Monday, 17 May 2010

Take Back Parliament London Rally 15th May 2010

A video has been posted of the fair votes protest in London on Saturday. There were events around the country. Sadly I was working that day so couldn't join in.

Friday, 14 May 2010

All Electoral Systems Are Rubbish: Discuss.

Tom Harris (Labour MP for ultra safe seat Glasgow South) has taken to defending first-past-the-post by admitting it is rubbish but that so are all other electoral systems.

While it is true that all electoral systems have defects, Tom is using the standard multinational/conglomerate method used by big oil, tobacco, food and pharmaceutical companies etc, of muddying the evidential waters which is known as 'manufacturing doubt'. Ben Goldacre talks about this in his book Bad Science in relation to the 'nutritional industry' and in relation to vitamin pill conglomerates.

The Tory press are adept at this, rather than analyse and discuss a study of say 50 countries that shows a comprehensive relationship between inequality, lower quality of life, higher government debt, less environmental protection, poorer value public services, higher corruption, lower political engagement and turnout with less proportional electoral systems, they will take one example, anecdote or even myth that suits their needs and claim that THAT proves their case.

This is exactly what Tom Harris is doing here. An example might be - 'Italy is corrupt and unstable and they have PR therefore all PR countries are corrupt and unstable'. This ignores the fact that the majority of countries with PR have much lower levels of corruption and instability than that seen in FPTP countries. It also plays on a few myths, for a start Italy has had a number of different electoral systems over the years, has actually had no more governments and elections than a lot of FPTP countries when you take 'cabinet reshuffles' into account probably less change at the top. And of course, Italy's problems relate more to its media and outside interference from the US to stop the communists gaining power in the 60s and 70s than it does to its electoral system.

You could also of course cite Israel or the Netherlands for instability, but that doesn't work quite so well for the FPTPers because Netherland in particular has a much stronger economy and society than ours and of course Israel has problems that would challenge any electoral system.  But the fact remains, single cases and anecdotes are not enough to prove any case. Always be suspicious of people that do not engage with the evidence and just bang on about a single case as if their argument is self evident. It usually isn't.

It is hardly surprising that defenders of a system where the party with the most votes can get half the seats of the party that comes third, is having to admit it is rubbish. But to say this doesn't matter because other systems have faults is not enough. They should demonstrate WHY having slighter bigger constituencies is WORSE than this total disregard for how people vote. They should demonstrate how having more than 1 MP representing an area is WORSE than having many millions of people totally unrepresented in parliament. They should demonstrate why having 75% of seats so safe they never change and that a few party members behind closed doors really decide who is your MP is BETTER than an open list system where people can have a real choice of MP. They should demonstrate why having a system where the drawing of the boundaries has a bigger impact on results than how people actually vote is BETTER than having MPs elected by a majority that includes 2nd and 3rd preferences as well as 1st preferences.

And that is the crux of why first-past-the-post is the worst system - how much impact the boundaries have. It is not so much WHO you vote for that counts as WHERE you live and where the boundary quango decided to draw the boundaries.

This gerrymander wheel tool invented by the Australian proportional representation society shows how without any voter moving or changing their vote the result can be a narrow win for one side or a massive win for the other - just by moving the boundaries. And I am not talking about different size constituencies - every constituency remains the same size.

That is the crux of first-past-the-post, even if you are trying to be fair, the boundaries can throw up the most biased results. It doesn't have to be deliberate gerrymandering, under first-past-the-post it happens regularly by accident that the results are massively skewed against one party or other.

The Tories and Labour negotiated what they thought were fair boundaries between them (but not the other parties) in the 1990s and yet it resulted in a massive bias to Labour and not such a big bias towards the Tories (remember just because minor parties lost out more to Labour, doesn't mean that the bias was 'against' the Tories, just that the Tories didn't benefit as much in screwing the Lib Dems and others).

This is ultimately why the Tories agreed to a referendum on AV as long as the Lib Dems backed their changes to the boundaries - making constituency sizes bigger will help the Tories in a number of ways but it also increases the gerrymandering possibilities. And of course with the media on the Torie's side, a system that falls far short of being proportional and a Labour party in opposition that might also be hostile, the referendum is going to be difficult for the Lib Dems to win.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

2010 General Election Stat Attack

Taken from Pippa Norris's excellent site - hope she doesn't mind.

Pippa Norris - Excellent Take On Electoral Reform

Here is a great scatter graph on the relationship between democracy and electoral systems. Pippa also explains why electoral change can occur.

