Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday 27 February 2015

Why does our politics always reform itself the hard way?

We see it time and again.

In 2009 it was parliament's expenses system. MPs had been abusing it for years and it was clearly unfit for purpose and yet they kept on with it until suddenly The Telegraph had the goods and then all hell broke loose. It was the biggest political crisis we have seen this century. And it was largely avoidable if only parliament had cleaned house itself beforehand. Instead they waited, and waited, and hoped they could keep getting away with it until suddenly they couldn't. And massively, massively damaged their own reputations as a result of having been forced to fix it.

We are seeing a similar pattern play out again with outside interests for MPs. They have been carrying on for years and years, some MPs with two, three, four or more outside interests/jobs. At first there needed to be a register of interests. Then Cameron before the last election made a speech where he declared outside interests for MPs to be "the next scandal waiting to happen". Various of their number have been caught out over the years (e.g. Geoff Hoon, Stephen Byers) and more recently Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw. We are seeing a slow attritional effect here but at some point this will all blow up. And MPs will be forced, probably to have no outside interests at all. The fact that this is likely the wrong solution and will discourage e.g. doctors and others who need to maintain professional skills whilst serving in parliament will be by the by. Because again MPs would have had the chance to clean house and will have refused until they were forced to so something. And instead of measured reform we will instead see a knee-jerk panicked response as MPs will then be hugely on the back foot.

It doesn't take a psephological genius to see where the next likely crisis of legitimacy for our ruling class will come from after this. We are about to head into a general election where it is fairly likely that UKIP could come third in the share of the vote (e.g. around 15%) and come sixth in number of seats (e.g. 0.5%). At the same time the SNP could come sixth in the vote but third in number of seats (get 3% of the vote and perhaps 7% of the seats). Not to mention how swathes of Green and other voters across the country will be disenfranchised. We may also see Labour winning most seats even though they have had fewer votes than the Tories*. Our First Past the Post system simply cannot cope with a 5 or 6 party system. But yet again we see a political class with its head in the sand. There is simply no appetite or momentum amongst MPs as a whole for any change to the electoral system in Westminster. Most MPs think it does a good (or at least good enough) job. They are wholly unprepared for the sort of convulsion and the potential constitutional crisis that it could provoke if the sort of grossly unfair results mentioned above in any way come to pass. Indeed only a few years ago the old school MPs in both the Conservative and Labour parties closed ranks to prevent a pretty minor change to the electoral system. This could have been an opportunity for a proper national debate about how we elect our representatives. Instead it descended into utter garbage about how soldiers would not get bullet-proof vests, babies would not get the life support machines they needed and how THE BNP WILL GET TO CHOOSE YOUR VOTE IF AV WINS.

It seems that our body politic is incapable of seeing what is just over the horizon. Maybe it's a function of the way so many of their number refuse to engage with "hypothetical questions" at least in public only eventually dealing with problems when they become critical. But this is a terrible way to deal with constitutional and electoral change. It's enforcing a sort of punctuated equilibrium** on our politics when what would be so much better is a more measured approach where problems are identified before they get too bad and are remedied in advance in a sensible, consensual way.

Instead we could well end up with a government elected with fewer votes than another party who is then in opposition (where the make up of the parliament is in some seats almost random where there were 4 or 5 contenders) with barely any legitimacy trying to resolve the crisis both of its own mandate and that of politics in general.

We are constantly told we have a mature democratic system.

Not from where I'm sitting we don't.

*I am well aware that both Labour and Tories have on occasion in previous post war elections got the most seats on fewer votes then their rivals and it did not cause the sort of convulsion I am talking about here. But there are so many more parties vying for seats now and with the 24 hour news cycle and social media a crisis of legitimacy narrative could and probably would take hold quite quickly if some of the more extreme possible scenarios were to happen. Farage for example would never be off the box or the wireless (rightly) complaining that he got around a sixth of the votes and barely any seats. And aside from that it's incredibly complacent and dangerous to just assume that the public will happily accept such an obviously broken system reflected in such a result.

**When of course we all know what would be better for our politics is a form of phyletic graduation.

Thursday 26 February 2015

House of Comments - Episode 119 - You Say Avoidance I Say Evasion

The latest House of Comments podcast is now out.

This week I am joined by former Lib Dem activist Sara Scarlett to discuss tax avoidance/evasion, Peter Oborne's resignation from The Telegraph and how enlightenment values or the lack of them can play a part in extremism.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

Other podcasting software e.g. for Android can be pointed here to subscribe.

