Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday 29 April 2012

FPTP makes coalitions more fragile

One of the main things the Lib Dems have to do during the current coalition government is to prove that coalitions can work. The reason they need to do this is because one of their main long term reform policies is to change the electoral system to a more proportional one. This would likely result in more coalitions in the future. Ergo the Lib Dems have to prove that this is not necessarily a bad thing.

The problem is that they have to do this whilst still under our old friend First Past the Post.

The Lib Dems got 23% of the vote at the last election and got 57 MPs. Let's leave aside for the moment the fact that 57 is only about 8% of MPs. We all know that is not proportional of course but let's take that as a given.

So 57 MPs from 23%. Since being in government the Lib Dems have had to take a lot of "tough decisions". That's political speak for "things that are really going to piss some people off". When you add those to the number of former Lib Dem voters who were really only in it for the protest and are not happy that the party is now in government we see the sort of vertiginous falls in the polls we have seen recently with the Lib Dems down to as low as 8%.

Now in reality as we get closer to the next general election I expect that number will pick up. Although I am pretty damn sure the party will not poll anything like as much as 23%. But let's go with that 8% figure for a minute.

According to projections by UK Polling Report 8% would see the Lib Dems with 7 seats. But hang on a minute, they had 57 seats on 23%. Now they're only getting 7 seats on 8%!?

I'll illustrate the reason for this using this graph I produced (on the old/current boundaries*) which uses the UK Polling Report swing calculator to show how as the percentage of Lib Dem votes tick down by 1% point at a time, we see the number of seats reduce by more than that as we progress. I went as far down as the 8% indicated by the worst poll so far. The red line shows what would happen if the seats decreased linearly with the vote (roughly what you'd expect in a proportional system).

Iniquity: Now in graph form

It's not just that FPTP is disproportional that is the problem for the Lib Dems. It's that it gets even more disproportional the lower the vote goes.

This means that as the party takes the "tough decisions" the hit that they take is much much harder than that of their coalition partner. Not only are the Tories not seeing their vote drop as much as the Lib Dems (their core voters are happier with them as the austerity measures are more in line with what they want to see) but even when it does drop, the punishment they receive in terms of proportional loss of seats is much less. On the UKPR projection, a loss of 15 percentage points reduces the Lib Dem seats by a factor of more than 800%! The worst projections we see for the Conservatives at the moment on a reduction of around 5% or 6% see only a reduction of maybe 25% of their seats. Still enough to see them out of power but nowhere near as bad as the sort of pummeling the Lib Dems could be facing.

Given all of this it is no wonder that Nick Clegg is pushing the "differentiation" line so much harder nowadays. I understand that some Conservative activists and MPs are aggrieved about this. But they should try to put themselves in the place of a Lib Dem activist or MP for a few minutes.

If they did they might see that there is a huge difference between being out of power for a few years with a solid base to rebuild from and an existential threat that could see their party all but disappearing.

It is indeed ironic that in order to prove a more proportional system could work, the Lib Dems may have to face the worst excesses of a totally disproportionate system.

We may find in the end that the party simply cannot take that sort of pressure and it ends up leaving the coalition in an attempt to ward off the electoral Armageddon scenario.

But that wouldn't necessarily prove that coalitions cannot work. It would however prove something all Lib Dems already know.

First Past the Post sucks.

*The slight disparity between the 7 seats figure and that seen in the graph is due to UKPR's use of the new expected boundaries in their projection

Thursday 26 April 2012

Adam Smith should be prosecuted

Yesterday evening, the more I mulled over the events of the previous 24 hours, the more I started to think that what Jeremy Hunt's adviser is alleged to have done could have broken the law.

If we are to believe the Secretary of State, his adviser went completely rogue. On his own initiative he is alleged to have leaked privileged information to one of the potential bidders in a deal worth billions of pounds. From the published e-mails between him and Frédéric Michel (Murdoch's point man on the deal) it would also appear that he leaked details of speeches Hunt was due to make and also apparently offered advice from his office on how to counter arguments from the OFT.

