Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 27 March 2011

When will the Tories change their leadership elections to FPTP?

In the last few months I have lost count of the number of senior Conservatives who have gone on the record as claiming that AV gives some voters "more than one vote". Indeed the No2AV campaign which is being led from the front by the Conservatives is soon to launch their next phase entitled "Keep One Person One Vote". Look, Matthew Elliot the No2AV campaigns director has just been given a plum spot on ConservativeHome today to evangelise about this.

Now I have always thought this argument is a load of rubbish. AV just gives one vote to each person but that vote is transferable. It means all electors have the chance to have their say about who is ultimately elected by being able to express a preference about who is chosen from candidates in later rounds even if their initial first (or second etc.) choice is eliminated.

The funny thing is that the Conservative Party understands this as well. Given their blanket statements about how preferential systems give "more than one vote" they actually use a preferential system to elect their own leaders.

The rules are that there are a number of rounds in which all Conservative MPs can vote and each round the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. This continues until there are just two candidates left and these then go forward to a ballot of the party membership in the country.

OK, I grant you it is not identical to AV but it certainly shares similar hallmarks and is far closer to AV than FPTP. But one thing that cannot be disputed is that the Conservative leadership election rules by their own terms give the voters in the initial rounds "more than one vote".

In the 2005 Conservative leadership election there were two rounds of MP voting before the candidates were whittled down to two to go to the country. In the first round the results were:

David Davis: 31.3%
David Cameron: 28.3%
Liam Fox: 21.2%
Ken Clarke: 19.2%

So Ken Clarke was eliminated and the MPs got to vote all over again.

But hang on a minute! That means that all the MPs who voted for Ken Clarke who was eliminated got "more than one vote". They were able to go on to vote for one of the candidates who still remained in the contest. That is precisely what the Conservatives are claiming is anti-democratic now and why we should keep First Past The Post.

I know people will say that the systems are different and also claim that it is invalid to compare electing a party leader to electing an MP but I am afraid that does not wash. The Conservatives and the No2AV campaign have made it very clear that it is fundamental point of principle that in an election no voter should have "more than one vote". There is no difference between electing a leader and electing an MP when it comes to fundamental points of principle.

So to give the Conservatives the benefit of the doubt for a minute, perhaps they have not really realised until now how anti-democratic (by their own terms) their leadership election rules are. Fair enough, everyone makes mistakes. But now that pretty much every Conservative cabinet minister has been banging on for months about how voters should not be allowed "more than one vote" there is no further defence of their leadership election system that will cut any ice. It is imperative that they change the system to First Past The Post. The only way they can avoid the terrible consequences that they themselves have highlighted in future leadership elections is to put all candidates immediately to a ballot of the party in the country where each voter only gets to mark an X against the candidate they want to win.

Of course doing it this way might mean that their leader only has the support of a third or perhaps less of the electorate (a bit like we get with some MPs now) but that is a small price to pay to ensure that no voters get "more than one vote".

The fact that the Conservatives have made no moves at all to change their leadership election rules in the light of what they must surely understand is a serious anomaly I think tells you all you need to know about how much they really believe that preferential voting breaches some fundamental democratic principle. Indeed it makes it clear that they understand the value of allowing every member of an electorate the chance to influence which candidates go through to the final round.

We should judge the Conservatives by their actions, not their words. And by their actions with respect to their own leadership elections they damn one of their main arguments against AV.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Moving the centre of political gravity

My friend Emma from off of Scarlet Standard wrote a blogpost the other day entitled: "What is the Cause of Labour’s Cuts Problem?". I'm not going to try and answer that in detail here, but something Emma mentioned in her post regarding how a majority of the public still appear to blame Labour for the cuts got me thinking:

The problem I have, is that we don’t know why they blame us.

Do they blame us because the Tory narrative that we overspent on public services has caught on? It’s a populist narrative that probably does have a lot of traction despite both a lack of serious veracity and the fact that until the crash the Tories were planning to match us for spending.

