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Voting Reform – the Task Ahead of Us

Make Votes Matter aims to achieve voting reform reform by 2021. this is a tall order, and we badly need a strategy for achieving it.

The Conservatives won in 2015 with 36.9% of the vote, or 24.5% of those registered to vote. With further Gerrymandering, a Labour party in turmoil, and a mainstream media which increasingly trivialises and repeats right wing propaganda, the odds must be that they will win again in 2020. The failed policy of permanent ‘austerity’ will not be effectively challenged. The poor will continue to be regarded as ‘undeserving’.

The modern Conservative party is deeply divided internally, but is a coalition of self interest. Loyalty is paramount, except when the knives come out, and then the bloodletting is quickly over. First past the Post is essential to them.

In a democracy the prevailing ideology should always be subject to challenge.

There is just a chance that if the progressive parties can form an alliance and engage the young, the Conservatives can be beaten. A commitment to Voting Reform is a key plank in any such alliance.

In order to achieve reform a specific system has to be chosen. How is this to be achieved? The parties in the coalition government could choose the system by negotiation; that would be the quickest way. Alternatively they could:

  • appoint a commission of the ‘great and the good’, and enact its recommendation,

  • establish a deliberative assembly, and enact its recommendation,

  • appoint a commission of the ‘great and the good’, and put their recommendation to a referendum, or

  • establish a deliberative assembly, and put their recommendation to a referendum,

Whilst the referendum route may be thought the ideal, the question arises as to whether the coalition can hold together for long enough, and for the referendum to be won, in the face of implacably hostile media.

If, before a pro reform coalition is elected, Make Votes Matter were to conduct its own deliberative assembly, the recommendation might just sway the argument in favour of a system that is good for the people, rather than for Westminster insiders.

Experience of the AV refereendum in 2011 shows that the opponents of change will fight very dirty. The Canadians have experienced the same problem. For example there was a deliberative assembly in British Columbia which recommended replacing FPTP in provincial elections with a modified form of STV. In the first referendum in 2005? the proposal attracted 57%, unfortunately not reaching the 60% threshold that had been set. In the second referendum support for change dropped to 30%? see, http://participedia.net/en/cases/british-columbia-citizens-assembly-electoral-reform. No doubt this too was due to to dirty tactics.

The Liberal government under Trudeau has a committment to voting reform but seems to be facing problems, see, http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/justin-trudeau-electoral-reform-first-past-the-post-1.3292694 It faces right wing press coverage, see, http://www.torontosun.com/2016/07/11/trudeau-must-hold-vote-on-election-reform.

As for the British media, anything but the truth will serve. They are driven by sensationalism, and appeasing proprietors and advertisers. Even the BBC now routinely ignores its own guidelines. None of the mainstream media are likely to support constructive change. Bearing this in mind, if we are serious about reform then we need to consider tactics such as:

  • conduct a well publicised burning of copies of the worst newspapers,

  • picketing the BBC for its sins, making sure that RT (and Channel 4 if it survives) are briefed beforehand, and,

  • going to court to seek an injunction that a referendum be delayed for six months on the grounds that biassed coverage would make the result unsafe. The government would have then to be persuaded to sue the media involved for the costs incurred as a result of the delay.

Before we do any of this of course, we have to persuade people that voting reform is a vital issue. 75% of people might support PR, but most of them weakly I suspect. To win the war we may need to show how FPTP has made life worse for the vast majority.

Trident and Trump

In the House of Commons debate on Trident on 18 July little if anything was said about the implications of the fact that the missiles are manufactured and maintained in the USA. It may be of relevance that Donald Trump is likely to be the next president of the USA and has been making many isolationist utterances. What implications does that have for the so called ‘independence’ of Trident as a deterrent?