Surely amongst all of this there are grounds for a prosecution? We know that in the end the deal did not go through because News Corp withdrew their bid in the light of the hacking scandal. But it is worth bearing in mind that had that scandal not erupted Hunt was poised to give the nod for the deal. So all the information that was apparently passed on by Smith could have made the difference.

It would appear that we are in a legal grey area on this one. But the City watchdog is considering a prosecution stating that the scandal "potentially falls into market abuse territory".

I suggest that this is an important enough case that if there is a chance laws have been broken it should go to trial and we can test this complex area of law in court. That way, all relevant correspondence can be subpoenaed and we can hopefully get to the bottom of this. That would seem to me to be very much in the public interest.

I certainly don't think that a hasty resignation from a SpAd followed by an "he made unintentional mistakes" eulogy from his boss in parliament is anywhere near enough to close this scandal out.

And although Smith might be willing to sacrifice his career to act as a "firewall" for Hunt I suspect it might be a whole different ballgame if we start to talk about potential prison time.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Lib Dems should not fear a Lords reform referendum

We got battered last year.

So it would only be natural if we were to be a little wary of plunging headlong into another referendum for changing our political system so soon after the public rejected our proposal for AV for the Commons by such a wide margin.

There are now rumblings from Conservative MPs and also the Labour leadership that any change to the Lords should be subject to a referendum. Nick Clegg has strongly argued that this is not necessary as all three main parties were committed to reform in their manifestos and it is also in the coalition agreement.

I'm with Nick on this one. I do not think a referendum is needed. However I am also a political realist. And if enough Tory MPs and the Labour party are determined to force a referendum on the issue then we may have no choice but to allow one to go ahead.

If that were to happen though I think there are plenty of grounds for thinking that it need not go the same way as AV did.

I am sure a putative No campaign is already forming and war-gaming their strategy. I can't predict everything they will try and throw at us (Soldiers without bullet proof vests? Sick babies?) but straight away I can see that one of the main planks of the Yes campaign will be that reform is democratic and those arguing for the status quo are trying to keep an unelected and unaccountable chamber in place. That goes completely against all the democratic reforms of the past 15 years (Scotland, Wales, NI, London and other local devolution). The No campaign will be on the back foot trying to defend this.

Another thing that will come in handy is that there are still 92 hereditary peers in the Lords. This is utterly indefensible. Politicians of all sides regularly talk about how birth should not be destiny. The idea that someone can legislate in our parliament because of who their parents and grandparents were is completely anachronistic. I expect the No side will concede that the hereditaries should go but that the Yes campaign wants "the wrong sort of reform". But they have had 15 years to get rid of them and still they cling on. A No vote would surely give the hereditaries a reprieve as reform went back to the drawing board yet again.

I'm sure cost will rear its head. The No2AV campaign lied about the cost of a change to AV (David Blunkett, one of the main supporters of the No campaign admitted as much at the time) and there is no reason to suppose the No campaign this time will be any different. But what price democracy? The devolved institutions all cost money to run and the Lords is not exactly free at the moment with around 800 members all with generous allowances and subsidised food, drink etc. I don't think this argument will gain very much ground if countered properly. Also, the arguments about the costs of the referendum itself will be the other way round this time as Clegg has already pointed out it will be for those against reform to justify why the cost of a referendum is needed given the mandate is already there.

Like many from the Yes2AV side I still bear the scars of last year's bruising campaign. But it needn't be like last year this time. We have a strong argument to make. We are in favour of democracy and our opponents are essentially trying to prevent that.

We have a good chance of winning and should not fear the opportunity to make our case to the British people.

Oh, and one last thing. For every picture of Nick Clegg the No campaign uses we can use ten of Jeffrey Archer.

This post was first published on Lib Dem Voice.

Monday 23 April 2012

The public did *not* reject proportional representation last year

Over the weekend I have seen comments from a couple of Conservative MPs who in the context of the potential change to the Lords to a (partially) elected and proportional system are stating that the public rejected a form of proportional representation in the referendum last year.

Here is Elainor Laing, MP for Epping Forest quoted in The Independent on Saturday:

“What Conservative MPs are angry about is that Nick Clegg’s Bill [will] create in effect a new House of Commons to be elected by proportional representation. Less than a year ago, the British people rejected PR in a referendum.”