As she explains, it is a shame that the referendum in the UK doesn't ask if people want reform and then put forward a range of options rather than just offering the one system. But when it comes to the Tories, beggars cannot be choosers, this is about as most as we could have possibly hoped for coming from them. I highly recommend Pippa's blog.

Will Labour Campaign For AV: Response To Mark Thompson

I think it all depends on which leader they get. As far as I know, of the potential candidates only Jon Cruddas would support electoral reform. And he is unlikely to win.

Ed Balls and Ed Miliband are definitely against change, and I imagine David Miliband is too. I suspect Alistair Darling is against as well. I imagine Labour will largely campaign against despite their AV pledge in the manifesto, with a number of notables campaigning for - such as Alan Johnson and Peter Hain.

I think Labour's position on this will also depend on what is planned for constituency boundaries. On the present boundaries which are likely to be changed before the next election, Labour would do well out of AV, with the Tories doing worse. With boundary enlargement I suspect the Tories might pick up 2nd preferences from more rural Lib Dems and do much better.

Why FPTP Stinks, Another Reply To Tom Harris

Tom, your seat is so safe it is bad for democracy. I'm sure you don't think your seat is safe because of you, do you? You and I both know that anyone could win that seat for Labour unless they were a mass murderer or something (even then they might hold on). Don't you think it funny that the biggest defenders of FPTP tend to come from seats like yours?

Anyway, what do you think of the graph showing a correlation between the seats the largest party wins and higher government debt? Also the Harvard study showing that PR run countries are more equal (which in turn means less crime, less social problems, better environment and a better quality of life). Basically FPTP produces higher government debt and more inequality, lower turnout and lower political engagement, worse public services and higher corruption. Nobody should defend this, especially those supposedly on the left.

Why Constituency Boundaries Are As Important As Electoral Reform

 This is in reply to this excellent post here by peezedtee.

PZT: Very good post. It seems incredible today to think Tories were so pro-PR in the 70s, there are virtually none today.

Kellner's anaylsis is good, there are two problems with FPTP for the Tories.

The first is the minor problem of surburban drift where Tory constituency size grows between boundary reviews. Tory constituencies tend to have a few thousand extra constituents. A big thing is made of this and 'equalising constituencies' by the Tories, as if this will solve their problem but in fact it will make less than half a dozen seats difference to the result (as demonstrated by the recent big boundary changes in their favour which only garnered them 10 or so seats).

The second and much bigger problem for the Tories is the concentration of their vote in the South of England, and in suburban and rural areas.

They plan to address this by increasing the constituency size under the populist guise of 'reducing the cost of politics', i.e. cutting the number of MPs. They propose a 10% reduction from 650 to 585. This will help them in the short term, well at least to some extent, because the massive change in boundaries this will require will obliterate any current personal votes and make it much more difficult for smaller parties to establish themselves. The rise of the Greens in Brighton shows how under the current size it is still possible for small national parties to reach out and knock on doors. The loss by the excellent independent Dr Taylor in Wyre Forest shows it is still nigh on impossible for independents even when highly regarded. No independents won a seat in GB this election, despite the expenses scandal. The closeness of the election and the classic first-past-the-post squeeze means people felt compelled to vote tactically for the two big parties, which probably also explains the Lib Dems vote disintegrating.

Anyway I digress. Like I say, this will only help the Tories a bit in the short term (unless they plan continual massive changes in boundaries which rather undermines their claim of FPTP being good because of the 'constituency link') because larger constituencies will mean they can water down Labour urban strength with more rural and surburban areas creating more marginals and less ultra safe Tory seats.

Another factor that makes this particular attractive for them is whats called 'differential turnout'. Because Labour urban seats tend to have lower turnout, Labour can win seats with less votes than the Tories pile up in the shires, this means just a 10% enlargement of a lot of fringe urban seats will deliver a marginal win to the Tories (in the South at least).

Enlarging boundaries always improves gerrymandering possibilities. In the states the seats for Congress are 5 times the size of ours and this leads to entrenched safe seats with very little change from election to election - this suits the elite fine (of course in the US the winning party is allowed to use computer programs to maximise their strength in drawing boundaries. Over here we at least pretend to be more impartial with an 'independent' boundary commission quango. In practise this commission follows strict guidelines from the governing powers which maximise Labour and Tory strength at expense of others. I suspect this time the Lib Dems will want a piece of the action in setting boundaries under this new government).