It is (sort of) true that until the crash the Conservatives were planning to match Labour for spending. I say sort of because they were talking about "sharing the proceeds of growth" which I always took as a tacit signal they would be looking to alter the balance of spending and taxation even if only marginally (at first!).

But what the comments above fail to take into account is how the political centre ground gets moved by a government once in office. Labour in government were very adept at doing this not least in the language they used. They always characterised spending as investment and any opposition from the Conservatives to any individual spending commitments was always characterised as mean spirited and often described with labels such as "same old Tories". Almost irrespective of whether there may have have been good arguments against some of the spending such as it might have been cost ineffective etc.

I am not casting value judgements on any of this by the way, just observing that is what happened.

So Labour managed to move the centre ground of politics onto their investment territory leaving the opposition with little choice in the end (after 3 election defeats) to talk the same language and eventually even promise very similar policies to them.

The Conservatives had managed a similar trick in the mid-90s. After 4 bruising election defeats for Labour, when Tony Blair took over in 1994 he set about trying to neutralise the Tory charge of Labour hiking up taxes (the centre ground was in a different place then) by promising to match Tory economic plans for the first two years of a Labour government.

But over the course of the 13 years following Labour's 1997 victory despite a tentative start they did eventually succeed in increasing public spending overall by quite large amounts in the end. Just because the initial signals they sent in opposition implied they would not do this, I think most people recognised that if you get a Labour government they will try and shift the balance towards more public spending.

I think the same situation happened in reverse in the last few years. Cameron (as is his wont) very closely followed the Blair play book by trying to hitch himself and his party to Labour's spending commitments. Not because he had any deep convictions that it was the right thing to do but for politically expedient reasons. It was only the economic crisis that interrupted this plan and caused him and his government to reduce spending as dramatically as they have done. And to be fair, Labour would have reduced spending quite dramatically too, just not as much. That of course would have been them keeping the centre ground positioned more in their direction.

So to unpack Emma's comments a little bit further, the problem I have is that I do not understand why she does not understand why people still blame Labour. It was Labour who had been in power for over a decade when the crisis hit. They had been in control of where the political centre ground was. Blair (and to be fair Brown) were past masters as it. Cameron was only promising to match Labour spending because that is where that centre of political gravity was.

If you don't believe me, try a little thought experiment. Would public spending have been at the same level as it was in 2007/2008 if Michael Howard had won the 2005 election? Or if William Hague had won the 2001 election?

It is only fair that Labour take their share of the blame for the cuts that are needed now given that it was their government that was presiding when the crisis hit and their levels of spending facilitated by their political acumen.

If Labour are looking for some comfort from the current situation though it is that the electorate tend to have fairly short memories. I confidently predict that as the cuts really start to bite it will be the current government that moves into blame pole position and that will continue to get worse over the next 2 or 3 years.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Why NI and income tax rates should be harmonised

I was going to write a long post about how our currently overly complex tax system is crying out for simplification and that despite the fact that there will doubtless be some anomalies that need to be ironed out, the putative harmonisation of NI and income tax rates would be a good thing.

And then I came across this post on the Adam Smith Institute blog with this table describing NI and tax rates when currently taken together that illustrates more eloquently than I could articulate in words why the current situation is crazy:

Thursday, 17 March 2011

If Cameron can't explain AV his education was wasted #Yes2AV

Something in David Cameron's anti-AV speech a few weeks back stood out for me:

It's not my job to tell you exactly how the system works - that's for the 'yes' campaign to explain.

But even if it was my job, I'll be honest with you, I don't think I could.

David Cameron got a first class honours degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford University. He was taught by Vernon Bogdanor, one of the UK's foremost experts on constitutional matters. It seems rather implausible that someone could get that qualification, from that university and then not be able to explain how a relatively simple electoral system works (there are far more complicated ones out there).

