Let’s make up and be friendly

Posted on May 18th, 2010 in Politics | No Comments »

So, it’s a Lib-Con coalition. Hooray! Everyone’s done the grown-up thing for the sake of the country and for the sake of a strong and stable government. And just to make sure it’s really, really stable, there won’t be another election for five years, since the new government has changed the rules and introduced fixed terms. In fact, it’s even more stable than that since the other rule-change which has whizzed by is that you now need 55% of the commons voting with you to topple the government. This apparently arbitrary figure just happens to ensure that the Tories will stay in power even if every single Lib Dem MP joins forces with Labour and votes against them. Funny that.

I mention all this, not simply as an expression of sour grapes, but because further electoral reform is likely and it’s worth looking at some of the different options which are being considered. I’m not going to bore you with the difference between Alternative Vote and Single Transferable Vote, (although god knows I could thanks to many ill-spent days and nights hacking around my student union where such things were talked of with the excitement I now reserve for a new iPhone), I’m going to take a considerably wider view, beginning with just what is so “broken” about the current system anyway.

Basically, there aren’t that many votes which actually matter in a UK general election. Only about 26 million people voted this time round (out of about 40 million who were eligible, a 65% turnout). Of those 26 million, the great majority – like me – will always vote for the same party, come what may. We don’t decide the election, only the floating voters do. But of the 650 parliamentary seats, the majority are safe. At the last election only 100-odd actually changed hands. So, politicians are attempting to influence the 500,000 or so voters who are going to vote, and are undecided, and live in marginal constituencies. The rest of us might as well not bother turning up, except to keep the BNP out.

So some voters are understandably peeved that their vote hasn’t really affected the outcome all that much, but this peeve is a trifle compared to the staggering injustice which Nick Clegg believes that the electoral system has dealt him – 23% of the popular vote, but only 9% of the parliamentary seats? In fact, such are the vagaries of our first-past-the-post system that although their share of the vote went up (by just less than 1%), they ended up with a net loss of five seats. The injustice of it all!

Now, you might argue that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats have actually done all right out of first-past-the-post this time round, given that they have around half-a-dozen cabinet positions and Clegg himself is now deputy PM. You might also argue that the Lib Dems are moaning about a problem which is somewhat, if not entirely, one of their own making – if there was no significant third party, the distribution of seats in the House of Commons between Labour and Conservative would much more closely resemble the distribution of votes in the country. In other words, the Liberal Democrats could come pretty damned close to proportional representation without any complicated change to the voting system or the role of MPs, just by giving up and disbanding.

This of course is not going to happen, and here it becomes important to state the Golden Rule of Electoral Reform, which is that anyone in politics who is advocating a particular system of voting (including the existing one) is almost certainly advocating the system which would be most advantageous to them and their party, regardless what justification they give. Hence, the Liberal Democrats want a strictly proportional system, which would gain them about ninety seats. Not surprisingly, neither the Tories nor Labour want such a system as the Lib Dems’ gain is their loss.

The Tories, despite long-standing opposition to electoral reform, appeared to be offering an olive branch to the Lib Dems on this issue with David Cameron saying that he would like to see fewer MPs and constituencies of equal population sizes. Ignoring for the moment quite how it is possible to claim that anyone’s vote can count for more if the number of representatives is significantly reduced, a look at what I must call “the electoral math” reveals why. Conservatives tend to win big majorities in large, rural constituencies. Labour politicians tend to win by smaller majorities in smaller urban seats – they use their voters more efficiently. Cameron’s plan effectively means taking pairs of small Labour-held seats and pushing them together to make one Tory-sized seat, costing Labour one MP in the House of Commons every time they do it. Not surprisingly, Labour isn’t keen on this plan, and it is unlikely to help the Lib Dems out much either.

So, Labour voters (like me) favour the status quo, which – on some calculations – would hand Labour a small but workable outright majority if the votes across the country were split exactly equally across the three parties. This is not what we tell people in wine bars, however. What we generally tell people is that given the tribal, adversarial nature of our political system, where opposition parties will tend to oppose anything the government proposes simply to test those proposals, hung parliaments tend to lead to instability, indecision and deadlock. If we don’t want a rudderless ship of state, we need an electoral system which will deliver a decisive outcome and hand the party with the most support in the country a clear mandate and the political tools to get its legislation passed.

And history shows us that most attempts to run Britain in a cross-party fashion have been short-lived failures, which is why – up till recently – I’ve been banging the drum of “decisive outcome” vs “making every vote count”, pointing out that almost any proportional system would deliver a hung parliament at pretty much every election (so why is it only now that this has happened that people are saying that the current system is broken and must be fixed?). However, looking at what is actually happening at number ten at the moment, I wonder…

Politics in Britain has changed in the last thirty years. Tony Blair essentially conceded that the right had won the economic argument. Free market – yes; all-powerful unions – no; get rid of that embarrassing business about the workers controlling the means of production from the party constitution and we’re all set. It worked. New Labour was seen as a friend to business, a chum of the City and stayed in power for three historic terms. After several years of flailing about, shellshocked, the Conservatives had little option but to concede that the left had won the social argument. NHS – yes; safety net for society’s least fortunate – you betcha; and hey presto suddenly they aren’t The Nasty Party anymore.