Why do I think Trump will win? Two living in my household have lived in the USA and are keen students of US politics. In one large poll Trump was 7 points ahead of Clinton in the polls, though the picture is complex. Although Berny Sanders,  having lost to Clinton (in rather dubious circumstances), then endorsed her, his supporters were not so magnanimous. Many have sworn to vote for Trump rather than Clinton. Green leader Jill Stein has offered Sanders her nomination. If he accepts it will split the Democrat vote. Even if not many Sanders supporters will vote Green.

Clinton is pro TPP; Trump is against it. Clinton is mired in controversy. Trump is winning hearts and minds.

Interesting times indeed.

Voting Reform, understanding the Options

Anyone who is seriously thinking about which system Make Votes Matter should promote would do well to download and read House of Commons Library briefing ‘Voting Systems in the UK’, no. 04458, 1st April 2016. It is only a starting point but is the useful summary.

If you can get hold of  a copy and if you have the time, it is well worth reading ‘The Report of the Independent Commission on the Voting System’, October 1998, cmd 4090-I. True it is a bit dated and I do not accept its conclusions, but there is useful analysis of the options then available.

Mr Cameron;s mistake – or the fault of a dysfunctional political system?

Text of letter to Dorset Echo Sunday 2nd July 2016.

Things would have been much better in the wake of the Brexit vote if there had been a Plan B. It appears that the Leave campaign did not have one, but neither did the government. Mr Cameron was (and still is) not only the leader of the Conservative Party but also Prime Minister, head of government and the person whose advice the Queen always accepts. He should be acting in the public interest. He believed we should stay in Europe, but by giving us the choice he should have ensured there was  a coherent plan for our possible withdrawal from the EU.

Many of us may not have anticipated how dirty the campaign was to be, but the politically savvy should have, especially in view of the precedent of the referendum on changing the voting system. Mr Cameron should have been able to seek advice from senior civil,servants, economists, and political advisers.

But would a different Prime Minister have done any better? Sadly I think not. The first past the post voting system forces politics to be confrontational. Beating your opponent becomes more important than doing the right thing. Parties that aspire to govern must be broad churches. The greatest sin is to try to cooperate with other parties. Until we change that system I see little hope of improvement.

David Smith, Weymouth

Time to Democratise Building Societies

First published Feb 2014.

In theory building societies should surely be one component of a sustainable banking sector. In practice although they are ‘owned’ by members, the board always succeeds in getting all its nominees elected, and so members have no control. Banks which are plcs at least have to worry about the share price. Building society boards have been completely unaccountable. The Building Societies Members Association (BSMA) – www.building-societies-members.org.uk – exists to challenge this state of affairs. Help their campaign to get one or more member nominated directors elected.

Building Society legislation is not fit for purpose. Any changes are made on the advice of the Building Societies Assocation, which represents directors rather than members.

Someone has asked me exactly how it is that the building society boards manage to ensure that only their nominees get elected. It works like this:

The building society board will decide who they want to fill any vacancies that arise. They will nominate exactly as many candidates as there are vacancies. Members have the right to nominate their own candidates. However this fact is not advertised; to discover this members would have to search through the website for a copy of the rules, or contact the secretary to ask for a copy. Furthermore each such candidate needs to be nominated by 250 people, and the society will not contact members asking for nominators, so it is quite a task to contact the 250. Also if a second member wished to stand he or she has to find a different set of 250 nominators. In spite of that there have been member nominated candidates in the past.

If there are no member nominated candidates, members are invited to votes ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for each of the board nominated candidates. Unsurprisingly the ‘yes’ vote always wins; members are given no useful information on which to judge the individual candidates. If you want accountability always vote No to the elction of each board nominated candidate.

If there are member nominated candidates, then the multiple X vote is used to elect the requisite number of directors. Suppose there are four vacancies to fill and, in addition to the board’s nominees, there is one member nominated candidate. Each member is entitled to cast up to four votes but does not have to use all four of them – though the wording on the voting paper can suggest otherwise. If a member wants the the member nominated candidate to be elected and decides to cast all four votes then he or she has to decide which of the board candidates to leave out. Different members will make different choices and so votes cast for the member nominated candidate will be largely cancelled out.