If you look at local government elections here, obviously ward size is usually a seventh of constituency size and consequently you get a much more proportional result - the Tories have 40% of 22,000 councillors in England and Wales on about 40% of the vote, ditto for Labour and Lib Dems with about 25% each.

But the enlargement of boundaries will do nothing to address the Tories' weakness in regional areas like in Scotland, Wales and Northern England. There is only so long they can manage without these regions as it obviously places pressure for them to win enormously well in the South. Over time first-past-the-post is certain to exacerbate regional divides. In particular regional monopolies on local government is very bad for democracy.

Anyway, to conclude, I wonder what Kellner would make of this gerrymandering? The people have never been properly consulted over boundary size. Who for instance determines 3 councillors per ward - this almost lends itself to STV rather than the silly situation of a party winning all the seats in a ward on a minority of the vote. I think consultation on boundaries is just as important as consultation on the electoral system. The Lib Dems have got to win a referendum in the face of a hostile media and maybe both of the big parties opposed to change the voting system, whereas the Tories plan to enlarge and massively change boundaries without any consultation. This will mean the probable loss of Green MP Carline Lucas and other minor parties for instance and make MPs much more remote from their constituents at a time when people are already disengaged. It will take time for these parties to re-establish, including perhaps the Lib Dems to re-establish themselves. This gerrymander will definitely put back reform, but in the long term the Tories are only putting off the inevitable. It might be better for them to embrace change they can live with than for a future Labour coalition to deliver change they can't live with. If the Tories can only get 36% of the vote in these unpopular times for Labour, I can't see how they will try and justify majority government on even less than the vote than this which seems increasingly their fate. Neverless, the Tory guile never ceases to amaze me, so I am sure they will try.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

My Response To Tom Harris

Tom, there are very simple answers to your points. Countries that have PR and coalition government actually have more stable and long-term government – look at the financial prudence, better public service provision, environmentalism, higher development aid budgets and political engagement of Scandanavia, Germany and other PR countries.
Both AV and STV makes it more difficult for extremists to be elected. The BNP got over 500,000 votes in this country at this election. This is one of the highest figures for an extreme right party across the whole of Europe. The political vacuum of safe seats causes people to turn to extremists in anger. The virilent right-wing media love FPTP because it allows them to get ‘their man’ into government with a minority of the vote and they can play dog-whistle politics on race and minorities because splitting the working class vote helps their side.
These last 5 days of ‘horse trading’ have actually highlighted a lot of good policies, brought them to the public attention and it seems the best of both parties policies are being selected.
You admit that parties under FPTP are wide coalitions and their manifestos are decided behind closed doors – how is this democratic or open? At least under PR, people get to choose the wing of the coalition they want. Most decisions in government are actually made after the election anyway – the manifestos are just a guide as to what will happen. People generally have a poor idea of what is in the manifesto.
This nonsense about being able to vote governments out is rubbish. It is actually harder. It took nearly 70% of voters to turn against the Tories to finally get rid of them, after years of 60% opposing them for 18 long years. It took over 70% of voters to get rid of Labour after 13 years. How can you say 36% should give a party a majority. How low would you go? 29%?
As Will Self said recently ‘I have nothing to say to people who reject electoral reform, it is like opposing the 1834 Reform Act that extended the franchise’. It is funny how all you supporters of FPTP like you and Diane Abbott reside in ‘jobs for life’ safe seats where you could virtually murder someone and still get elected. Glasgow South you got 20,000 votes, your nearest rival 5,000. Some chance people have got of voting you out. Pity! You and your undemocratic cabal of secret Tories should be de-selected from the Labour party for allowing the Tories back in and shunning the Lib Dems. Shame.

The AV Referendum

I have started this blog to concentrate on reform of our electoral system and to campaign towards a likely referendum on the Alternative Vote - which after the recent coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Lib Dems, may well happen in the next 18 months.

My aim will be to outline as simply as possible different electoral systems and their impact on results.

This will also be a place where I will provide analysis of the current first-past-the-post system and its peculiarities in terms of results. I find it interesting that there are few if any free sites providing detailed statistical analysis of general election results and in particular local government election results. I hope this changes and I will link to any I find or am notified of.

One of my pet interests is of drawing the boundaries under FPTP, whoever has this power can have a tremendous impact on the result. I will analyse Tory/Lib Dem plans to enlarge boundaries - which could have an enormous impact.

At the end of the day, I believe true electoral reform and a much more proportional system are the goals if we are to have true democracy in this country.