One of the things that has happened in the last few decades in political life is that the upper echelons of all the main political parties have become disproportionately filled with people who have been down the Oxbridge PPE route and/or those who have been political bag carriers. Whilst I am very unhappy with this, one consolation is that at the very least they should all be fully aware of things like political and electoral systems and be able to communicate this information to the electorate. After all, being a good communicator is one of the most fundamental skills a politician needs.

So for Cameron to blithely claim he is not able to explain AV suggests one of two things to me. Either he is not being honest, or his extremely privileged education was wasted on him.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

No2A Balanced Debate

On Thursday evening I attended what was billed as a "Fair, Impartial AV Referendum Debate" in Reading.

I had been anticipating a balanced debate where well informed and experienced campaigners from both sides locked horns and I hoped to hear some thought provoking arguments. Although I am already decided as a "Yes" I am still interested to hear principled arguments from both sides and to try myself to engage in this sort of thing.

However the event turned out to be anything but balanced. It seems that the debate was actually organised by the "No" side. I unfortunately arrived just as it was starting so didn't have time to speak to anyone beforehand but the "Yes" side had not sent anyone to the debate. I thought this was a bit odd at first but as I have subsequently discovered each time these "No" organised debates take place, an official invite is only sent to the "Yes" camp on the morning or afternoon of the debate itself (*see update below for the "No" camp's response to this). So given such short notice and the way they are organised it is not altogether surprising that they do not send people.

So the line up was:

For the "No" side:

Mark McDonald, a human rights lawyer.
Sam Gyimah, Conservative MP for East Surrey.

For the "Yes" side:

Charles Hindhaugh, a year 13 student from Reading school who was pulled in from the audience at the last minute.

I think you can see where this is going.

Both Mark and Sam are clearly very experienced debaters. They pitched their cases which to my mind contained the odd fair point but mainly lots of spurious and in some cases totally misleading information. But packaged very well and of course with all their experience they were able to use debating tactics to sidestep rebuttals and change tack deftly when necessary.

Charles on the other hand is an 18 year old schoolboy. He did his very best and frankly I was impressed with what he managed to do given his age and the fact he had had about 1 minute to prepare but inevitably some of the very reasonable points he tried to make got a bit lost and he did seem to lose his train of thought at times. Completely understandably mind. I very much doubt as an unprepared 18 year old schoolboy facing a Member of Parliament and a human rights lawyer I would have been able to do any better.

At first I thought that despite the clear imbalance on the panel, once the debate was opened up to the floor it would be possible for members of the audience to redress this. And those of us in the "Yes" camp in the audience did try. However the dynamics of the structure of the debate very strongly mitigated against us. Every time someone from the audience got a minute or two to make a point, the panel then got at least as much time to respond and because the panel, with the microphones and the advantage of the platform was biased in numbers and strength in favour of "No" the "Yes" argument struggled to get a fair hearing.

I was one of those who tried and I made a couple of points regarding the 50% threshold that Sam made great play about and also tried to skewer the cost argument. To be perfectly honest my contribution was not the best. Had I been on the platform I would have prepared and also brought a pen and pad with me to make notes. Instead I was trying to respond to points from memory from the audience. I do not think they responded to my 50% point and my cost argument was effectively ignored as Mark continued to claim it would cost over £200 million and also derided by point about Women's Suffrage (which I have made before here) which is easy to misrepresent and of course I had no real come-back once the microphone was taken from me. When I did try later to chip in and rebut his continuing misrepresentation of the facts he was able to then portray me as a heckler whose interventions were out of order in the format. He was also able to do this with others who tried similar interventions. In a way he was right of course. I was just an audience member. But the complete imbalance in the panel made a mockery of the usual rules of a fair debate.

I am sorry to say that after less than an hour I had had enough of this farce and I left.

I think what annoyed me most is that I have very little free time these days and this turned out to be a complete waste of it. I was interested in seeing an impartial and balanced debate and what we got was a travesty of this. I expect No2AV campaigners will claim that the "Yes" side should have sent people but from everything I can tell the late invitations and the whole structure of the way these events are set up are an attempt to maximise the chance that this will not happen.

