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Voting Reform IS Possible

Many of those who would like to reform our ‘first past the post’ voting system will not fight for it because they think that it simply will not happen. They see that most MPs who have benefited from the existing system will not entertainment the ideas of reform. They despair of any real change in the way politics is done in this country. Consciously or unconsciously they accept that rising inequality, ‘austerity’, and environmental degradation are irreversible.

They forget however that both major parties are in disarray. Taking Labour first, although Jeremy Corbyn has been reelected and he stands for a better future, many in the party will not believe that voters can be convinced. Moreover the mainstream media (including the BBC) will simply not take the possibility of change for the better seriously. They will not see that ‘business as usual’ is simply not an option going forward.

At the moment Theresa May is holding the government together. In doing so she is having to pursue Brexit, something she does not believe in, and she is constantly having to slap down those who are supposed to be in charge of the preparations. In a sense, until Article 50 is invoked we are in a ‘phony war’. When that happens things are likely to fall apart. Many Conservative voters will at last realise that their loyalty is misplaced. They will defect to UKIP and perhaps other parties.

It should be remembered that modest swings in votes can sometimes produce dramatic changes in the make up of the Commons. If a party whose support is evenly spread goegraphically attracts less than 30% of the popular vote, first past the post treats such a party very badly as happened to the SDP/Liberal Alliance in 1983. If however the Alliance had retained the vote share it had before the Falklands campaign, simulations indicate it would have won an absolute majority. If the Conservatives cock up Brexit, who knows what will happen.

This is a time of great uncertainty; there is no guarantee we will win voting reform, but we should try.

Inappropriate Technology

New technology can help in many ways, and can for example save energy and reduce harmful environmental impact. But this is not always the case; oversophisticated products can be difficult to use, difficult and expensive to maintain and therefore likely to be scrapped too early.

An example of this is an electric cooker with ceramic hob and ‘touch screen’ controls. Cookers with ceramic hobbs are easy to clean, responsive, and likely to be energy efficient. Some come with simple control knobs and are likely to be cheaper than those with ‘touch screen’ controls. The latter suffer from the following disadvantages:

  • It takes time to learn how to use the controls. The elderly and partially sighted may well find them impossible to use.
  • If for any reason the power needs to be disconnected you will find on restoring power you cannot use the hob until the clock has been reset, and you may need to find the manual for that.
  • If something goes wrong it can be more difficult to diagnose the fault than with a simpler control system. You may lose the use of any part of the cooker rather than just (say) the oven. It may be that only engineers trained by the manufacturer can put things right, You are stuck with a particular repairer who can over charge and take over a month to fix things (two weeks to attend and another three to order the part and fix it).
  • Ease of maintenance should be a major consideration in choosing a cooker. This is often not thought of by consumers. Even ‘Which’ magazine does not appear to cover this. So what should you do to check this out before purchase:
    • a. Ask the manufacturer what options you have if you need the cooker to be repaired when out of warranty.
    • b. ask your local repair man what he or she thinks
    • c. Look on the manufacturer’s website to see if there is a detailed servicing manual that can be downloaded – a ‘user manual’ is not enough. To this before purchase – manuals relating to older models tend to be withdrawn.
  • If you live in Weymouth for Electrolux cookers allow AT LEAST five weeks for the appliance to be repaired, taking into account two visits – one to diagnose and the other to fix.

Do Smaller Parties Have too much Power under Proportional Representation?

Some academics have been arguing that smaller parties have too much power under Proportional Representation. The trouble with many academics is that they approach subjects from a very narrow point of view. In particular in this case they forget that in a democracy politicans and political parties should serve the public rather than vice versa.

In the democracy the government should be implementing policies which enjoy the support of a majority of the people. Under proportional representation that means broadly that the policy should be supported by a majority of MPs. If a major party does not secure an absolute majority, but has to rely on a smaller centre party in order to govern, then surely the larger party should be required to modify its programme to meet the concerns of the smaller party.

A major party should avoid allying itself to a populist party which has no constructive policy but plays on the fears and prejudices of the ill informed. If it has to ally with one of its traditional opponents it should do so. It should also be remembered that support for a populist party can be a symptom of incompetent or corrupt government. Single issue parties should be viewed in the same light.

On the other hand a constructive radical party can introduce much needed new thinking. The German Greens were in government for a while, following which Germany became much more environmentally conscious. This did not adversely affect the economy; in fact I would argue that Germany’s economy is much more soundly based than Britain’s.

Referendums Discredited ?

Anyone who has paid attention to the two most recent British referendums – on the voting system (2011), and on whether to leave the EU (June this year), must surely wonder whether they are a reasonable way of deciding important issues or whether to take the view of Edmund Burke who told the electors of Bristol that MPs should be representatives, not delegates; or the Athenian elite who felt that the assembly was too influenced by demagogues.

In the referendum on the voting system the totally incompetent Yes camapign was countered by a very effective fear campaign, which totally misrepresented the facts. On top of that MPs lied by saying that because voters had rejected Alternative Vote, they had rejected reform. They had not; AV is not proportional.

In the EU referendum, both sides when they were not actually lying were so misleading as to make the result unsafe. Not only that but legally and constitutionally the Brexit vote was merely advisory, and especially given the closeness of the result Parliament should make the final decision. Neither side had spelt out what Brexit might mean, and they still have not.That uncertainty is going to have cost us dearly. David Cameron’s motive for calling the referendum had nothing to do with the public interest and it is outrageous that he is able to fade from the public eye without facing severe penalties.This not to say that Brexit is necessarily wrong, but committing Britain to Brexit totally unprepared most certainly was.

There is an urgent need to reform the process for conducting a referendum, e.g.

a.The government should not be allowed to dictate the wording of the question to be put. A short list should be produced which is subject to a popular vote using AV.

b. If either side in the campaign makes sufficiently misleading claims a court should be able to stop the campaign and require the culprits to pay the cost of running the referendum.

In the meantime the liers, demogogues, and sensationalists have totally discredited the concept of referendums.

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.