And here is old stalwart of the right John Redwood writing on his own blog yesterday:

"...There is concern that the Bill may include electing the Lords by a system of proportional voting, so soon after the public decisively rejected such a voting system for the Commons.  What part of “No” did they not understand?"

There is not really a delicate way to put this. Laing and Redwood are lying. What the public rejected was the Alternative Vote. AV is not a proportional system. In fact it can be less proportional than First Past the Post.

But don't take my word for it. The fact that AV is not proportional was one of the main planks of the No2AV campaign itself! Laing and Redwood along with virtually all Tory MPs were strong supporters of the the No side. You'd think they would at least remember what their campaign said. Here's a little reminder taken from the official No2AV website:

"There are strong principled arguments for and against PR, and it's a debate worth having. The Alternative Vote, however, is a step backward rather than a step forward.
AV combines the weaknesses of both systems; it isn't proportional – three out of the last four elections would have been more disproportional under AV"

I expect other Tory (and those small c conservative Labour) MPs and their media cheerleaders will be promulgating this nonsense in the coming days and weeks as the Lords reform debate intensifies.

We need to squash this mendacity before it takes hold.

The public have never been asked about a proportional system in a referendum. It is simply untrue to say otherwise.

Friday 20 April 2012

Guido shows why "tax transparency" won't work

Guido (actually I think it was "Neo Guido" AKA Harry Cole) published a blog post earlier this week which "exposed" Lib Dem London Mayoral candidate Brian Paddick's failure to declare income for the tax year 2007/2008. This is in the light of the various shenanigans in the Mayoral contest whereby the main contenders have agreed to publish details of their earnings and tax paid for the last few years in the interests of transparency.

To be fair to Guido/NG it was some good research that led to them deducing that Paddick received a tax free lump sum of close to £390,000 in that tax year. It was not included as part of the disclosure. Paddick claims that it does not count as it is not within the last 4 years which is what the candidates agreed to disclose information about.

So, blimey. A massive tax free lump sum! Paddick must have been very crafty with his affairs to have been able to avoid tax on that scale surely?

Actually no. The lump sum (as the blog post does make clear) was part of his pension. Everyone who has a private pension is entitled to take a tax free lump sum upon retirement. The exact amounts will of course vary but given that Paddick was a senior officer with the Met until his retirement the amount reflects his seniority and time in service.

So the actual story here is "man takes pension he is fully entitled to". There is not even a hint of tax evasion let alone avoidance. He just did what millions of people with pensions are fully entitled to do.

Of course the amount he gets and whether it is fair for police to get pensions like that is another question and another debate for another day.

The breaking of this story though by Guido amply demonstrates why all these calls for "transparency" on tax affairs cannot really work. The tax system is very complex. There are all sorts of perfectly reasonable ways in which income and payments people receive can be exempt from tax or be subject to reliefs of various kinds. Just taking the headline income figures for a certain period and then working out the percentage of tax paid tells us very little. We need to look behind those figures in quite a lot of detail to understand what they mean. Accountants earn so much money because this is not easy to do.

The idea that the media will be capable of applying the level of nuance necessary to properly understand what earnings and tax figures for individuals actually mean is pretty laughable. Even if it is published, the context will get lost in the headline figures. We live in an age of soundbites and if something takes longer than 10 or 15 seconds to explain you can forget trying to win the argument. The headlines will crucify you before you've even opened your mouth.

In this context it is no wonder that Paddick did not disclose that tax year. It would likely have made his proportional tax paid across the 5 years lower than any of the other candidates even though all he did was take his pension.

I fear similar injustices will be perpetrated on those running for office in the future if the current political fetish for tax transparency continues.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

I, for one, welcome our new UKIP overlords

I am genuinely pleased to see UKIP doing well in recent polls, polling at as much as 9%. That might seem like an odd thing for a Lib Dem to say given that ideologically I am quite far away from their views and also they are currently close to potentially pushing my party into fourth place.

Allow me to explain.

As I have bored people to tears with on here for years, one of my major preoccupations is with electoral reform. We lost the AV referendum last year and the consensus at the moment is that any further talk of reform is off the table for the forseeable future. The Tories are dead set against it. Labour are ambivalent but a majority of its voters seem against it. End of story. Or so you'd think.