This leaves precious little left in the way of ideology to argue about, and this does give me hope for the future of the Lib-Con Coalition. It’s not quite Lab-Con, but given that Nick Clegg’s an old Etonian toff (oh okay, he went to Westminster School, but that’s not as catchy) whose first job in politics was working for Leon Brittan, but whose party is generally seen as rather to the left of New Labour, it does sort of balance out. Far from electing the party whose spirit and values is most aligned with theirs, I think many of those undecided voters will feel like they are trying to pick the most capable management team and may be wondering why they have to pick all the people with red rosettes vs all the people in blue rosettes. Can’t they pick-and-choose?

Turns out, you can, if you’re Cleggeron. And this means that cabinet meeting might start to mean something again. And more than that – if you have to convince someone of the rightness of your policy and that someone is fundamentally motivated through years of conditioning to disagree with everything you say, then there’s a chance that we could get policy-making which is genuinely for the good of the country, and might even be evidence-based rather than locked to ideology. Now there’s a thought.

275 / 250 / 85 follow up

Posted on May 7th, 2010 in Politics | No Comments »

Well this is pretty much as I predicted, except that the Silly Party won. I think this is largely due to the number of votes cast.

To be fair to me, my prediction wasn’t quite as bad as that. With all 649 contested seats now having returned results (the Thirsk and Malton election will be re-run on 27 May following the death of a candidate) the final results are in fact 306 / 258 / 57. This means that about 30 seats I thought would go to the Lib Dems actually went to the Tories, outside my self-declared margin of error of 20. My prediction for Labour was pretty much spot-on, however, and so is what I called the overall narrative of the result. The Conservatives are the biggest overall party, but neither party has enough for a stable government without help from the Lib Dems.

However, the stunning collapse of Lib Dem vote (in terms of seats won) also means that the third party is a slightly less significant force when it comes to the Making of Kings, since now even with a stable Lib Dem coalition, Labour still can’t pass the 326 seat winning line without help from other minority parties. This may explain Cameron’s eager overtures compared to Brown’s rather more subdued approaches as each of the two parties with the most support in the country, and the most seats in the House of Commons effectively beg permission to govern of the party who came third. Ain’t democracy grand?

It may also be instructive to compare the actual result to the exit poll released at 10:00pm last night. This mighty exercise – for the first time a coproduction between Sky, ITV and the BBC was generally derided by pundits on its unveiling. None of the Party spokespeople wheeled in front of the cameras by any of the broadcasters had anything good to say about the poll, all proclaiming that it would be hopelessly incorrect and that it was pointless to speculate. However history will show that it was stunningly close. Off by just one for the Conservatives, three for Labour and two for the Lib Dems. Kudos to the real pollsters who actually know what they’re doing.

Finally, no matter how this all shakes down over the next week or so, I think the real losers in this election are the Lib Dems. True, the Tories did not win the outright majority they hoped for, but they are the largest party by a substantial margin and could probably hold a minority government together if they strike a couple of deals here-and-there. A good result by any standard. But nor was this a rout for Labour. The strength of the core Labour vote not only held the Tories back from the brink of victory but also curbed the Lib Dem surge. After three terms in office, and having survived a punishing recession, this is a very good showing. The Lib Dems however had their most lavish and successful exposure on the stage of British politics since their inception and yet not only failed to capitalise on it, they actually lost seats.

Of course, you can also interpret these results as a damning of our first-past-the-post electoral system. My thoughts on that are best left to another post. For now, with the rest of the country, I wait to see what the result of the result will be.

PS – come and see Horse Aquarium tonight at the Hen and Chickens 9:30pm to take your mind off this mess. Three improvisers, your suggestions, one hour, lots of laughs.

275 / 250 / 85

Posted on May 5th, 2010 in Politics | 2 Comments »

Following my stunning lack of success with the Oscars, I am determined to do at least as well, if not worse, when it comes to the General Election. Based on a thoroughly unscientific method of looking and some recent polls, and letting gut feeling do the rest, here’s my prediction of the numbers of seats each of the major parties will win tomorrow…

Conservative: 275

Labour: 250

Lib Dems: 85

While I would not be a bit surprised if these numbers turn out to be quite badly wrong, I would be quite alarmed if the overall narrative changed significantly. That is to say, I am fairly confident that…

  • The Conservatives will win the most seats
  • But will not win an overall majority (on the figures above, they are short by around 50 seats)
  • The Lib Dems will not crack treble figures (or if they do, not by much)
  • Despite having an increased share of the vote
  • And they will become the kingmakers in the new Parliament.

Or to put it another way, my figures are plus-or-minus about 20.

Both because this kind of outcome will shine a harsh light on our first-past-the-post-elect-your-local-constituency-MP-directly system, and because they rarely shut up about it (except when tactical voting boosts the number of seats they can win) the Lib Dems will be in a tremendously strong position to make electoral reform a key part of any coalition deal they might make. This in turn means a deal with Labour, not the Tories, even though Nick Clegg is basically a Tory at heart, since the Tories will never agree to electoral reform (nor could they stomach an alliance with such a Eurofriendly party).

Electoral reform almost certainly means the end of decisive victories in the House of Commons (as well as an end to directly electing your local representative) and so every general election henceforth will deliver the same outcome – of the three main parties, the one with the fewest elected representatives, becomes the party which decides who will govern.

And remember, when this happens, the Lib Dems told you it was in the name of democracy!

Oh, and in the mean time, if you haven’t seen this, then you should.