops and others? Most of the reporting I have heard over the weekend suggests that those questioned simply think the issue is of a lack of appropriate education on the part of the bishops: if the science was only properly explained to them then they couldn’t possibly object so vociferously…

To me, this shows a fundamental inability to grasp the basis of the disagreement. I really don’t believe that those bishops that have spoken out have failed to understand the situation. I think they understand the science perfectly (or at least, as perfectly as any laymen can). It seems to me that it is those scientists that have been in the news that have the lack of understanding, because they have quite evidently failed to comprehend the basis of their opponents position.

If you look at a bundle of cells down a microscope and see them as devoid of life (in a meaningful, rather than technical sense), then there are going to be few manipulations of those cells that you would object to on a moral basis. In fact, it would be quite hard for you to connect that small bundle of cells with the concept of morals at all. If you look down that microscope and see something greater than the sum of the parts, see some however-distant reflection of yourself, then you are going to believe quite strongly that there needs to be a moral basis to working with such cells; that there are possible manipulations that should not be permitted.

While there have been many in the news who have criticised the bishops position, it is the voices of the scientists that I have heard that I feel I must criticise. Gentlemen, please lift your gaze up from your microscopes, rub your eyes, and try and understand the world around you. There are many, religious and non, in our society who have great qualms with the work that you do, because they fail to separate themselves from the small bundles of cells you work with as fully as you do. Please try to understand that, before you dismiss the objections of your detractors.