In this situation if every member votes for the member nominated candidate then he or she will be elected. Suppose 10,000 members between them cast 40,000 votes. Then the member nominated candidate attracts 10,000 votes leaving 30,000 to go to the other four. That is 7,500 each if they are equally distributed. If however only 8,000 members vote for the member nominated candidate, then the others attract 32,000 votes between them, which if equally distributed is 8,000 each.

It follows therefore that if every member uses all their votes it is likely that in order to elect the member nominated candidate, then approaching 80% of voting members will have to vote for him or her. However if members can be persuaded to vote only for the member nominated candidate then the desired result becomes more possible.

Possible remedies for the unsatisfactory situation include:

  • Elect directors by preferential voting (Single Transferable Vote). At the moment the legislation prevents this and it is not in the interest of the main political parties to change this.
  • Provide that at least one place on the board is reserved for a member nominated candidate. Again this would require legislation but the main political parties might not be quite so vehemently opposed.
  • Adopt the Swedish practice of including stakeholders other than board members on the nominations committee.
  • Adopt a similar practice in relation to the remuneration committee.

Board members’ total remuneration packages are unacceptably high. If you want to challenge this always vote to reject the report of the remumeration committee (itself made up iof board members.)

Note that these suggestions are the author’s and not necessarily those of BSMA.

Sober Opinion on Paris Climate Change Summit

Brian Heatley of Greenhouse Think Tank has written a sobering but realistic assessment of the agreement reached in Paris ansd the implications. We have to come to terms with the fact that damaging climate change cannot be avoided and we have to live with it. Read this at, http://www.greenhousethinktank.org/uploads/4/8/3/2/48324387/paris_-_final2.pdf

This should surely not be too much of a surprise.

Conservatives forever – hooray?

As printed in Dorset Echo on about 28th Jan 2016
The Conservatives won the last election with the votes of just under a quarter of those registered to vote, and yet given the disarray in the Labour Party, and other factors, it is more than likely they will win again in 2020 and beyond. So should Conservative voters rejoice? Today’s Conservative leadership are not the conservatives I trusted up to 1979. They follow a radical ideology known variously as neoconservative, neoliberal or neoclassical. It is an ideology relentlessly promoted by the right wing media and by the government, so successfully that most people believe It is common sense. Its consequences are rising inequality, and the feeling amongst those comfortably off, that ‘the poor will always be with us’ – until that is they actually get to know poor and disadvantaged people.
Judging by my family (at least those of my generation), typical Conservative voters are conservative in that they are suspicious of change, and wrongly assume that the Conservative leadership is like them. Many are middle managers, small business owners, farmers, and professionals such as GPs, high street solicitors and accountants. They should no longer in my view assume that a Conservative government will look after them. Indeed the combined threats of climate change, migration pressures and financial instability may make it impossible. There will be many losers, the only winners being the very rich. In such circumstances it is surely unsafe to allow a monopoly of power to one party vulnerable to corruption by big money interests. There must be effective opposition, which the Labour Party can no longer provide on its own, as there is no longer a united ‘working class’. This means abandoning our First Past the Post voting system, which grants power to the largest organised minority.
First Past the Post encourages negative politics; the object becomes beating down the opposition without conceding that they too might have something to teach. Britain faces unprecedented challenges. We need to pull together and learn from each other. A reformed voting system which is both more proportional and allows voters to choose a person they trust rather than just a choice of party would do much to engender a more positive attitude. We need to be united; we have never been less so.
The majority of MPs have a ‘settled view’ in favour of retaining First Past the Post.  As pointed out by Bishop Colin Buchanan in his booklet ‘An Ethical Approach to Electoral Reform’, this is pure self interest; why should they have the right to choose the system by which we elect them?
David Smith
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