The Lib Dems do not get a fair crack of the whip under FPTP. At the last election we got around 8% of the seats on 23% of the vote. But at least we got some seats. UKIP got 3.1% of the vote and got no seats at all. Not even close. Even their current leader, the high profile Nigel Farage came third in his attempt to unseat Speaker of the House John Bercow.

But even if UKIP got 9% of the vote they would still be unlikely to get any seats. They are a national party trying to appeal across the country. This is a big weakness for a party under FPTP. As the Fields Medal winning mathematician Tim Gowers wrote a couple of years back in a tour de force of a blogpost:

...under FPTP, if you want to maximize the number of seats you will get for a given share of the vote, then there are two things you must avoid. Most importantly, you don’t want to spread your vote about too evenly: if you get 28% of the vote in every single seat, you probably won’t win a single seat. So FPTP penalizes parties that have a uniform appeal throughout the country. This suggests that what you want is for your support to be geographically concentrated...

That sounds almost exactly like the problem with UKIP. I reckon even if they were polling well above 9% they'd struggle to win a single seat.

The same poll that put UKIP on 9% has the Lib Dems on 8% so nominally fourth. But even the worst projections suggest the party would still get 7 seats. In reality I suspect the Lib Dems would get more than that because of the incumbency factor in some seats and the fact that their support is more geographically concentrated than UKIP in places like the South West. I wouldn't be at all surprised if even on a national vote of 8% the Lib Dems got 15 or 20 seats.

But even if I'm wrong and it would be 7 seats for the Lib Dems, how on earth would that be fair? One party gets 9% and gets no seats. Another gets 8% and gets several seats (or more).

That same poll put Labour on 43% and the Conservatives on 32%. What we would actually see on those numbers as well is a Labour landslide. The UK Polling Report calculator suggests we would get:

Labour: 384
Conservative: 223
Lib Dem: 19
Others: 24 (including 18 seats in NI)

If this happened at a general election I think we would see two effects:

1) Massive cognitive dissonance from eurosceptic and small c conservative newspapers like the Daily Mail and The Sun. They would be outraged that UKIP got no seats on such an improved vote but they are generally against electoral reform. Their editorial line would struggle to reconcile these contradictions but I suspect when the dust settled they would find themselves having to support some sort of change to the electoral system.

2) A big rethink from the Conservatives on this whole subject. It is largely forgotten now but back in the 1970s after Heath lost the first 1974 election despite getting more of the popular vote than Harold Wilson there were numerous leading conservatives and their fourth estate cheerleaders who were strong advocates of proportional representation. Moggism-Levenism as it became known had a fair bit of right-wing support which (strangely ;)) faded once Margaret Thatcher was able to leverage huge majorities during the 1980s partly due to the split on the left. Well if we end up with an insurgent UKIP causing a split on the right and a subdued Lib Dem party allowing Labour to get well over 40% leading to repeated landslides I fully expect the same thing to happen again. And the Tories can repent at leisure their visceral opposition to any change at all last year. AV of course would have allowed the majority of those UKIP voters to put Conservative as their second choice.

So thinking about this long term, it will be much better for the Lib Dems if we can get a fairer electoral system. A surging UKIP for various reasons makes that more likely. Ergo I'm intensely relaxed about the surge. Even if in the short term it pushes our party into fourth place in national polls and even elections.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Clegg has already told us we should not trust this government on civil liberties

We can't say he didn't warn us. In 2010, Nick Clegg said in an interview:

"I need to say this – you shouldn't trust any government, actually including this one. You should not trust government – full stop. The natural inclination of government is to hoard power and information; to accrue power to itself in the name of the public good."

And now that it looks like the government is going to try to extend RIPA to essentially allow snooping on internet communication and the Lib Dem party machine has issued a briefing paper defending this that has already been picked apart by Privacy International, now is the time for us all to man the civil liberties barricades.

In a parallel universe where the Tories got 30 more seats in 2010, Clegg and the party's other leading spokespeople would all be railing against these proposed changes now.

So I agree with Nick.

We should not trust this government on civil liberties and should do everything we can to stop these illiberal measures from being enacted.