To anyone else from either side or from a neutral perspective thinking of attending a local debate, I would strongly urge you not to attend any debates organised by the "No" camp. They are the ones listed on the website.

Unless of course you want what is effectively a rally for the "No" side. In which case fill your boots.

If you want to watch a video of the Reading "debate" from Thursday and judge for yourself, it is available here. I am the bloke on the front row who gets involved about half way through.

*UPDATE 14/03/2011: @LaraSmallman on Twitter has drawn my attention to the following claim by the "No" camp that they had actually invited the "Yes" camp to their debates back in January. I only reported what I had heard but in the interests of fairness here is a link to the "No" camp's post on this subject.

PS: Incidentally I didn't see this Liberal Conspiracy post until after I got back from the debate on Thursday evening and @JamesGraham on Twitter told me about it. Had I seen it and realised the nature of what I was walking into I almost certainly would not have bothered.

PPS: I have had my attention drawn to another review of the event by PoplarMark here. He thinks my intervention was a bit too aggressive. I had suspected it did not come across as I had intended!

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Why David Cameron may secretly want AV to pass

The primary focus of the reporting of the Barnsley Central by-election result has been on the fact that the Lib Dems came sixth. This is bad news for the party and there is no point in Lib Dems claiming otherwise.

There has been plenty of coverage of that elsewhere though. In terms of how the result may affect politics more broadly I think the fact that UKIP went from fifth last year to second with over 12% of the vote is even more significant.

It is difficult to be sure of the motivations of those who voted UKIP and doubtless some of their vote has picked up the protest element that previously would have gone to the Lib Dems. However the fact that so many people were willing to vote for a right-wing party that wishes to leave the European Union must be giving David Cameron great cause for concern. UKIP already came second in the European elections in 2009. Now they are beating the Tories in by-elections. There are predictions that UKIP could actually come first in the European elections in 2014. Given how unpopular the government may be in the run up to those elections as the cuts will have been really biting at that point I would not want to bet against that possibility. And if that, or anything approaching that happens, UKIP would have a lot of momentum behind them for the 2015 general election.

The problem for Cameron is one of simple parliamentary arithmetic. In order to form a majority government in 2015 his party will need to actually win seats. That is an unusual position for the Conservative Party in government to be in. Usually they would have a majority and if they lost a few seats they would still be able to retain power. That is not the case now. So if they find they are not just fighting Labour but also a rearguard action against UKIP in their marginal seats that could easily be the difference between getting enough seats to form a government (either in majority or in coalition) or losing power. The right wing vote could find itself split in a similar way to how the left wing vote split during the 1980s because of the SDP. It's unlikely that UKIP would win many seats or the sort of vote share nationally that the SDP achieved but they would only need to improve moderately on their 2010 showing to cause major problems for the Tories and that is looking increasingly likely.

So what is the solution? Cameron could try tacking further to the right to appease UKIP leaning voters in the hope of bringing them back into the fold. The problem with that is his coalition partners would not stand for that sort of thing for long and it could precipitate the collapse of the government at the worst possible electoral moment.

There is of course another solution to Cameron's UKIP woes. The main reason UKIP are such a problem for the Tories is because the First Past the Post system makes any voters who plump for UKIP by definition not able to support the Tory candidate in a constituency. That is why a UKIP surge is such a potential threat to them. But if the AV referendum passes then a good UKIP showing in 2015 would no longer be a disaster for the Tories. It is a fair assumption that many of UKIP's second preferences will go to the Tories. It will give right-wing voters the chance to show what they would ideally like without splitting the right wing vote and allowing other parties to come through the middle.

When UKIP were polling in the very low single figures the risk to the Tories in this respect was slight. But with their stunning Barnsley Central surge they are becoming a potent threat to the Blues retaining power.

And with David Cameron's limited room for political manoeuvre on the right I suspect he may well now secretly want the AV referendum to pass.