You can download the mp3 for the latest episode directly from here.

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboom for hosting the podcast. We would also like to thank Kevin MacLeod from for our theme music.

Friday 6 February 2015

Hoist by their own petard

Labour activists and left leaning commentators have been bemoaning how unfair it is that ever since the Scottish referendum, the SNP have been going around claiming that because Labour campaigned together for the No side they are just the same as the Tories.

The SNP have indeed been claiming this and this has almost certainly added impetus to their recent surge leaving Labour (if the polls are to be believed) at risk of losing a majority of their Scottish held seats.

It is ridiculous that Labour would be considered to be exactly the same as the Tories just because they happened to be on the same side in a particular campaign. It's the sort of stupidly simplistic argument that we see far too often in politics.

But I am afraid my response to Labour on this is "Ah Diddums".

Because "Labour are exactly the same as the Tories" in Scotland is pretty much identical to  "The Lib Dems are exactly the same as the Tories" in the whole of the UK, a line Labour has been pushing since 11th May 2010. A claim which is equally as ridiculous that just because a party is in coalition with another party that means they are now exactly the same party.

I for one am delighted to see Labour being hoist by their own petard in this way.

Thursday 5 February 2015

First Past the Post prevented Rotherham Council being challenged sooner

The horrendous child abuse scandal in Rotherham and the consequent political fallout has led me to ruminate on what is doubtless one of the contributing factors.

Rotherham Council was effectively a one party state under Labour. This has been commented on in some of the coverage. Indeed Evan Davis on Newsnight last night put this question of lack of opposition on the council to the Deputy Children's Commissioner Sue Berelowitz and she did concur that it was one of the problems.

I have had a look at the numbers from the Rotherham Council elections from 2012 which are the latest I could find. Not all seats were up for election but 21 of them were. The results were:

Labour: 19 seats
Conservatives: 1 seat
Independent: 1 seat

But the percentages were:

Labour: 55%
Conservative: 17%
UKIP: 14%
Independent: 7%
BNP: 5%

Had there been a purely proportional system* then the seat distribution would have been roughly thus:

Labour: 12 seats
Conservatives: 4 seats
UKIP: 3 seats
Independent: 1 seat
BNP: 1 seat**

So Labour would have had just over half the seats (in proportion to their vote) rather than more than 90% of the seats as happened in reality under First Past the Post.

I have been banging on about changing our electoral system ever since I started blogging. Indeed I have even reached the point where I sometimes bore myself on this topic having written and spoken about it so many times.

But the Rotherham case highlights one of the key reasons why so many of us campaigners want to see change. Because having one party taking all or almost all the seats on a council on say 55% or 60% of the vote (as too often happens across the country) isn't just irritating for reform activists like me, it can actually be dangerous.

In an area where the vast majority of councillors are of one party there by definition is bound to not be much opposition and therefore less scrutiny of decisions taken by councils. In some cases this might lead to things like the bin collection service being a bit slapdash or pot holes not being repaired quickly enough. Unfortunately as we have seen in Rotherham the consequences can be and were much, much more serious.

Had there been more councillors from opposition parties there is every chance that the bizarre and harmful decisions that were being taken by Rotherham Council (over 15+ years let's not forget here) would have been flagged up much more quickly.

This is not just a Labour Party problem. There are fiefdoms all over the country not just for Labour but for the Conservatives and Lib Dems too. It doesn't matter what party is in control, if they have massively disproportionate power unchecked and unopposed locally due to a distorting electoral system then there is an increased risk of situations such as those we have seen in Rotherham happening and being allowed to continue to happen.

There has never been a more important time for those of us who want to see change to push our case. The lives and well-being of youngsters in some of the most deprived areas of the country are relying on us.

Rotherham proves this.

*Most campaigners like myself would not advocate a pure PR system but something like STV which would give a much more proportional result although perhaps not exactly as per the proportions listed above.

**Yes, yes the BNP would have got a seat under pure PR. In reality under a preferential system this would be very unlikely to happen actually but in a democracy if a party gets enough votes/preferences they win seats. We should not contrive a system based on its ability to prevent people's views being represented, we should instead strive to persuade them and have nothing to fear from any electoral system. For too long the "boogeyman" of the BNP (or the NF before it) has been used to stymie electoral reform. No more.