Tuesday, May 11, 2010

We Live In Interesting Times

The Chinese can be blamed for a lot of things, Tiananmen Square, over population, wrecking the Copenhagen deal, inventing fireworks that keep me awake in the run up, throughout, and for some time after, November every year, but mostly for delicious take away food that has contributed to my being over weight contributing, possibly, to my early death (hopefully still in the future whenever it is that you're reading this). However, this week the Chinese proverb "May you live in interesting times"  seems to have cursed this great nation of ours in relation to our recent General Election.

Things got even more interesting today following Gordon Brown's resignation. This should be a moment to celebrate for everyone but the blindest Labour apologist, but look deeper and you will see it isn't. As with all Gordon Brown's utterances, you have to read between the lines to work out what he really means. This resignation is really about extending his premiership, for up to an incredible 4 months, beyond the General Election in which he and his party were soundly beaten.

Gordon's resignation is designed to entice Nick Clegg into negotiations and a deal with Labour while his party descends into civil war between the various potential leadership camps such as the Milibandians/Ballistas and the Harridans. He is determined to cling on as Prime Minister as long as (barley) constitutionally possible, and almost as important is the chance to scupper a deal that would see the election's winning party, The Conservatives, take over the reigns.

The Tories have today offered the LibDems electoral reform in the shape of the Alternative Vote system. This was a system favoured by Labour, and for good reason as it favours them even more than the current FPTP system with it's bias for Labour due smaller constituency sizes and low turn out in Labour areas, amongst other things. However, it's clear that the Tories will allow a referendum (as any electoral reform should have) but will campaign against the change itself.

I can only think that the Tories believe that AV, of all the options for change, is the easiest to defeat in a referendum. As you can see from the table below, if the relationship between seats won and share of the vote is what's important to you (what some call "fair votes"), then AV is worse than FPTP.  

It's a big gamble for Cameron and if it doesn't pay off this system would further entrench the Labour party in power. But, it seems, the offer is necessary to keep the LibDems interested. Even though it has succeeded in that objective, Clegg is now sniffing around Labour to see what they can offer. This double dealing looks bad and must leave a nasty taste in the Tory negotiators mouths as they continue to maintain their respectful, reasonable and conciliatory stance with the LibDems (despite their poor showing in the General Election) while they attempt to play one side off against the other to get maximum pay back. Meanwhile the country continues to yearn for some decisiveness and a government we, and the markets, can have confidence in.

The final offer is now in the table, take it or leave it, Clegg. Take it, and you get the chance to give the Liberals something they've not had for decades, real power and the chance to implement real policies and effect real change.

Leave it, and show the nation how you put party before country, how afraid you are of real responsibility during what will be difficult times to govern, and be rightly condemned to another 100 years in the wilderness for your cowardice. That is, of course, unless your Labour friends in parliament manage to agree to vote for a referendum on PR (highly unlikely, despite what Gordon says). In which case (assuming you win the referendum) we can look forward to you whoring your support around the other parties like some kind of surrogate electorate choosing who should govern, while the real electorate looks on, bemused and wondering what their "fair votes" are really worth.


  1. Yesterday was the first piece of leadership I've seen from Gordon Brown and he should be applauded for stepping aside. A 4 month lag is just about as quick as the Labour party can hold an election for a new leader, so I don't begrudge the timeline he presented.

    We agree that Gordon's resignation was a last-ditch attempt to lure the Lib Dems into a coalition with Labour. I can see no other reason for Brown to resign as party leader unless Clegg told him to go. That'll do me. Many that would have settled for that result a few weeks ago are now complaining at the method!

    What is hilarious is seeing the panic in the faces of senior conservatives last night. Yesterday, they looked like they were 24 hours from power -- today, they're as far as ever. Michael Gove looked ill, gaunt, sick. Malcolm Rifkind described Clegg as indulging in Mugabe style politics this morning. Oh, there's joyful panic in the blue ranks. It's shown that they're not interested in government for the good of the British people, they're just interested in power.

    (By the way, it's a pet hate of mine to hear politicians talk of them being in power. Nasty turn of phrase. They are in service. To us. Let us never forget that)

    I think the LDs would prefer a bunk up with Labour but I sincerely worry about the consequencies. I think has the potential to be toxic, unworkable and deeply unpopular unless managed supremely closely. I'm warming to the idea of simply just running again.

    Finally, that AV demonstration. Bunkum. Rubbish. I can be sure of that. AV requires all voters to register preferences on the ballot paper and without that data, representations of former elections under AV are nothing but speculation.

    And, you miss the point. Like many electoral reformers, I'm not pro-AV to ensure my party has a better chance of winning. I'm simply pro-AV so that democracy is stronger and so that we improve political engagement.

  2. @Jonathan My apologies for not replying sooner. Events have somewhat overtaken us now but I can respond to your AV point as that will be a live issue as we are promised referendum on it.

    In my view, AV's only advantage over FPTP is that it allows people to kid themselves that their MP has been elected by over 50% of the electorate in their constituency. In reality what you end up with (assuming no candidate actually gets over 50% of 1st preference votes) is 50% based on counting peoples 2nd, 3rd etc "preferences". This is not a positive vote for the candidate but rather a "least worst alternative" result. It is no better than the "tactical voting" that takes place under FPTP. I can understand using this system for electing a Mayor or other individual post but not as a reform from FPTP for electing a whole parliament.

    I also don't agree with those that express support for AV but actually want a proportional system such as STV. Rather than being honest with the electorate and giving them a straight choice between the current simple plurality system or a proportional system, they think they can shuffle people along in the general direction of STV by giving them a system that feels a bit like it in the hope they wouldn't be so nervous about taking the final leap.

    I'd prefer to treat the electorate as adults and have an open debate between FPTP and PR-STV. FPTP is broken today. It's a system designed to give a straight choice between two main parties delivering decisive results and stable governments. But there is a bias to one party (Labour) that has, this election, denied the Tories an outright win. If it's possible to correct the bias and provide a more level playing field (and I'm not sure it is) I think I'd prefer to stay with FPTP. I feel that FPTP allows the people to decide who governs (even if it's merely the most popular party that wins) and doesn't reduce the choice to deals between politicians behind closed doors.

    Of course, correcting FPTP will be portrayed as gerrymandering by those who support the party benefiting from the current distortion of the two party system. And supporters of smaller parties such as the LibDems, Greens, UKIP etc can never be happy with a two party system as long as they lack the confidence that they could ever be more popular than one of the current main parties in enough constituencies to actually win enough seats to replace one of the main two.

    However, if FPTP really can't be fixed and the Labour bias is contributed to by more (as I suspect) than just constituency sizes, I'm up for looking seriously at reform. But I'd want to look at something more than FPTP+ which is all AV is. I'd also need to see some far more convincing practical arguments than the rather academic ones offered for PR currently by its proponents. Increasing voters engagement, how the system may split up the current party structures, genuine evidence that coalition governments needn't be weak (this could be provided by the current government!) etc, are all areas that I can see could possibly convince me that it's a change to something better. But there are still major concerns I'd need addressing like the real effect on the electorates democratic primacy. Would the people be choosing, or would politicians be stitching things up in the background thus providing us with a less not more democratic system?

    Oh, and don't be so confident in dismissing the analysis of AV in previous elections. You're right that it can't be exact, but you can look at peoples stated secondary preferences in polls to come up with at least an idea of what the result would have looked like. If the Electoral Reform Society think it's a valid analysis, then that's good enough for me.

    If Cameron/Clegg can show that coalitions can work in this country I'm more than happy to consider reform to PR.

    Interesting times indeed.